Interview - Nicholas Marshall, chief executive officer, Garden Centre Group

The "biggest thing ever to happen" to the Garden Centre Group (GCG), Britain's biggest by far, is now underway. E-learning is the future, says chief executive officer Nicholas Marshall, who took over the 120-centre chain (then known as Wyevale) in 2008, after banks started circling the ailing group.

Garden Centre Group chief executive officer Nicholas Marshall - image: Garden Centre Group
Garden Centre Group chief executive officer Nicholas Marshall - image: Garden Centre Group

A debt-for-equity deal left GCG solvent but diluted owner Sir Tom Hunter's share to 25 per cent and left the bank in charge behind the scenes. But it is not finance that Marshall wants to focus on when I meet him at GCG's Slough offices. He wants to talk e-learning, the garden club and, most of all, empowering his staff.

The great-great grandson of former Kew director Joseph Hooker says: "E-learning is the biggest thing we've ever done. It's the largest project I've ever been involved in because it takes us on from a situation where existing training in the garden centres industry is completely inadequate."

One of the biggest issues that you hear from the industry is that staff at the chains, be they Wyevale, B&Q or others, are no good. But Marshall claims that he has the magic formula to combat this damaging criticism. Rather than lengthy, expensive and often boring group training sessions, the e-learning system, if done properly, can motivate and educate staff as well as drive business, he maintains.

He says RHS and other horticulture qualifications are not used by people in the garden centre industry: "They are not targeted at garden centre people. We must do this on our own so we end up with the best. We want everyone singing from the same hymn sheet."

More than 80 per cent of GCG staff have used the e-learning system. These 4,700 employees, who range from cleaners to head office executives, have completed 7,000 basic horticulture modules. More than 2,000 grow-your-own modules have been completed since the launch on 10 May. Staff have completed 5,000 customer-service and 7,500 health-and-safety modules.

All catering staff have finished online level 2 food hygiene as well as mandatory online fire-awareness training. The basic horticulture course looks like an updated, adapted and far more attractive version of the RHS level 2 certificate.

What is more, the module is specially written for garden centre staff. In 2010, 50 modules will include 11 on grow your own, 11 on health and safety and more on subjects such as catering and bedding.

Management skills account for another 13 modules and product knowledge a further 16. Ultimately, Marshall wants to get his 1.1 million garden club members involved, with special modules they can take at home that will help them learn more about gardening. Some 40 per cent of the garden club members, who came en masse to GCG's controversial Easter Sunday openings (which may be repeated in 2011) this April, are on email, making not only marketing special offers but disseminating useful advice all the easier.

Next year, another 83 modules will include 35 on horticulture, which fits well with Marshall's refocusing of GCG as a horticulture business rather than a DIY or gift shop. This could have led to a big hit this year, with poor weather knocking plant sales across the board this spring, but Marshall is as ebullient as ever on the issue.

"We've been quite lucky. That's not fair to the plant department, in fact. Our quality of stock is better than it was two years ago. I was stopped by countless people complaining then. But this year I've not had one complaint. But it has been very tricky." He points out that one target was missed by 600,000 after the weather turned on a Friday night. "It does make ordering very difficult but managers are given a lot of guidance by (GCG head of horticulture) Tim Clapp and regional managers."

Yet Marshall says GCG's individual centres do have control over their buying - another long-standing criticism of the group was that its managers were demotivated by having no power over what they sold. "They buy pretty well everything," he says. "I've given them it back, and quite rightly.

"I've been saying this for 20 years, then I lost all the centres (during a aggressive buy-out of his Country Gardens chain by Wyevale in 2000). Customers in Hastings, Henley and Heighley Gate are not the same.

"Managers are very much in charge of their stock now. It's very different. My whole thing about managing garden centres is you have to be entrepreneurial. We do have a plant list and a list of nurseries with agreed prices and volumes. Then it's up to individual centres to order stock. New introductions have suggested ordering levels and there may be initial stock fill from that, but from then on it's up to them."

1984: Formed Country Gardens
2000: Reluctantly sold 40 centres to Wyevale for £108m
2007: Country Homes and Gardens bought six Wyevale centres to increase
size to 12 centres
2008: Returned to Wyevale as chief executive
2009: Refinanced with Bank of Scotland
2009: Changed name to Garden Centre Group and launched gardening club
and e-learning

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