Interview: Martin Davies, chairman, Garden Centre Association

There is little opportunity for new Garden Centre Association (GCA) chairmen to ease themselves into the role. Even before being officially handed the chains of office, they have to organise the following year's three-day conference.

New chairman Martin Davies - who will officially take up the position on Sunday (20 January) - also has the daily operations of his South Wales garden centre to oversee. So it is not surprising that he sounds a little harried when he sits down to discuss his coming tenure.

Davies has owned Raglan Garden Centre, in Monmouthshire, since 1991 but sees himself as a "relative newcomer" to the sector, compared with the 25 years he spent in the decorative-product industry. After leaving school, he joined the family wallpaper and paint wholesale business. Davies found he enjoyed retailing and opened retail stores where the firms wholesale operation was weak. By the early 1980s there were 12 stores.

But the wholesale business came under intense pressure as smaller, independent DIY stores began closing. Successive recessions finally forced the 130-year-old business to close.

Tight margins in the DIY industry prompted an expansion into garden products, which eventually led to his buying the closed Raglan Garden Centre. It is a move Davies has never regretted. "Garden centres were one of the last bastions of independent retailing in the UK where you could pleasantly enjoy it without being almost tearful. Retailing can be quite difficult where price is paramount - but in garden centres it wasn't," he explains.

Injecting life back into the garden centre offered a great learning curve but Davies said the rewards of dealing with nice customers made it worthwhile and a positive change from the DIY industry, which was too price-focused.

Hard work brought success and that has continued. "We've just had our best year ever for core gardening products. It's being driven by consumers' desire to go back to nature. We've had a massive surge in vegetables and everything that goes with it."

Davies is, understandably, a staunch supporter of the GCA, which he joined seven years ago. He decided to become chairman after "a bit of arm twisting" but points out that being involved with the organisation's executive is something he enjoys. "It starts off because you feel you want to put something back into the industry," he says. "And then you realise there might be something you can do and maybe you can make a difference."

The GCA's annual audit process, which helps centres improve standards through benchmarking, is an integral part of Davies' operations and something he thinks more businesses should use. The reluctance to embrace it by some businesses is an issue he wants to address.

"I wonder whether some GCA members' staff know what it is about and understand why it's there," he says. "If you're prepared to take on the comments and understand it's for our benefit, then your standards rise and you'll drive the business forward."

Davies accepts he is taking on the chairman's role during a challenging time for the sector, although he points out that it is not as gloomy as many think. "Naturally, all of us in the industry are aware of the warnings being issued and confirmed by poor trading figures for Christmas. But this isn't reflected in GCA member figures for December.

"Far from being cataclysmic, it has turned out to be one of the best months of the year, with giftware and catering driving the increases," he says.

"It appears the businesses that have fared poorly over the Christmas period - and have most to worry about for 2008 - are the mass-marketers that are price-driven and have little point of difference. Garden centres relish this difference and it is this unique mix of desirable products that sets us apart."

But there are further challenges ahead, including rising fuel prices, which could have a major impact because garden centre customers have to travel to the stores. "This is particularly important for some of the larger centres, which have catchments of a 30-mile [48km] radius."

He also feels he needs to convince the sector of the value of the GCA's new buying group, the Garden Retailers Organisation (GRO). "There is a lot to sort out with this venture before we can start to fulfil its potential to GCA members. I suspect I'll have a lot on my plate there."

There is also the issue of further pressure on membership levels as market consolidation continues, particularly with Wyevale's recent purchases.

Davies notes that membership levels have remained fairly constant as new members have joined. "I expect that as GRO continues to gather momentum it will attract even more to join."

But he is also keen to spread the GCA word. "I'd like to see the GCA being re-cognised by non-members as a body to join and not as elitist. I think that will help the whole industry in the long run."

1968: Joins the family business, M Davies & Son (Cardiff)
1991: Buys Raglan Garden Centre
1998: Joins GCA
2000: Becomes a member of the GCA executive committee
2008: Becomes GCA chairman

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