The Suffolk-based business sold its growing arm to John Woods Nurseries, through a management buy-out, to concentrate on retailing in 2007. Then Notcutts bought NWF Group's six centres in 2008 to increase its portfolio to 19 garden centres.
The chain's operating profit to August 2010 was £4.6m after being just £72,000 three years ago. Turnover has increased from £36m to £60m between 2007 and 2010.
One move key to this success was to bring in former Body Shop global marketing director Andy King as chief executive in December 2007. King shied away from the media until he had made the change he wanted to in the business but now has spoken more fully about how Notcutts has changed. He says: "We have transformed the business and have a decent story to tell now."
This Christmas, King has overseen the Notcutts brand establishing itself in shopping centres in Bluewater and Milton Keynes as pop-up "Deck the Halls" seasonal shops. At Bluewater, the shop is next to WHSmith and follows a trend in garden retail for garden centre Christmas shops started by Webbs. King says: "My experience says location is everything."
He is not worried that making the shops Christmas-focused takes away from Notcutts' gardening reputation: "I think Notcutts over the years has developed a very strong tradition for Christmas. We do Christmas really well and customers can come a long way to visit us. It seemed logical to take our offering to a wider customer base by opening Christmas stores. My background is with the Body Shop, Mothercare, WHSmith and Boots and other members of the Notcutts executive team understand how high street retailing works."
The firm has also worked on launching an online garden centre to expand the brand. King says: "If you look at other retailers, within three to five years, online business is their biggest store."
Like other garden centre retailers such as the Garden Centre Group (GCG), Notcutts has introduced a loyalty card. King has integrated the Sage privilege programme into all channels, with customers signing up online for £10 a year.
He says: "At Mothercare I used to run the online side of things so I have a good understanding of what it needs to look like." Several months in, he is "really pleased" with the take up of the loyalty scheme. John Woods is the "fulfilment partner" for plant items and other products are supplied via Notcutts' warehouse and third-party suppliers.
King sees Notcutts growing organically in the future and "doing better at what we do". He says new formats such as the Christmas shop will grow turnover and the consumer base. Concessions have been a massive area of growth too, with First Franchise now citing Notcutts as one of its top clients.
According to the GCG, concessions can cover a third of turnover, alongside gardening and catering, and there is no reason why other groups cannot follow the same template.
"That's where growth is going to come from," King adds, accepting that traditional gardening sales are not going to drive turnover. He says multichannels, Sage and "basic retail principles" will lead sales expansion, adding: "We're strong at Notcutts on the horticulture side. I'm not from that side but I'm able to bring retail focus. We have a great balance of retail skills from outside and home-grown horticulture knowledge so we can grow ahead of the market."
He says: "We've had good growth for the last three years and really big sales and profitability over the last 12 months. I've seen competitors grow and I think how we've grown is significant. I feel strong management is in place throughout the garden centres and at an executive level."
An example of the competition Notcutts faces comes from Longacres, Britain's biggest turnover garden centre, in Surrey near to a Notcutts. And Dobbies is building near other Notcutts centres. Van Hage has also opened close to Notcutts in Peterborough. What can be done to gain an advantage over rivals on your doorstep?
King says: "Sage engenders enormous loyalty. Our strategy is around added value, service and quality. I'm confident our offer more than stacks up against the competition. In Peterborough we're actually doing extraordinarily well despite Van Hage being down the road. We can more than hold our own."
He adds that the NWF Group's integration has "long been completed" and has "very successfully added significantly to turnover (from £36m to £60m). We have achieved significant cost savings because we don't run two head offices."
On the future, King says: "We're absolutely on the look out for future acquisitions. They are a key part of our strategy along with new formats. I'm bullish about where we're going."
- 1989-98: Marketing and business development roles, Boots
- 1998-2001: Marketing and business development director, WHSmith
- 2001-03: Director of global marketing, online and international
- divisions, Mothercare
- 2003-07: Global marketing director, Body Shop
- 2007: to date Chief executive, Notcutts Garden Centres