Graham Richardson: The good, the bad and the 'we have no idea'

Johnsons of Whixley's Graham Richardson reflects on 2020 and looks ahead to 2021 as a nurseryman dealing with Brexit and the pandemic.

As we move through early 2021, I reflect on the ultimate in rollercoaster business journeys and attempt to peer through the uncertainty of what the year might bring.

Despite ongoing challenges of almost biblical proportions (recession, damaging bad winters, Brexit referendum and pandemic) we have managed to chart a successful course and deliver an upward trajectory in growth whilst maintaining or improving profitability.

Our business contracted by 20% during 2008-10 recession, temperatures plummeted to record lows in 2010/2013 which resulted in the loss of at least £500k’s worth of saleable stock, and the Brexit result floored us all. We import a substantial proportion of what we sell to de-expose our business to our homegrown stock that is at the behest of climate and economic uncertainty and has a lengthy manufacturing lead time of at least 12 months. Forecasting is therefore notoriously tricky.

Economic uncertainty also equals currency fluctuations - a phenomenon that has more potential to make/break margin than any incremental trading influence!

Finally, the pandemic crashed on our shores in March 2020 and bestowed an otherwise unknown set of new challenges – furlough, social distancing, face masks, isolation, shielding - an all-new vocabulary! On March 23, our senior management team met and debated whether to shut down or to roll our sleeves up, dig-in and carry on. The conclusion could have been finally balanced with some concerned about the prospects of maintaining the safety of our 140 strong workforce. However, a decision was needed, I insisted that ‘we can do this’, refused a vote and we went back to work.

Nine months down the line we reflect on an initial period that witnessed sales ‘plummet’, and then a gradual recovery as garden centres reopened and Construction began to switch back on site by site. Demand for garden plants fuelled by those at home rocketed to the point that supply could not meet demand – most online sellers suspended e-commerce sites in an attempt to cope and not encourage scathing reviews of late or non-supply.  Subsequent monthly sales beyond April began to compensate, and while sales ended some way shy of the previous year and a little down on budget, planned profitability was remarkably maintained.

I have no doubt that we will reflect on 2020 as a challenging but defining year – an excellent end result, a workforce who, after turbulence never failed to deliver, a pandemic that cost us thousands in mitigation yet has only resulted in one case from a known external source and the growing threat of Brexit that despite a 12-month planning period continued to frustrate.

So – the radar, what does it see? Brexit turbulence, uncertainty, extra cost and a subject that despite having largely played out, won’t go away in terms of the political fallout and national polarised opinion. We estimate that import costs will increase by up to 10% as Brexit associated cost coupled the untimely roll out of draconian and often duplicated plant health restrictions come into force – the governments ‘mantra’ to be prepared is a great theory with no substance – prepare for what, listen to advisors who charge the earth and contradict each other! My natural tendency is always to plan and prepare, on this occasion though we have to be philosophical – ‘we have done all that we can’, ‘we control or even influence very little’ therefore our resulting plan has to be reactive and flexible.

Never have the stakes been so high; however, we will invoke our Brexit spirit and deal with whatever comes our way – I suspect that the result won’t be pretty in the short term, but we are at least looking forward to a new normal when the pandemic finally recedes, and the term ‘Brexit’ is consigned to the history books.

Graham Richardson is group managing director with Johnsons of Whixley

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