Dobbies Garden Centres is in "rude health" but "a lot more could be achieved", according to the group's new chief executive officer Nicholas Marshall. Given his 35 years in garden centres, experts suggest that may mean a greater focus on core gardening and plants.
Former Wyevale colleague and current Hillier managing director Chris Francis says: "Having someone like Nicholas, with his passion and experience, will not only be good for Dobbies but will also benefit the whole industry as he understands UK garden centre customers' need for top-quality English-grown plants as one of the key foundations of the best garden centres."
Good news for the sector
Consultant Neville Stein adds: "I think this is excellent news for the garden retail sector. Nicholas Marshall is a seasoned garden centre operator with a proven track record of running successful businesses. His experience with venture capitalists and running listed companies make him an ideal choice. My hope is that he will do what he did at many of the Wyevale stores and reroute customers straight into the planteria. It would be good to see Dobbies putting a greater emphasis on the plant category."
Former colleague Adam Dunnett of Wyevale Nurseries says of Marshall: "I thought what he did at Wyevale Garden Centres was brilliant.
He kept it simple. People come in because they want to buy plants and want a decent garden solution. They don't want to overcomplicate things."
Industry veteran Marshall says he is proud of having run three quoted garden centre businesses - Country Gardens, Wyevale and now Dobbies, having taken over from John Cleland. Marshall founded Country Gardens, which was sold for more than £120m, and Country Homes & Gardens. He took Wyevale from near administration to a £300m sale to Terra Firma.
The emphasis on having run quoted companies could mean 34-centre Dobbies is floated on the stock market after being listed from 1997 until Tesco bought the group in 2007. Midlothian Capital Partners (MCP) and Hattington Capital bought Dobbies from Tesco in July 2016 for £217m.
Neil Currie of Midlothian Capital Partners says: "We have no plans at present and our current focus is on serving customers and making Dobbies the best brand in the garden centre sector. An IPO (initial public offer) may be an option to consider in the future, but we have a number of goals ahead of us first."
Marshall, who says he plans to stay for "a few years", is an old business associate of Dobbies chairman Andrew Bracey. "He and I were going to buy Wyevale a long time ago," says Marshall. "There was always going to be an opportunity so I'm very excited. In 2000 there were three garden centre chains, all quoted, and now I've run all three, which is a record."
Asked why he has returned to the industry four-and-a-half years after leaving Wyevale, Marshall says: "Because of the challenge. The people that own Dobbies are long-term investors with private family money put into it and we all want to be involved with the best business in the garden centre industry, and they know I can help with that.
"I'm excited because Country Gardens was the best in class when it was bought by Wyevale. Dobbies was taken over by Tesco and it has not had such a lovely time in the last few years, not being much cherished. Now it has been taken over (by MCP and Hattington) and this time part of the plan is for me to rebuild the business as the best in the sector."
Marshall says the great opportunity he has is to "pick and choose" the developments Cleland got underway. Dobbies is "very ambitious to expand into the south", he adds. "There is lots to do but Dobbies is in a much better shape than other businesses I've taken over in the past."
Potential for expansion
Cleland spoke to Horticulture Week's Garden Retail Summit on 23 February about his plans for Dobbies, which included adding shopping villages and returning some buying control to individual centres. The latest turnover figure was £153m. But with most centres built to turnover at least £8m and only Edinburgh reaching that level, the figures suggest scope for growth. Cleland delivered a three-year investment plan to the owners last November.
Atherstone is the model for supermarket-style makeovers at around 18 centres, with shopping villages, butchers, delicatessens and all-round upgrades. Chesterfield's 13 shopping village concessions are another model. Cleland visited Bents, Aylett, Longacres and Scotsdales to see how they differentiate from the chains. He was critical of the lack of investment by Tesco in the company during its nine-year ownership.
Marshall points out that the "first challenge is to make sure the spring is in good shape", adding: "The business is surprisingly robust and not in the state Wyevale was when I took it on. This is a much better business."
Concession villages planned at Dobbies are an idea he knows well from a decade ago but Marshall will take time to look hard at all the plans before moving forward with them. He adds that he admires the way former chief executive James Barnes built up Dobbies from 1990 to 2013.
Bracey says: "I have known Nicholas for many years. He is one of the most successful leaders the industry has ever seen and we are thrilled that he has joined Dobbies as CEO. With Nicholas at the helm we feel that Dobbies' stores will only improve further and we look forward to the forthcoming spring season."