Sargent's solutions - managing landscape business expansion

Care should be taken when expanding a rural business to win more work in lucrative larger towns, says Alan Sargent.

Alan Sargent
Alan Sargent

I feel that I have reached saturation point in my local area, having landscaped many gardens over the past 15 years. I am pretty well-known locally and now wish to look for new markets further afield. I work mainly in villages and would like to attract more prestigious work in larger towns. How should I go about this?

I well understand your situation and assure you it works both ways. Rural businesses hanker after more lucrative markets and see cities as a means to write their own cheques, while city firms welcome the opportunity to work in more relaxed surroundings with no traffic wardens or parking and congestion charges, and accordingly seek less stressful sites.

First of all, you should take stock of your business. Obviously, you are successful. You need to analyse that success and consider the financial facts. Your profitability is directly related to the costs of producing current projects. Your accepted quotations and related outgoings, including labour, materials, transport and yard rental, are all part of one set of equations.

These figures are highly relevant because they only relate to your existing business including, and especially, your current workforce. Although you may feel frustrated, are they willing to stay with you if you decide to increase the distances you are prepared to travel for work? Starting work on site at 8am may mean leaving at 5.30am or 6am, with a lot of overtime to take into account when quoting for city projects. Increased transport costs and vehicle depreciation will certainly affect your profits.

While city firms can and do charge more money, these increases are all inter-related. Higher charges do not necessarily lead to increased profits - I said earlier that it works both ways. I used to operate from mid Sussex and for many years carried out "prestige" projects, mainly in the West End of London, working for "society" designers.

I can assure you that although these schemes were very interesting and profitable, the only way I could make money was down to the fact that my overheads were so much lower than my city rivals. What they spent on office/yard rentals and higher wages I was spending on fuel, tyres and overtime, so we were pretty much on a par.

Somewhere along the line though, the workforce grew older and less tolerant of early starts and long drives, often leaving site at 4pm and getting home four hours later, only to start again at 5.30am the next day. Tired staff equals negative downward spiral as the years go by, and eventually I gradually changed back to more local work.

Depot alternative

A possible alternative would be to start a new depot under your current name. Use some of your existing staff to open a new branch in your favoured town/city and begin the process of training new staff to your standards. This way, as existing staff grow older and less tolerant of travel, your new team will have had the benefit of your talents and continue operating to your high ideals. You would have to be extremely cautious in your financial evaluations, working with a trusted accountant to guide you at all times.

While I appreciate that you are currently frustrated by your limitations, you need to keep a clear and unsentimental logic to all your undertakings, while at the same time running your existing company. Anything else, and you may find the parent firm loses profitability, thereby threatening both new and existing ventures.

I found that there were some distinct advantages to my time in London. We were obliged to become highly efficient in all sorts of ways. Everything required military planning and logistics because without this discipline every job would have been loss-making. We learnt all sorts of tricks - when working through houses, for example, having to protect carpets and wallpaper. Disposing of rubbish became a fine art and the efficacy of the whole team was both humbling and inspiring.

Gaining access to site was a serious business and I would reconnoitre it beforehand and sort out everything from parking arrangements to the nearest builders' merchant and office of the traffic wardens to beg for permits. So many additional disciplines must be learnt of necessity that have nothing whatsoever to do with landscaping yet need to be mastered to survive the experience.

Local knowledge

I would suggest that you compile a dossier of your work and open discussions with an established garden designer - perhaps even a local group of Society of Garden Designers members - with a view to tendering for work in the city and rely to some extent on their local knowledge to help you break into your chosen market.

Whichever course you choose, you will need contacts in the area, and designers are the obvious professionals. They too may be keen to work with someone who has skills and specialisms that their existing landscapers do not posses. Any unique selling points you may have will now come to the fore.

Expanding your business is fraught at any time because increasing in size does not necessarily mean a comparable increase in profits, and the strength of your existing business model, with its current infrastructure and management base, will be sorely tested unless you write a comprehensive new business plan with your senior staff, family and professional advisers. Build on your strengths and incorporate what makes you so successful.

Alan Sargent is an independent gardens consultant at the School of Garden Management



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