Interview - Nicholas Marshall, chief executive, Garden Centre Group

Garden Centre Group chief executive Nicholas Marshall is bullish about prospects for the business following its purchase last week by Guy Hands' private equity firm Terra Firma for £276m. Marshall, who last month led Garden Retail's Top 100 listing of the most powerful people in the industry, oversaw turnover at the group of £264m in 2011.

Nicholas Marshall, chief executive, Garden Centre Group - image: HW
Nicholas Marshall, chief executive, Garden Centre Group - image: HW

Q: How will you work with Guy Hands?

A: I've met him and the whole management team. He's very keen on the business, not just the financial transaction which is very good news to us. He has a massive portfolio of investments so he doesn't have a day-to-day role but he keeps very much in communication, with weekly reporting to him. He likes the strategy and what we're doing with click and collect and what we've done with the restaurants, and he wants to continue to grow the business.

Q: Do you think that he will change anything?

A: Not a thing. He just wants to make the speed of change faster so we invest in centres and buy new ones.

Q: Are you interested in acquisitions?

A: Yes, in new strategic locations. At the moment, 90 per cent of people in England and Wales live within 40km of one of our garden centres. In the country that is not so bad but in London it's a long way.

Q: Your first expansion after the takeover is York, where Dobbies is also building. Is that significant?

A: The new Dobbies will be on an industrial estate. Ours is on a main road into town. Dobbies has to get detailed consent and by then ours will be long up. There are a lot of redevelopments in the pipeline. We have 30 large consents and are working on a whole lot more.

Q: How do you feel about Terra Firma's takeover?

A: I'm thrilled. There has been a lot of interest in us. What has been really exciting during the whole process is not one person has left us. In fact, we've recruited more people despite the uncertainty to our ownership.

Q: How are sales going so far in 2012?

A: We've had our biggest sales in our history on primroses and the restaurant is doing very well. We took the most money ever on Mother's Day in our restaurants. February was not so good because it was much colder than last year. With the warm weather, shrubs are shooting up. Bedding is selling well and we've had a good start. Our foray into plug bedding is working well and we hope to do even better next year once other sellers don't have the (Low Value Consignment Relief) 20 per cent VAT advantage and we're on an even keel. Next year, they're going to find that very difficult. Most people in England, when they buy bedding by mail order, don't know it is grown in southern England, shipped to the Channel Islands, put on another trolley then shipped back and posted in this country. That's not right - it's a just a tax avoidance thing. Our website is about plants. Some garden centres don't even sell plants online.

Q: What difference will hosepipe bans make?

A: People will stop planting trees and big shrubs but by May people have stopped anyway. It will mean people will be out in the garden more if the weather continues and that is the best way of encouraging them to go to the garden centre. Bedding sales are already flying and shrub sales this week have held up with last year. At the moment, we aren't concerned. Water butts are selling well too.

Q: What about Easter Sunday opening?

A: Some other centres may open. Some local authorities are more draconian than others. It's bizarre in our multicultural society to have a law that says you can't go to a garden centre and buy plants but you can buy pornography. Our restaurants will be open to garden club members - that is a special day for them.

Q: How are your plans for expansion in York, including developing the nursery?

A: Head of horticulture Tim Clapp is now also in charge of our nurseries, which we are expanding. It's very exciting. One of my prime ambitions is to become the largest nursery grower in the country for hardy nursery stock.

Q: What is your view of the DIY retailer?

A: The difference between the DIYs in general and the garden centre industry is they are what I call cynical retailers - they don't believe in what they're doing. They will make something that is cheap and try to make it look like it isn't. The rest of us genuinely try to make something better. They won't ever do well in the garden industry because customers don't believe them. We believe in customer service and you can't have customer service if you're trying to con the customer. Garden centre staff won't do it - that's the big difference."

CV
1984: Founded Country Gardens
2000: Sold Country Gardens to Wyevale for £108m
2000: Founded Country Homes & Gardens
2008: Chief executive, Wyevale, renamed Garden Centre Group (GCG)
2012: Terra Firma buys GCG for £276m


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