Top 100 Profile - Haskins Roundstone

With theatrical entrances, sweeping curves and a fuller retail experience, Haskins has come up with a successful template for its place among the Garden Retail Top 100, says Matthew Appleby.

Roundstone: garden centre was purpose-built in 2012 after being bought by the Haskins group in 2000 - image: HW
Roundstone: garden centre was purpose-built in 2012 after being bought by the Haskins group in 2000 - image: HW

Haskins is a four-outlet garden centre group. Roundstone was purpose-built in 2012, having previously been a nursery. In 2000, Haskins bought Roundstone, which is at Angmering near Littlehampton in West Sussex. It has since undergone an extensive redevelopment programme that includes a 500-seater restaurant. Group chief executive Julian Winfield will succeed Will Armitage as chairman of the Garden Centre Association (GCA) in 2016.

Roberts Limbrick was appointed in April 2010 as architect for the redevelopment and expansion of the existing garden centre at Roundstone. Haskins remained trading on the site throughout the development, which included the phased demolition of the existing buildings and their replacement by a new building. The planning consultant was White Young and Green, DBK was cost consultant, Patrick Mills Associates was services consultant, Wedgewoods was structural engineer and Barnwood Construction was the main contractor.

The new centre has 5,500sq m of internal space with a further 6,000sq m of outdoor sales and retail units, including Hobbycraft, Mountain Warehouse, Maidenhead Aquatics and Garden Building Centre. We spoke to Winfield about the business:

Is there any more to do to Roundstone?

Julian Winfield It's pretty fully developed. We improve it bit by bit every year. There are no plans to build any more retail space. We don't need it. It's about improving the ambience of the place and making product adjacencies work better.

What plans are there for the Snowhill centre?

JW We'd love to redevelop it at some stage. We are developing what we can at Snowhill. It's a longer-term plan.

Are you after new centres?

JW It's about finding the right one. We're very determined to be able to find a profitable way to expand the business, but it's got to be in the right location. It's a big investment and it's going to be a challenge. If another garden centre comes onto the market, if we want to convert it into a Haskins we will have to knock it down and rebuild it and that is double the expense. We're looking in seven-to-10 areas with brownfield sites where we can build a bespoke centre. That's the challenge. We have an agent working for us on a part-time basis two-to-three days a week. He's an ex-property sourcer for a housebuilder.

What do you mean when you say you now run a retail, catering and property business?

JW In the sense of you do a Roundstone development and it is 10 years in the planning. You have an old nursery and a small garden centre on it and secure planning permission for a garden centre and additional retail with Hobbycraft and that process is very complex and time consuming. It's a very different type of business to running a retail business, which is fast moving and you trade from one day to the next.

What are your views on recruitment from outside the industry?

JW In garden centres in general there are opportunities for people to find recruitable people from outside the industry. We've done that successfully and we've messed it up. It's about getting the person who really wants to work in a garden centre. It's a cultural fit. They don't have to have horticultural knowledge. Good retailers from multiples like Homebase and the high street could fancy a change and see garden centres as an environment they'd like to work in. We've been successful with people doing that over the years. We're a systems-led business, centrally replenished, with ranging done centrally. Garden centres are about implementing a plan for the business and not selecting product. We have general managers from WHSmith, Homebase and other mainstream retail - four different people with different experience. With assistant general managers, two are from Sainsbury's, one was promoted from our catering department and another one is home-grown. It's a real selection of people there and for us we've always tried to find people to make up a balanced team. I wouldn't want to have them all from mainstream retail. Matt Hill has been with us for 18 years. He started in the plant department and worked his way up to become Ferndown general manager. He has a huge amount of experience in the business and that keeps all these other retailers in check. He can learn from what they bring to the business. The Homebase-type managers, especially those who were there for a long time, bring a lot from their training. We've had a lot over the years and they've made a big contribution.

You become GCA chairman in January. What are your plans?

JW The GCA knows what it's good at. It has a good conference, well attended, area meetings have never been so well attended and from standards visits every year we see centres improving and getting tougher, and we're all looking to see how we can do better and better. We now do Grow e-learning, which is expanding. Most successful trade associations keep concentrating on those things they are good at doing and which make a difference, and are not looking to take on lots of new things for the sake of justifying our existence. We don't need to.

