People and plants key to refreshed Dobbies offer

Appointments include industry veterans Lorrie Robertson and Andrew West.

Dobbies management: (clockwise from top left) Marshall, Robertson, West, Constantinou, Eyles and Andrews - image: © Colin Hattersley/Dobbies
Dobbies management: (clockwise from top left) Marshall, Robertson, West, Constantinou, Eyles and Andrews - image: © Colin Hattersley/Dobbies

New Dobbies chief executive Nicholas Marshall says the experience of garden centre professionals will make the chain industry leader, embarking on his latest shake-up of the industry, where he has been a central player for 37 years.

Marshall, who started at Country Gardens in 1980 before two stints at Wyevale, believes customers want more emphasis on plants, something that retailers from outside the industry are scared of giving them.

Meanwhile, Scotland staying in the UK, the UK leaving Europe, retailers buying local, transforming online, and upping quality are all paths to success as he aims for a £250m-turnover business.

He sees a potential for a Dobbies garden club with 2.5 million members to overtake Wyevale's garden club, which he set up and had a similar membership-to-sales ratio. "That's the target for the (new) COO (Lorrie Robertson)," he adds.

Dobbies turned over £153m to March 2016 but most of its 34 centres were built to take £8m-plus annually. After former CEO John Cleland's departure earlier this month, owner Andrew Bracey brought in Marshall. "I have a lot to do in a short time," he says. Marshall believes garden retail is so specialist it requires sector experience. "In 2000 there were three quoted garden centre businesses (Wyevale, Dobbies and Country Gardens). I've now run all three because very few people can run garden centres."

He adds: "I want to attract more people with garden centre experience to come and help us and make us market leader. We built Country Gardens into the best of the garden centre groups at the time. Then Country Gardens was subsumed into Wyevale and then we turned Wyevale into the best group and now we're going to do the same for Dobbies. We've had lots of practice. The business is very steady and making a reasonable profit. The people in the centres have done a really good job.

"At Country Gardens I started a management training scheme and now some of those people are at the top of the industry. But other people weren't doing that so now there is a serious lack of qualified horticulturists in the industry and that's something we've got to put right by bringing in a training scheme again. I'm very keen on promoting from within. At Country Gardens almost everyone once worked on the shop floor.

"Under James Barnes' stewardship Dobbies was a fantastic brand and he laid wonderful foundations for the future of the company. The Tesco years were not good and now we can get the company back on track to move forward."

The backgrounds of a dozen new senior recruits combined with Marshall's ethos point towards a move upmarket. New chief operations officer Lorrie Robertson replaces Chris McKendrick from Evans Cycles. She has worked with the likes of upmarket retailer Daylesford since leaving Wyevale with Marshall soon after Guy Hands bought Wyevale for £276m in 2012. New head of purchasing Andrew West and head of restaurants Constantine Constantinou were also at Wyevale.

Last year Marshall was "runner-up" in the bidding for Homebase, having raised the money and sorted his team. "But Wesfarmers overpaid at £217m", he says. His plan for Homebase was to turn the DIY/garden centre chain into click-and-collect centres. "I'm very keen on online for the future. People would have bought everything online and gone there to pick up."

Marshall would have added restaurants, opened 24 hours and instigated ordering by 9pm for collection the next day. He also wanted to bring in concessions and to "reduce the DIY to a Screwfix" offer, while "increasing gardening to a proper garden centre offer".

Other plans were to bring in banking facilities and chemists. Some of these plans may work for Dobbies and Marshall is working on an innovative online plan. Former Country Gardens colleague Marcus Eyles has come in to that department.

Celebrate the local

Marshall wants more local food and home cooking. "Supermarkets on the whole aren't good at that. We want to celebrate the local." Above all else he will focus on the core garden centre appeal. "Less than 10 per cent of stock is plants, yet people come to the garden centre to buy plants. The garden centre industry is moving away from plants. Why? I'm going to address that.

"The customer has gone to the garden centre to buy plants. I'm keen to put that back as a central theme to ensure the best plant selection, quality, localness and excitement of plants.

"I got Wyevale to £350m turnover by promoting what the customer wanted. I'm challenging nurseries to produce the best quality and then we'll make sure everything else in the garden centre is of the same standard."

Marshall also wants to add new stores, particularly in the south-east of England, as well as new branding.

Other new recruits at the company include regional manager Martin Andrews and Pippa Hawkins on e-learning.

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