Interview - Peter Burks, regional manager, Garden Centre Group

Peter Burks becomes chair of the Garden Centre Association as a new chief executive beds in and he hopes the two can boost membership and unite the industry, he tells Matthew Appleby.

Soon-to-be chairman of the GCA, Peter Burks will launch a 5-year strategy for the association - image: HW
Soon-to-be chairman of the GCA, Peter Burks will launch a 5-year strategy for the association - image: HW

Garden Centre Group regional manager Peter Burks takes over as Garden Centre Association (GCA) chairman at its annual conference later this month. He has been in the industry for 30 years and has run the Somerset centre Sanders GardenWorld since 2000. He picks up the leadership of GCA's 160 garden centre members and 180 associate members from current chairman, Squire's managing director Dennis Espley. The confer- ence take place on 23-25 January at the Crowne Plaza Heythorp Park near Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire.

- What are you most looking forward to at the conference?

Michael Heppell speaking on customer loyalty and service. I've heard very good things about him - he has some very simple ideas to take forward into your own business. Mario Dolcezza is also an inspirational speaker with good ideas. Many people don't know him - he lives in Somerset and has done training for Sanders.

- Phil Slinger is new GCA chief executive. What sort of person were you looking for to replace Gillie Westwood when she retires?

We had some very good candidates. We were looking for someone in tune with what the members need. We are an organisation for members and, no criticism of Gillie, who has done a brilliant job, we want someone who will get out and see members and be able to recruit new ones. Membership is going up nicely but there's always room for more high-calibre names. We've had people applying from other trade organisations and from within the industry as well as others from all sorts of walks of life such as charities and business. Dennis Espley, David Little and I conducted the first-round interviews and other committee members helped make the final selection. We wanted someone to be able to come to the conference so we appointed in December. I am hoping the new chief executive will slot in quickly. That would certainly help us to move things on. Gillie has done a great job for 15 years and now having the change we need to look at other things the role can encompass."

- What are your conference aims?

I want to draw the industry together. We are one industry and I want to hear other people's thoughts and develop themes from 2011 and good business stories on marketing and customer service that people can take home and do something about.

- Will you be working more closely with the HTA?

From my point of view, it's early days. I know (HTA president) Carol Paris very well and said to her prior to David Gwyther's departure that I would be in touch to see what we can do. We are very much on the retail side, which the HTA needs. Whether that's us or whether we listen to each other more - you need one umbrella organisation and various specialists under that for landscaping and nurseries.

- How do you see this developing?

Well, first, I don't want us to duplicate. There's been a danger in the past when one of our organisations decides to do something that the other does the same. The GCA can give feedback from the shop floor. It's up to the HTA to see if that is something it can push.

- What about the old idea of making the GCA a gold standard for HTA top garden centre members?

I don't see why you need to have more than one level. A lot of people on the HTA retail business improvement scheme (RBIS) have subsequently joined the GCA because the scheme raised their level of business to a certain standard and the GCA helps with interacting with other owners in high-class businesses.

- What are your plans for the GCA in the longer term?

We held a strategy meeting last September and came up with a list of projects that we want to take forward. They include marketing and training as well as several other things that are in the seedling stage. Some people still perceive the association as a clique or only for big garden centres and don't appreciate the benefits of membership, so Porcupine PR is marketing us now. The GCA has a lot of funds and there is no point sitting on them. We need to get out there and spend money on decent initiatives. On training, it depends on what comes from committee meeting decisions. But the focus is particularly around health and safety and anything relevant to their businesses. There is so much statutory training you have to do now and that is some- thing we could put together and involve other organisations to get off the ground. But it's early days yet."

- What is the main benefit of GCA membership?

The GCA's core values mean that you are not just a little independent on your own. You can phone other members and talk through problems and that's the biggest reason for joining. If you are 10 per cent down and if they say "we were too" people don't worry anymore. If you want to open a farmshop you can get feedback. That benefit is priceless.

- What are the other advantages?

The association is made up of 150 independents and what is important to one is not necessarily important to another. But the competition through our audits means that garden centres have something to strive for - to do better than last year. We have strong regional meetings again.

They had dwindled but we turned the corner by arranging awards presentations at regional level. Bringing staff from garden centres and seeing (inspectors) Ian Boardman, Andy Campbell and Roger Crookes offer a powerful message and provides lots of ideas. Staff come away from the meetings buzzing. However, I don't see a future in the idea of the GCA forming buying groups. Every- one wants to do their own thing so I'm not convinced that groups would the best thing for the industry.

- How was Sanders' trade in 2011?

Trade has become more and more erratic in general. In the past we have blamed the weather for everything but now people are waiting until they have been paid before they buy or leaving it until the last possible moment. For instance, we had a very good season for fireworks but it was all in the last two days. We were at least 10 per cent up on last year, ahead of budget. It's all plants - we focus on that. If you call yourself a garden centre you have to be strong in gardening and our plant sales have been fantastic. It carried on through the autumn When the clocks go back at the end of October usually you can close off the planteria but that didn't happen last year.

CV
1978-81: Horticulture degree, Bath University
1981-2000: Various growing roles in the UK and in Holland
2000-2009: Managing director, Sanders GardenWorld
2009: Regional manager, Garden Centre Group
2012-14: Chairman, Garden Centre Association

BUSINESS GOALS

The Garden Centre Association (GCA) has launched a five-year strategy under the banner Better Standards, Better Business.

The principles were agreed at a November 2011 board meeting. Current chairman Dennis Espley says: "The association will concentrate on its core role of helping members to improve their businesses. It will not duplicate the role of any other trade organisations but work with them where possible.

"We are fortunate with our growing membership and low overheads that we either break even or make a small profit every year. We will therefore be able to release some of our cash reserves during the next five years and, where appropriate, subsidise relevant projects."

Espley adds: "This is an exciting time for the GCA with a new generation of committee members on board who can take the organisation forward and we have now agreed the chairmen for the next eight years. The GCA looks set to go from strength to strength."

The GCA will focus on:

The Barometer of Trade Consideration of how to extend the detail of this useful business tool.

The GCA e-Exchange Review of how it can add quality consent, discussions and a regular newsletter.

Area groups Review of the number of meetings, area size with a goal of strengthening attendance in some areas.

Training Looking at whether there is a specific way to help members with training without duplicating the work of other bodies.

Audits Review the form, style and emphasis.

New members Actively recruit more members and increase benefits to new members.

Study tours Revive these useful short tours in the UK and abroad to allow members at all levels can see best practice and exchange ideas.


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