How does the GCA attract more members as independents are bought up?

JW I'm always surprised how many garden centres there are out there that I don't know about. There are successful non-GCA centres out there that could become members. The GCA was successful when it had a lot fewer members than today. The number of members doesn't interest me - what does interest me is the benefits you get out of it.

As the industry becomes more competitive and chains such as Next and Wyevale expand, where do you see its traditional sharing of knowledge going?

JW Stewarts are our closest competitors to Ferndown and we've competed with them over the years but we've probably been friendlier with them than any other business. We talk to each other about the pros and cons and our visitors, and it's never done us any competitive harm. Stewarts and Haskins are incredibly different. They always have been and always will be. If everyone started to look the same at that stage it would be a disadvantage, but I don't ever see it coming to that. Garden centres are individual places. There are many ways to cut the cake. Generally speaking people like that don't actually get involved so it's not an issue. The more people put in, the more they get out. The odd thing is those people have most to gain but they are the most insular.

What is your view on product mix?

JW To make sure you have a balanced product proposition to run a successful and profitable retail business. If you suddenly find catering is 80 per cent of turnover, that would suggest it is not balanced. We've gone from 10-22 per cent and felt very comfortable with that. The plants and gardening business is still very substantial. The important thing from our perspective is that plants are still the most important product category. That's the point of difference and that's why our customers come to us and not boxes.

Wyevale's Guy Hands and Barton Grange's Guy Topping both said last year that gardening is not the prime business at their centres. What's your view?

JW I think they're wrong. Plants remain our focus for us at Haskins. There are many different ways of doing a garden centre. We have 120,000sq ft retail at Ferndown and 80,000sq ft is core gardening. That's a majority of gardening in the total footprint so that's still very much the focus.

What is your view on concessions?

JW We're retailers. We believe we can make more profit out of the space than allowing someone else to come in and pay us rent and make a profit. We believe we can retail that space and that will fit in with the overall image of the business. People know that when they're in Haskins, they're in Haskins. We have Mountain Warehouse and Hobbycraft and an aquatic concession at Roundstone but none inside the centre.

What about catering? How fresh are the meals that you serve?

JW We cook from scratch all hot food, pies and main dishes. We have 35 chefs in our four centres. Some 85-90 per cent of cakes are home baked, all our pizzas and salads are homemade and so are our sandwich baguettes. We don't buy any partially cooked food to warm up.

What's next for Haskins?

JW We've grown our business without growing our number of outlets. We have three purpose-built centres and Snowhill, which we will develop in the future. There are still opportunities for us in our existing centres. But the key thing driving our future profitability is additional sites. That's what we have to do. That's the challenge. It would be easier if we wanted to buy existing centres.

Has Wyevale offered to buy Haskins?

JW I've no idea if Warren (Haskins) has been approached. All I know is the Haskins family has no ideas about selling the business. They think about the business in the long term.

Does it remain a family business?

JW It depends on what you describe as a family business. Is it half-a-dozen members of the family working on the shop floor, which is a very different business to Haskins, which is very much family-owned but is a much bigger type of business. No family work on the business. Warren is a non-executive. I've been here for 21 years now and we still have some benefits of somewhere that is family owned. You don't have to have the family working in the business to have a very positive culture. I don't think we're seeing the end of family business in garden centres. They just change and become more professional.

Why it works - Ian Riggs, Jersey Plants Direct

- Haskins is architecturally individual, modern and built for purpose. It has theatrical entrances, high roofs, sweeping curves and offers a "retail experience" with easy access from main roads and great car parking.

- It has visual appeal, use of sculpture and form, soft appeal, creating anticipation and excitement, and not "hard" appearance - there is use of form but with functionality.

- There is easy access, flow, planterias and the whole site is on one level.

- Large restaurants with a varied menu using local ingredients, prepared and cooked on site, look modern and clean and include outdoor seating areas. They are purpose-built, look designed and not like an area of a glasshouse. The appeal as a restaurant is aimed at mature customers while being child friendly and maintaining family appeal.

- The centre has a huge range and all you would expect and more, especially gift ranges that are all enhanced by several concessions that complement the stocked ranges.

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