Interview: Richard McKenna, Nursery Director, Wyevale East Nurseries

The current round of funding cuts hitting land-based colleges (HW, 26 March) will have made grim reading for employers throughout the industry. With the supply of fresh talent already scarce, the new rules could see even fewer bright sparks attracted to horticulture.

Richard McKenna, Nursery Director, Wyevale East Nurseries. Image: HW
Richard McKenna, Nursery Director, Wyevale East Nurseries. Image: HW

One man all too aware of the difficulty of attracting motivated and qualified staff is Wyevale East Nurseries director Richard McKenna. He is a passionate advocate of quality industry-focused education and this year he has launched the Student Design & Build Award in conjunction with the RHS.

It offers a fantastic opportunity for young designers to make a name for themselves with a garden at the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show 2011 and will provide some much-needed real world experience. "For me personally it's actually really nice to put something back into education," he explains.

"It's a personal wish really. We thought it would be quite nice to give a kick start to some students who are just coming into the industry. Also, it will make a lot of students aware of our presence once they have graduated."

His interest in education extends beyond the competition though as he regularly hosts student visits. "When I was at Writtle I learnt a lot from nursery visits, maybe more than I did in the classroom," he recalls. "I would hate to think that students' visits would stop. We should make as much time as possible. They get 100 per cent of my attention during their time here."

But when they do come, he says, it is almost possible to tell which students come from which colleges just by what plants they ask for. "The same lectures teach the same 100 or 200 plants every year. They should leave their RHS encyclopedias on the shelf and use their eyes."

The invitation is extended to garden designers who expect to find an A-Z of plants in stock at the cash and carry. It is part of a wider problem, McKenna explains. Landscapers and designers need to properly understand the cost of a plant, so they can communicate that to their clients and justify the cost.Only then will the grower begin to get a fair price.

"People don't understand the cost of producing plants," he argues. "In real terms plants have not increased in price for 10 years but over the same time period peat has gone up by 30 per cent, fertiliser by 50 per cent, the few chemicals that are left have gone up 30-40 per cent and haulage has gone up. Yet we are getting the same price for our plants."

It is clearly a sore point and he sends a warning to the industry if nothing is done about it. "I think UK plant production is going to be severely impacted unless prices increase to reflect the actual cost of growing the plants," he says. "One nursery sets the lowest possible price and we all sink to it. The knife cut thicker and harder into a lot of businesses last year."

But his interest in education is not just about getting the best price for a plant. The competition might represent the company's key marketing activity for the next few years, replacing the seminar days they used to hold for customers.

McKenna is frank about the potential to turn graduating students into lifelong customers. But it is also obvious that he genuinely cares about the state of horticultural training.

When pressed as to why, he offers his dyslexia as a possible reason, saying he struggled in school until he discovered horticulture. "I found something I love and I found I could learn plant names easily. I can visit nurseries and remember where I saw interesting things. I know I'm not thick. I'm probably a slower learner but I took to horticulture like a duck to water. I want young people to have the opportunity to succeed."

A glance at his CV confirms the assertion - a fast track career is testament to his abilities - and now managing one of the country's best known cash and carries, it is not just young people who might learn from his experiences.

Having steered Wyevale East through the most difficult period in its history over the past two years, what does he think the next year has in store?

"We couldn't have picked a worse year for an election. Whoever gets in is going to make or break Sterling. But the level of interest and our forward orders look quite promising. A lot of our business is coming from developers who had projects shelved or that were three-quarters finished. Now they are getting on with those jobs again and getting them completed," he says.

"Houses are selling and there's much more activity. This time last year we didn't know where we were going or what was going on. People can now see there is an end to this, even if its going to be slow. I would much rather see a slow and steady recovery than another boom and bust. Slow and steady improvement you can manage."

- To find out more about the Student Design & Build Award, see www.gardendesignaward.co.uk

CV

 

  • 1995-97: Trainee manager, Coblands Garden Centre, Tunbridge Wells
  • Mar-Jul 1997: Area relief manager, Country Gardens
  • 1997-98: Sales, King Plant Barn, Auckland, New Zealand
  • 1998-2002: Area manager, Coblands Nurseries Cash & Carry
  • 2002-03: Operations manager, Coblands Nurseries
  • 2003 to date: Nursery director, Wyevale East Nurseries

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