Alan Murdoch cycled 397km on a tandem pulling a wheelbarrow in May to raise money for charity. But the ride also gave his Garden Retail Award-winning centre £30,000 worth of marketing value.
Fermoy's may not be well-known and the current owners have only been in the business seven years, but their fresh approach could be a lesson to other garden centres, showing that newer, smaller independents can make their mark alongside bigger chains and the long-established independent names.
The "barathon" has already raised more than £10,000 for Greenfingers and Garden Leave. Setting off from Fermoy's Newton Abbot, Devon, base, its destination was London's RHS Chelsea Flower Show, where the garden centre was involved with Scott's Miracle Gro Love the Garden Project with eight local schools chosen to repres- ent Miracle Gro'wers Learning Journey Garden organised by Peter Seabrook.
At the same time, it also had more than 40 local schools exhibiting in another initiative - Allotment Gardens in a Wheelbarrow - at the Devon County Show.
Among the tandem passengers along the way were HTA president Carol Paris, Sinclair Retail managing director Danny Adamson and myself (Garden Retail editor Matthew Appleby). On their journey, the riders visited Hillier, Squire's, Groves, In Excess, Cadnam and other garden centres before meeting a Sun page three girl and a Chelsea pensioner among a welcoming committee at the London show.
Fermoy's is now looking to expand. It already owns three Value House discount garden centre-based retailers and this crossover from traditional garden centre to a broader offering could be another idea that existing centres may pick up.
How did you come up with the marketing idea of the barathon?
When I go on my bike ride every night, I try to think of different ideas. I also read the trade press and look at ways that will attract press to projects. They have to fit with what we are as a business - a bit quirky. I run through the ideas with (company development manager) Sarah Dumont and give her 20-30 because she says most of them are rubbish. But occasionally one works.
The barathon idea came about when I was at the Sun office talking about the wheelbarrow project for school kids at the Chelsea Fringe Show. I decided to get a barrow up there myself in an innovative way that attracts PR. We wanted wider involvement from the trade so it was not just about us but about other garden centres on the route.
- What other marketing initiatives do you run?
We do different work with schools as a busi- ness, including a wheelbarrow competition at Devon County Show and scarecrows at Exeter Food Festival, which lets kids' imaginations run riot. We want everything to be edible so they research edible flowers and companion planting. The 5-11 year olds are the customers of the future.
- What was the marketing value of barathon?
From a marketing budget of 1.5 per cent of turnover we saved £30,000 and our other stores achieved a five per cent uplift on sales.
- Which are your other stores?
We have Fermoy's and three Value House centres at Barnstaple, Bideford and Weymouth. Value House's main product area is gardening and we do a good offer on plants, but we also do housewares, pet care, DIY and leisure.
- Have you seen more intensive price competition this year?
There has been a more aggressive market within the industry that tends to be driven by the multiples with the independents trying to retain market share. There has been no major difference this year other than the weather, which has affected multiples as much as independents.
- Do you have expansion plans?
We're always looking for opportunities for new sites and could even look at having both Value House and Fermoy's in particular towns because they are different offers. We're looking to buy ideally in the South West. There are opportunities about and I'd hope to have more stores within the next 12 months.
- What about Fermoy's redevelopment?
We have the opportunity to redevelop because we have land and a building that's a bit old and tired. But we don't want to lose our quirkiness and that's difficult to reproduce in a new building. Maybe we will look at remodelling what we have. It's also difficult to see where the extra turnover will come from after such as large investment, apart from the coffee shop.
- How important is catering to you?
It's a strong part of the business. Increases have been on the positive side even in a poor month such as April. People still wanted coffee and gateau or come in for breakfast. We will look to invest in equipment to improve our efficiency. We look at other businesses through the HTA catering group and figures produced by other garden centres and where we see improved food or wage costs we talk to them and find out how that was achieved. We've been able to significantly reduce food costs and have taken on more chefs, so we produce a huge amount of our food on site from raw ingredients rather than buying it ready made.
- Suttons has a trial ground at your site but I believe it is moving?
The company has handed in its notice for the trial ground and is planning to move, but if something goes wrong that's no problem to us. There's the opportunity for Suttons to use the site until such time as we need the land. It has been there as long as we have, which is seven years.
- What were you before?
We owned Brian Ford's Discount Store in north Devon - the largest independent grocery store in Britain - which we sold to Tesco. We looked for an alternative business and identified garden centres and non-food as a good fit for us.
We had already explored the possibilities in north Devon for Value House and looked at Jack's Patch Nursery & Garden Centre and Fermoy's. We decided that Fermoy's was the one for us so we bought it from the owners seven years ago. My back-ground is in grocery retailing. I spent 21 years at Norman Superstores as grocery buyer, manager of non-food and gardening. I did 10 years consultancy in non-food retailing including in Northern Ireland at Crazy Prices and Nisa before joining Brian Ford's.
- How important are the Garden Retail awards?
They give us a focus if we are trying to think of ideas. The main thing is getting publicity. Then within the trade, the awards promote our business. We are good at what we do and entering gives us the opportunity to communicate what we have done. We get suppliers contacting us wanting to do more with us. The awards recognise that you care about the business and are not simply there to make money. They are a focus for the team - every award is about teamwork. The cycle ride was also teamwork. Everyone in the business was involved. We have a party back at the garden centre to celebrate any awards that we win.
- How did the fundraising go in the end?
We have now raised well over the £10,000 target we set ourselves for Greenfingers and Garden Leave charities. We are still counting up the money and will hopefully get more donations over the coming weeks.
If you would like to donate towards Fermoy's mega Marathon Barathon Ride, see www.justgiving.com/wheelbarrow-ride
1971 - 92: Joined Normans Superstores from school, working up to overall controller
1992 - 2003: Self employed retail consultant
2003: Buyer manager, Brian Ford's Discount Store
2004: Executive director, Fermoy's. Now executive director, Fermoy's and three Value House centres in Barnstaple, Bideford and Weymouth