Interview - Charmay Ball, general manager, Lovania Nurseries

Lovania Nurseries general manager and chair of the newly-formed HTA bedding plant group Charmay Ball aims to bring innovation to the sector, with a focus on attracting new customers through eye-catching packaging, labelling and point-of-sale displays.

Charmay Ball, general manager, Lovania Nurseries - image: HW
Charmay Ball, general manager, Lovania Nurseries - image: HW

Having spent two years working with The Co-operative Farms to develop the Grown By Us range, she firmly believes customers "buy with their eyes" and hopes to draw on her experience of marketing the local provenance of goods as well as fine-tuning packaging to best promote products.

The eldest of six children, she joined the family business in 2009 to head up a new alpine branch of the nursery. She says: "I have had an interest in the business from an early age and that stems from conversations with my mum and dad, who have always encouraged all six of us to do our own thing.

"I have a passion for retailing - food retailing in particular - and I knew I wanted to work with a food retailer, so I started working with the Co-op's fresh produce department and I loved it."

She adds: "I had no plans to move from there at all and I was quite happy, but when we acquired the alpine division at Lovania in 2009 there was an opportunity for me to join the business. A lot of what I am doing now is modernising the company and I think the industry we operate in as growers has the tendency to be old-fashioned and outdated."

On Lovania's new alpine branch, she says: "The alpine division is new for us and this will be our second year supplying garden centres with alpines, but we would like to supply them with our bedding lines as well. We usually supply retailers and the challenge for us is focusing on supplying garden centres."

She says her time at The Co-operative Farms has influenced how she works and has highlighted how customers are influenced by packaging, praising former colleague Christine Tacon - The Co-operative Farms managing director - as her mentor who taught her that the key to business success is to "always know your costs".

Discussing what prompted her to take on a second role as chair of the newly-formed HTA bedding plant group, Ball explains: "I have a huge passion for improving things and I joined the HTA because it's really good to be involved with an industry body.

"You achieve a lot more if you are one body of people working towards a common goal and I see it as a really good thing for growers to come together and share and learn from each other."

The main challenge for the bedding plant industry, she believes, is to make bedding more appealing to non-bedding plant buyers and younger consumers. As a result, the group is looking to produce a promotion guide for retailers, similar to the one produced by the British Rose Group.

"A lot needs to be done - I came from the Co-op, which is very good at packaging, and when I entered this industry I was shocked at the lack of innovation, design, flair and creativity," adds Ball.

"In terms of the look of the finished product's packaging and design, there's more to be done there as an industry and that's partly what we look at in the HTA group. I think coming up with stunning displays in garden centres is a way of getting the message across to people who don't currently use bedding."

On marketing the local provenance of produce, she says campaigns to promote plants as British-grown and locally-grown are an important way to maintain support for British growers.

"I'm very supportive of these campaigns and I think British-grown and locally-grown are fantastic for our industry because they're trends people have really picked up on. They're now really in and mean fewer imports and more volume for the British growers."

Looking ahead to 2011 and plans for the HTA bedding plant group, Ball says she hopes to gain more input from retailers on how best to market bedding plants. And following on from the inaugural HTA Bedding Focus conference in October 2010, the group is keen to run a similar event in 2011.

Ball says: "Overall, I'm really excited about the group and the potential we have to make a difference. I'm very excited about this year - we are seeing good growth across the board on our plants and during this recession a lot more people have become passionate about gardening and their gardens.

"But I think for us as an industry it's a real challenge to make bedding plants appealing to non-bedding plant buyers and younger customers, and it's up to us as growers to make it easier for them."

2001-03: Part-time work, Flavourfresh Salads
2003-07: Business management degree, University of Manchester
2007: Developed Grown By Us range, The Co-operative Farms
2009 to date: General manager, Lovania

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