This year is one of anniversaries for Squire's Garden Centres. The 11-centre, South East-based group turns 75, having been founded back in 1936.
Squire's Shepperton branch will be re-opened by celebrity gardener Diarmuid Gavin in March following rebuilding work, while Badshot Lea will unveil a £1m catering makeover.
Managing director Dennis Espley will have been at the group for 25 years in March and celebrates by becoming Garden Centres Association chairman for the year, starting at the GCA Conference on 24-26 January.
Espley says he is taking on the GCA job because he wants to "give something back". He adds: "I do believe the GCA is instrumental in developing an inordinate understanding of the independent gardening sector. Compared to other countries, the UK is probably the best and has stood up well against the sheds."
He says the exchange of information, visits to other countries and Google groups have been positive for the GCA and he doesn't want to change what it does. But he concedes that mid-year regional group meetings require "a nudge" and that members need to see more centres and speak to more people.
Espley has visited Anglesey, Staffordshire and Cornwall in a bid to see as many GCA members as he can during his term. He says: "You always learn." Espley says visiting smaller centres such as Fron Goch in north Wales leads to "complacency going out of the window". He adds: "The great thing about being a member of the GCA is that you can talk to them and they will tell you why they think they are doing well. You gain a lot. It's not just about visiting Bicester, Bents or Webbs. Other people are doing different things."
Shepperton will host a north/south Thames meeting on 16 March. Squire's has employed Kavanagh PR to promote 2011's events. Shepperton closed for rebuilding in June 2010, while Badshot Lea won planning permission in September to revamp its catering facility.
Espley explains that Shepperton will feature crafts, a deli, a big restaurant, an orangery and attractions such as vintage agricultural machinery and a pumping station. Vears is the contractor and Plum, which has worked with Haskins, Dobbies, Hillier and Bents, is the architect for the scheme.
Squire's prospered in 2010, with a record turnover of £31m and profit of £3.7m. Espley cites catering as an area of particular growth. In November 2009, Mark Hardy arrived as catering manager, boasting experience at PizzaExpress, Whitbread, Cafe Zest and French boulangerie Paul.
He adds that gifts have also done well, "just because we're getting better at them". In catering, Espley says examples such as better coffee and salads with baguettes show how service is improving at Squire's, and this has translated into turnover gains. That is why Badshot Lea and, next summer, Twickenham are getting new restaurants.
He admits plants and outdoor products suffered last summer and autumn, but says he doesn't mind other non-gardening products filling the void. "I don't mind selling other products, but I never want to lose gardening. It is essential that people understand why they come here. The focus has to be gardening. When they are here we can sell them everything else, but if we become too mixed a business people might lose sight of why they come here - besides the social side - and could go to other places."
Espley says he isn't too worried about architect Malcolm Scott's concerns that garden centres are putting their plants ever closer to the back of stores, which risks losing their essential appeal. "Most garden centres aren't that big and people can easily locate the plants," he says. "The essential thing is to do a good job for people when they get here and make life easier. It's the basics - the things we forget." He adds that centres sometimes concentrate too much on inspirational displays when customers, particularly those in metropolitan areas, just want to "pick up and go".
On competition, he states that "no-one wants a Dobbies, or any other big garden centre, opening next door". He claims that, with Tesco behind it, Dobbies will acquire whatever sites it wants, but he adds: "Good luck to them." Squire's continues to look for new sites, but nothing has come up in the South East in the past couple of years.
Espley says there are "not too many big issues" facing the sector, other than the recession. He believes supermarkets will hold sway on Easter Sunday, when not being allowed to open is a bugbear for garden centres.
But on pricing for 2011, Espley is keen to warn other centres not to be greedy.
He says the increase in VAT to 20 per cent "will clearly make a difference", and the price of some raw material has already risen, "but it's not as drastic as we thought".
He warns: "We don't think it is the right time to try and gain margin - it's the time to keep our customers happy. I don't think you should try and be clever when it might be a difficult year; it might not be, of course."
Espley claims that buy-one-get-one-free offers are becoming jaded because supermarkets have devalued them, and 'buy one, get another cheaper' offers will be the focus of Squire's promotions in 2011. He advises: "Keep well-stocked with the basics - true gardening plants and sundries in 2011. They tend to keep going if times are difficult."
He points out that BDO accountant Don Williams will interest delegates at the GCA Conference with his positive message to the industry. His session starts at 2.30pm on 25 January. Espley concludes: "In 2011, we are going to have to keep an eye on value for money, without a doubt."
Horticulture diploma, Pershore College
1972-81: Wyevale Garden Centres
1981-86: Operations manager, Kennedys Garden Centres
1986 to date: Operations director rising to managing director, Squire's Garden Centres
TITCHMARSH TO SPEAK AT GCA CONFERENCE
TV gardener Alan Titchmarsh is to speak at the Garden Centre Association (GCA) Conference on 24 January.
New GCA chairman Dennis Espley said: "We normally don't have a speaker on the Monday of the conference, but Alan very kindly agreed to speak to us.
"No-one has done more for gardening over the past decade than Alan. He is by far the most revered gardening commentator and he speaks so well about the benefits of gardening."
- The GCA Conference 2011 will be held from Monday 24 to Wednesday 26 January at Heythrop Park, Enstone, Chipping Norton OX7 5UE.