Edward and Ada Topping founded the business in 1951 with a six-bedroom hotel. Their son Eddie, Guy's father, set up a market garden at the hotel in 1955. He added a landscaping business in 1957 and a garden centre in 1963.
In the early 1970s, he expanded Garden Centre Plants to supply Barton Grange and other garden centres. In 1986, he set up a propagation unit, the Northern Liner Company, where three million plants can be growing at any one time. In 1993, the firm added Brookhouse Nursery, which specialises in houseplants and bedding plants.
The second centre opened in Bolton in 1990 and the third was started up in Woodford, Cheshire, in 1994. The hotel was expanded to 51 bedrooms along with a conference centre, gym, leisure complex and Walled Garden Bistro.
The Woodford centre was sold in February 2006 and work began on the new centre and a narrowboat marina in Brock, just north of Barton. The centre opened in March 2008 and the marina welcomed its first narrowboat in September that year. The Bolton centre was sold in June 2013 to concentrate on developing the rest of the business.
Q: Do you have any plans for future development of the garden centre?
A: The design does not lend itself to being extended. We started with a blank sheet of paper and designed what we wanted. The thought of adding another lump doesn't appeal. We do have a warehouse to the left of the building and we could put up another warehouse and turn that one into retail. But we're perfectly formed as we are.
Q: What about developing outside the garden centre?
A: A leisure development we plan to build will add appeal to the site and will not only be a profit centre on its own but will attract more people on quieter days because there will be more to do. We want planning permission for a curling rink, tenpin bowling, cinema, indoor crazy golf, American diner and fish-and-chip shop. We'll apply for consent in spring 2014 and might build next year, but we also have plans for the hotel for a spa/well-being centre, so everything is up in the air about planning, costs and the order in which we will do it.
Q: Which areas of garden retail do you think will grow or shrink?
A: In garden furniture I think we do less than half of Bents Garden & Home and I'm happy with that as I think it's a slightly vulnerable sector, though people have been retailing online for years and most garden centres are still doing a similar level. But that's the area I'm most nervous about. If we weren't doing it we'd have a whole room spare and I'm confident we'd find something to replace that turnover. It's nice because it links to the garden but we're not overdependent on it.
Cookware continues to do very well. It's a great fit, as is the farm shop. They're good solid areas. There's not necessarily any more growth in outdoor plants, giftware or anything else. But we have a good blend of products and I'm optimistic.
Q: What is your view on catering facilities in garden centres?
A: The big answer is every centre is different. Alan Roper (Blue Diamond managing director) is right. You join the dots up, decide the catchment. I don't think he's right about food-to-table service though. I just think it falls between two stools. For ladies who lunch it's not as pleasant an experience as waitress service and it's not fast. You place orders and sit and wait, and it fills tables.
Q: What is your view on garden centres using catering concession brands?
A: I think probably Costa is not a bad thing for The Garden Centre Group (TGCG) because its whole offering is pretty bland. People do go to Costa or Starbucks so probably for them it's the right answer, but it's absolutely not the right answer for us. It almost typifies the whole issue. They're going for a bland garden centre offering with brands such as WHSmith and Costa, and we have to be different and do what we do.
Q: You sold your Bolton store last year to TGCG. What is happening there?
A: Bolton is part of Operation Snowflake. TGCG is spending money, changing the customer flow and fitting in as many concessions as possible. It's doing this in 12 centres to see how it goes before rolling it out. As long as they have concessions and keep people coming through, it's not a bad option for smaller centres like Bolton because it's hard work out there. If you can get the rental money it can make the centre, but long term the effect of a concession village in a small/medium garden centre - how attractive is that to everyone? But as long as people go through and the concessions are happy, that's okay.
Q: What is your policy on holding events at the centre?
A: People come quite regularly so we want to be fresh, so there's a reason to come the following month. We have a theme every other month - we've done Italian, Indian, "Choctober" and we had a Spitfire here as well as owls and hawks and art workshops. We have a full-time events manager. People talk about the events, which helps bring people in. Three times a month I go to ladies groups and talk about our relocation. People say to me at the end: "It's our garden centre." It's their story about how we grew and moved, and that's what we've got that brands will never have.
Q: What do you do to keep your catering staff happy?
A: Chefs love to work in garden centres because they don't have to do split shifts or late night. It's a dream job for them. But you have to have the right attitude and give them the opportunity to do what chefs do. Garden centre catering is actually quite dull because it's the same all the time, so we hold events that give them the chance to do more exciting cooking because we change the menus.
It's attitude and how you treat people. A lot of garden centres see catering as a pain in the arse so the staff probably get a bit neglected and are not managed very well. It's easy to say staff are a problem, but what are you doing to stop that?
We all have to aspire to be excellent. The problem for me is a lot of garden centres don't aspire to be brilliant. A lot of people are daunted by running a catering operation, but you can get a decent manager in and spend a bit of money, and it's one of the easiest bits of the garden centres to run because it's the same every day. In the centre you're in a different part of the season every week, running stock up and down, moving things around and changing into the new season. But in the restaurant every day is the same so once you get it sussed it's like falling off a log. If you get it right you make loads of money. If you go into it with a concession, they're just in it for the money. They're not bothered about customer satisfaction. They might be thinking they'll clear off in three years, but we do everything to make sure the customers come back next week.
Q: Have you become a member of any of the buying groups?
A: I'm on the board of buying group Associated Independent Stores. It's only really suitable for garden centres that are big into cookware, clothing and giftware because that's all they do that is relevant. Traditional garden centres aren't going to get the benefit. I'd say being a member is bordering on being an absolute necessity to give a decent customer offer.
Q: What is your view on any charity requests you may receive?
A: We don't want collectors because we're about an experience. We have put in a wishing well and we offer two or three £10 vouchers to people who ask from summer fetes or raffles. If you give them, you're probably going to get a £20 spend and someone who hasn't been in before, so it's a good marketing opportunity to get someone through the front door cheaply. We have a carol service on the first Sunday in December with 400 people from local churches. It's normally the biggest day of the year. We charge £5 a ticket, do two or three charities and give a £1,500 cheque. It's hard work after a busy day but three charities benefit.
Q: What would you say are the secrets behind your success?
A: On this site, detailed panning is what makes it work so well. It's just how we want it, really. Even now there are very few things I'd do differently if I was to do it all over again. The other thing is finding good people and letting them get on with it. (Manager) Russell Winteridge and myself work well together. I get out quite a lot and come back with ideas, while he's here ensuring that things are delivered and happen, and that problems are resolved rather than met with short-term solutions.
We aspire for excellence. We don't do anything when we think "that'll do". We aim to do everything really well. That's what leaders have to do - set the bar and constantly look to where they can do things better. That's what motivates the team - always improving and not being shy to spend money where we need to.
Why it works - Neville Stein - Ovation Business Consultancy
Layout - the flow is fantastic. As you enter the building you are immediately inspired by a seasonal display of products and greeted by a friendly face at the reception desk. Then on entering the store there is often a wow factor created with a display of indoor plants. Customers are then led from this area into the gift area, which flows naturally to the cafe and seasonal planteria. The centre is so well designed - customers are led through all key product categories - you have to walk past loads of great displays to get to the fantastic catering offer. Visual merchandising is very good too - industry-leading. The farm shop is superb, likewise.