Top 100 Profile - Perrywood

This family-owned garden centre and nursery in Essex has won its place among the Garden Retail Top 100 by growing plants as well as retailing and investing in the business, Matthew Appleby reports.

Perrywood: a 7,000sq m nursery production area is used to produce some 250,000 plants a year for sale in the 10,000sq m garden centre - image: Perrywood
Perrywood: a 7,000sq m nursery production area is used to produce some 250,000 plants a year for sale in the 10,000sq m garden centre - image: Perrywood

Perrywood in Essex is an independent, family-owned garden centre and nursery run by Alan and Karin Bourne with their children Simon Bourne (general manager) and Hannah Powell (marketing and business development manager). The business at the 4.4ha site was started back in the 1950s when Alan Bourne's parents, Mary and Les, bought the land and called it Perrywood Nurseries.

Alan Bourne started to grow plants to sell from the front of the property and took over the business with his wife Karin in 1984. They are celebrating 30 years in charge this year. The 7,000sq m nursery production area produces some 250,000 plants a year for sale in the 10,000sq m garden centre.

In 2009, the site began a major redevelopment programme. Perrywood has invested £1.3m back into the business over the past 18 months. The work has included expanding and refurbishing the coffee shop as well as installing new customer toilets and an office block.

How did you celebrate the 30th anniversary?

Hannah Powell We had 150 people at a party to celebrate and lots of in-store offers with 30 per cent off. People have been uploading memories onto our website. People who have worked for us in the past have shared memories. One Saturday lad remembered the "muscle-building" activities he did. All sorts of people remembered when the shop was just a shed. It's good to reflect.

Alan Bourne The company has been going since 1955 and I took it over from my father 30 years ago when he decided to retire. I've worked here since I was big enough to hold a tool.

How important is it being a family business?

AB Very important - to remain individual and have the passion and drive that others lack. But you must have family to be able to do that when you get older.

How important is it to carry on growing plants as well as retailing?

AB Still very much so. It's our grass roots and where we started, and we're still increasing the turnover on plants while a lot of garden centres are dropping off. I hope that will always carry on. Our own plant production is at the maximum and we have no intention to expand that area. But we have grown plant sales overall because we buy in a lot and that has been steadily increasing ever since I've been here. We saw a little bit of a drop in the last two years because of the weather, but this year has really climbed up again.

How have you kept plant sales high?

HP Added value. We've sold a phenomenal amount of hanging baskets. They're up 25 per cent. Butchers would rather sell chicken skewers than chicken breast because you can put more margin on.

AB Years ago you couldn't sell potted bedding plants but now people are going away from pack bedding to the pots. They want instant gardening. We've managed to maintain fully trained staff, which helps with quality and choice of plants in both growing and retailing. Most staff come through a college of some sort such as Writtle and on the plant side we have a lot of diplomas and degrees. We do the Garden Centre Association (GCA) Grow scheme for basic training but it's more about on-the-job training. We also do HTA customer service training.

How have 2014 plant sales been? Are they up to 2011 levels?

AB A lot of people think they're not but I think they are and I do all the plant buying. People are still quite careful and are still looking for value for money and instant impact in the garden. In people's trolleys, they are always crammed with colour. They are not planning like they used to. They want what's good now.

What changes have you seen in plant supply?

AB The last two years have been very difficult for suppliers. Most have cut numbers and ranges so this year we have been using more suppliers to get the ranges. But the quality has been exceptionally good this year with the mild winter and the growing season has been very good. Proportionately pack bedding has slowed, though anything with containers has definitely seen the highest increases ever. Trees and A-Z shrubs have slowed. Perennials are definitely up. Stoneware has slowed right down at Vivid Arts' expense. People buy things for entertainment. People's gardens aren't big enough for statues but they do like to have a nice fox sitting in the corner.

Is price important?

AB To sell volumes the price has got to be right. People are looking for a bargain so it's about value rather than price.

What about sundries suppliers?

AB Solus going has been unsettling for the industry but it hasn't affected us. We've managed to get supplies. It's surprising how many people jump out of the woodwork on these occasions. Considering it's been a busy year, most suppliers have been on the ball and we've never run short. (Buyer) Simon Bourne says some branded goods are not being picked up from Solus, such as Tetra. They have slipped through the net. But most people are offering direct. We're using Decco, who are coping well.

Did you find the National Plant Show useful?

