Nursery owner says big is not necessarily best

Big is not necessarily best in horticulture as the industry heads quickly into further consolidation, according to Alpha Plants owner Mike Roberts.

Alpha Plants owner Mike Roberts (HW)
Alpha Plants owner Mike Roberts (HW)

At young-plant raiser Alpha Plants, based at Millview Nurseries in Spalding, Roberts recently reached 20 years since first establishing the nursery.

He said after several major changes in the industry, involving Newey buying Eagle Plants and Delamore being taken over by Volmary and others, consolidation is increasing fast. But he added: "I come from the other side of things. I don't think big is best in horticulture."

With everyone operating on small margins, not having more complex organisational structures means "the independents probably do better long-term", said Roberts. "Too many people in the past have got too big and not sustainable."

He said Alpha has picked up business during this consolidation period, adding: "Very traditional growers buy English. There's always an element of patriotism and people are more protected against the vagaries of the euro, which has swung wildly. Some people would rather order in sterling. And there is a thing where companies that are huge and are exporting across the water, if something becomes short, there's not just a bit of a shortage but that shortage spreads across Europe, so do plants cross the water or stay in Holland?"

He added that another reason for increased sales is that imported pests and diseases are potentially more serious now and not so easy to clear up. "We've certainly had a very good 2015 with a lot more confidence in the market and orders are up again for 2016," said Roberts.

He pointed out that there is an increasing trend for people to order later, which "plays into our hands a little because as a smaller company our response time is quicker".

Taking over companies and their customer list is less important than it used to be because customers tend to shop around more now as margins have tightened, he explained.

Alpha offers a range of more than 350 perennial varieties, 100 herb varieties plus wild flowers, grasses and a range of autumn patio plants.

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