Interview - Peter Hulatt, managing director, Camden Garden Centre

Camden Garden Centre in London won urban centre of the year at the recent Garden Retail Awards for operating as a self-sustaining business that has trained disadvantaged people for the past 30 years.

Peter Hulatt, managing director, Camden Garden Centre - image: HW
Peter Hulatt, managing director, Camden Garden Centre - image: HW

Q: How do you maximise turnover on a small site?

A: We're perpetually moving stuff around for the seasons. We do an awful lot of deliveries and get the footfall. We're 1,915sq m and that brings £1.5m turnover, so we have to work hard to get the most out of every square inch.

Q: What sort of garden centre is Camden?

A: We're a traditional garden centre. We are gardenand plant-orientated and not into gifts.

Q: How is being an urban centre different?

A: Londoners look for traditional plants and pots. They love white plants because they liven up small, dingy gardens. We sell a lot of climbers for walls and fences. Evergreens are popular because the gardeners can be a time-poor lot and they want that year-round interest. The ideal London plant is evergreen, free-flowering and shade-loving. We sell a lot of camellia and azalea, as well as hydrangea and pyracantha. People buy bamboo as screening and for roof terraces. We also sell a huge amount of herbs and pots, window boxes and troughs for small gardens.

Q: What makes Camden Garden Centre unusual?

A: We aim is to provide employment, vocational training and other educational opportunities for disadvantaged people. We are a commercial garden centre owned by the Camden Garden Centre Charitable Trust, with much of our work training-focused. We started up a garden centre in 1983 to help youth unemployment. Richard Jackson was the first manager. The centre is professionally run and takes trainees on a rolling basis for a couple of years each. We get no help with rent and rates - we rent from Camden Council and aim to be self-sustaining. The training scheme is financed out of the success of the garden centre itself.

Q: What can you tell us about your trainees?

A: They include vulnerable substance abusers, people recovering from mental illness, maybe homeless and maybe ex-offenders. They're often in a trap because they can't get a job and they can't get a house.

Q: How do you cover the costs of training?

A: Overall, the cost of running the training scheme is more than £80,000 a year. We have never been dependent on external funding. However, to remain competitive during difficult economic times, the company has occasionally had to cut trainee numbers. We develop our trainees and staff as a long-term investment for both the individual and the community. We applied for an Esmee Fairbairn Foundation grant in 2007, which contributed to the costs of employing our head of social enterprise, development and training for five years. This source of funding has come to an end, but the economic situation has not.

Q: Where do you find your trainees?

A: They self-refer, come from local probation or employment services, St Mungo's, Mind in Camden and schools. For many, it's their first paid employment.

Q: What do you offer your trainees?

A: We have helped more than 300 trainees. They take retail and customer care NVQ/QCFs in-house, horticultural NVQ/QCFs at Capel Manor College and a whole range of other training that might include getting their forklift truck operator licence, bricklaying, IT, pesticide spraying, literacy and numeracy skills, first aid and other short-course certificates. Trainees also have the opportunity to work in our garden services division. We offer employment, training, stability and pastoral care.

Q: How hard is it to be a garden centre and a training centre?

A: It's difficult to do both. Running a garden centre is demanding and training disadvantaged people has challenges. So that's why we need a training manager. I'm a NVQ assessor and get involved in how we move forward training. Other charities have tried to do what we do but found it difficult and have used the garden centre as a cash cow for the charity and given up on training. It's difficult to have a successful business and have social aims at the same time.

Q: How can people help your trainees?

A: The trust has recently changed its approach from solely depending on profits from the garden centre. For the first time, we are seeking donations and have launched Friends of Camden Garden Centre Charitable Trust. Individuals can give a gift-aided donation of £10 a month or more. Corporate donors can give £500 annually or sponsor a specific individual trainee's annual costs of some £18,500. To find out more, visit www.cgctrust.org.uk.

CV

1970s-83: Personnel manager, National Coal Board - responsible for training and recruitment

1983-93: Garden leisure products manager, Rockingham Garden Centre, Croydon - progressed to general garden centre manager and director by early 1990s

1993-2000: Manager, Camden Garden Centre

2000 to date: Managing director, Camden Garden Centre.


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