AB When we first started selling (other people's) plants in the 1970s it was difficult to get hold of plants to sell, whereas now there are too many suppliers for our needs.

HP For instance, with lavender you almost have to take the range down. You want a good range but if you stocked them all there would be too many.

AB The biggest problem is that there is a big selection but you are not selling many of each type, which makes it hard to do a decent display. There are too many good varieties, which is a nice problem to have.

How is the redevelopment going?

AB We started planning seven years ago and we've been working through it ever since. We're at the final stage now, building a large nursery/production warehouse and more storage for the garden centre. That's the last stage. We built the shop five years ago and the business has grown rapidly ever since then. We can now offer a wider choice of products in better conditions.

What would have happened had you not redeveloped the centre?

AB I would probably have had a quieter life.

HP Some garden centres that have not invested have struggled.

AB We have become a true destination garden centre now. People travel a long way to come here. We were trying to stock giftware and clothing in leaky glasshouses and we realised that to do it better we had to improve the structure. We will continue to develop and we still have the car park to improve. Some of the buildings are 20-25 years old now and will need looking at.

HP It's now about gradual improvement over the next five years.

How hard was it to get planning permission for the redevelopment?

AB In my lifetime planning has always been quite difficult. We used Malcolm Scott Consultants for planning and consultancy and it has been difficult to get, but this particular round they have recognised us as the one major garden centre in the area and virtually given us all we asked for.

What did winning The Sun/Garden Retail best plant retailer award in 2013 mean?

AB It was a bit of a shock to win the award but it was good because it was voted for by our customers. Our customers and suppliers have been very congratulatory. The award helped people to recognise that the place they come to is the right place to come to.

HP From a marketing point of view people from Suffolk and Essex saw someone external saying we're good at plants.

How important is catering now?

AB We started 15 years ago with 70 covers, then 100, 160 and now 240 with the latest extension. We said we'd never have one but we now know it's key to the whole business. We felt we could exist without it and we were good enough with plants not to have it. But with customer comments we realised it is necessary and it's got busier - now 16 per cent of our business. From 1.30-2.30pm our tills are swamped once they've had their meals.

HP It enables us to bring other people in because the coffee shop brings in granny, sister and workmates, and it is critical to the whole centre through the food. Afternoon teas are new for us this year.

What are your hopes for 2015?

AB More of the same. More good weather, a hard winter and a fantastic spring.

HP More marketing and promotion as well as visual merchandising in store.

AB Having had a good spring and summer - that must carry on. It's got people back into the garden, which can only be a real positive for next year. We've seen growth in most sectors this year across the board. We're pretty much at the maximum our site can do. Five years ago we had the opportunity to change the mix. We keep an eye on what's going on and we can change pretty quick.

Which retailers influence you?

HP John Lewis is probably the main one. We look at Pinterest a lot to see what people are doing around the world. Sometimes the best ideas come from abroad. We've just done a big Tour de France display inspired by Pinterest, so we look outside retail as well. We've got a handbag container display and we visit showrooms such as Ball Colegrave and look at displays from Christmas suppliers like Kaemingk.

How would you sum up the past 30 years at Perrywood?

AB From a personal point of view I think it's been a very interesting 30 years. We've increased turnover, productivity and staff levels in those 30 years. I'd like to do it all again. It's a pleasure being able to offer products that are good value for money. We need to keep encouraging people to come into horticulture. Everyone knows and talks about that.

HP Through the GCA we keep meeting our colleagues. It's an exciting industry and there are lots of family businesses we can share common problems with, which we find refreshing, It's a bit trite but there are a lot of nice people in this industry.

Why it works

Neville Stein, Ovation Business Consultancy

This is one of my all-time favourite garden centres. Over the years I have seen the Bournes make substantial capital investments, including building a new shop and restaurant. Yet while this centre now has a significant increased offering, it still manages to maintain a strong horticultural feel.

Alan still grows a significant amount of seasonal plants - the production facility can be viewed from the shop floor, giving the centre a unique feel. The planteria is massive with a very wide choice. This is still very much a gardener's garden centre, yet the addition of many non-gardening departments attracts new customer groups.

The third generation is now working in the business. Alan and Karin work exceptionally hard and can often be found on the shop floor. This gives them a great understanding of the customers' needs.

Perrywood is a great example of how a family business can succeed - work hard, reinvest the profits, respond to customers' needs and plan for succession.

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