Landscaping businesses - Survival strategies

Outside the 'London bubble' the landscape market has never been tougher. What advice do those succeeding have to offer? Jez Abbott reports.

Hambrooks company suffered a bad spring and summer but reports that orders took off in September and October - image: Hambrooks
Hambrooks company suffered a bad spring and summer but reports that orders took off in September and October - image: Hambrooks

Building output has fallen for the fifth quarter in a row, the Office for National Statistics has reported. Output for the third quarter fell by 2.6 per cent on the previous three months, a shrinkage of about ú1bn a month over the past six months. The bad news rumbles on, with analysts insisting the construction industry has been declining much faster than previously thought in past quarters. Put starkly, the total volume of construction output in the third quarter is the lowest since 1999.

None of this will be any surprise to landscapers operating in the commercial sector experiencing continued downward pressure on prices as firms compete harder for fewer contracts. Nor will it be any surprise to those working in the domestic market where the ranks of competitors have been swelled thanks to the squeeze on commercial jobs.

Association of Professional Landscapers (APL) chair Mark Gregory recently described the market as "very volatile". He told HW (26 October): "It's a buyers' market - pricing is aggressive and everything is price-driven. There is plenty of top-end work, but the bottom end of the market is in the doldrums."

Illustrating the point, APL founder and gardens consultant Alan Sargent recently acted as a ghost client for a Consumers Association research project on landscape jobs. One priced the job he was offering over the phone at ú2,000, another at 25 per cent less even after ticking several boxes - fencing, paving, pond, etc. "Meet your competitors," says Sargent.

Keep marketing

So in a universally tough market, what advice do those doing well have to offer? Like most businesses, Hambrooks, the Southampton-based designer and builder of landscapes mostly up to ú15,000, had a bad spring and summer. Sales were down a fifth on the previous year. Unlike many, however, sales recently soared. "Orders took off in September and October, perhaps helped by a break in the bad weather, and we could be set to smash last year's figures," says group marketing manager Paul Veck. "We've gone from gloom and doom to really positive."

He credits this turnabout not only to better weather, which acted as a definite stimulus to get outdoors again, but adds: "The continuing 'don't move, improve' trend is leading people to stay put and buy big on kitchens, conservatories and gardens." But how can he keep the domestic clients coming through the gloom of a collapsed economy? Marketing is crucial to sustaining impetus, says Veck, whose company refuses to take a standard knee-jerk chop to the budget for advertising, PR and promotions.

"If anything, we spend more," he says, grateful for his carefully segmented database of private and trade customers. Hambrooks sends out at least 50,000 mail-outs a month within a 40-mile radius. It is also upping its presence in garden centres to show what you can do to your garden with a few thousand pounds and an expert team.

Clear message

But if the marketing is to succeed, the message must be clear. "We keep reminding ourselves who we are - we design, build and maintain gardens and that's our core reason for being here," says Veck. "Anything else is a minor add on. Some businesses will try to spread themselves further and wider in times of economic hardship. But we concentrate on what we do well rather than diversifying. Sure, we do garden electrics and irrigation, but they will never be a mainstay."

Ex-BALI chairman Paul Cowell agrees: "You have to keep doing what you do well and keep marketing yourself, but target it properly. Competition is as tough as ever so you've got to work on your tendering processes and prices - there is no slack."

But there are small victories. Cowell's practice, PC Landscapes near Guildford, recently secured two medium-sized jobs in the private residential sector. But the Society of Garden Designers Awards last month brought him down to earth on the wider state of the sector. "Some designers said they were busy, others haven't anything just now," he says.

"Those that are busy will probably remain so and those that aren't need to question why they haven't got the work. Consumer confidence is low and there's not much optimism globally." Back at home, Cowell remains frustrated by a planning system that never changes. "Planning applications go through but it's what happens when they've been approved. When are they acted on and when does this filter to the landscaper on the ground?"

Surviving and thriving

Willerby Landscapes manager David Witham is no less direct on surviving and thriving. "Everyone in their businesses should take a look at what their profile is and their position in the marketplace. Profile should not be understated and now is perhaps not the time to reinvent yourself.

"You need to be seen to be still here and a hardened commercial landscaper. A number of projects have landed on the table that we are pursuing aggressively. It's encouraging that jobs are there. It's just a question of beating the others to it. We are fairly upbeat even though some don't start until the third quarter next year."

Witham adds: "The commercial market is tough and, as always, you have to look at the construction sector, which is a bellwether. An enormous amount of work is put into the tender proposal in the hope you get the job, but that's part of the territory.

"All indicators suggest by 2015 the overall market is going to turn around. If the Government starts releasing money, more companies will benefit. But until then you have to continually review all your processes and look at how you can improve on service and productivity, while continuing to market yourselves."

Understanding your market positioning and not straying from that is also emphasised by business development director Yvette Etcell of commercial and domestic landscape company Gavin Jones. The firm has enjoyed increased turnover thanks to recent contracts with blue-chip and public-sector clients including Brighton & Hove Council to transform one of its biggest parks, the Level.

The order book for next year is strong says Etcell with several millions of pounds of work. The only blip is on the domestic front. "Localised domestic work is suffering a bit, but things are good. It's important to understand your market positioning and not stray."

The Landscaper's Survival Manual

When the going gets tough, the tough get writing, and Alan Sargent's timing is perfect. The acclaimed gardens consultant is about to publish a survival guide for landscapers, and many of them will likely need it, looking at recent construction figures.

This, his second recent outing as an adviser to professionals, follows his first book which scored an immediate hit with its target audience. The Head Gardener's Survival Manual drew on 45 years of hands-on graft as head gardener and builder of hundreds of gardens. The Landscaper's Survival Manual, due out in spring, will set out the principles and processes of running a business effectively and efficiently. This has never been harder for landscapers, joined at the hip to both the recession-battered construction sector and the confidence-hit discretionary consumer spend.

"No one has ever produced a guide for landscapers across the board - designers, builders and those involved in maintenance in the private sector," says Sargent, who is promising a "no-holds-barred" rundown of everything from body language and telephone manner to the minefield of franchises and selling your business. He is direct in his advice, firing off hints in rapid succession as though there is no time to lose: "Think positively - make a list of your strengths, never weaknesses. Look at your staff and kit and set targets. Identify your marketplace and, if necessary, get the market to come to you."

Sargent is sceptical of those who say your most important member of staff is your website. It is the person who answers the phone, he counters, insisting a company is only as good as its staff, so train them up and treat them well. Sadly, clients can prove trickier and far more wily.

The main narrative force of The Landscaper's Survival Manual may lie in real-life case studies. One client, a rich solicitor who refused to settle his bill, paid up after a well-aimed and immediate threat to report him to the Law Society for failure to discharge lawful debt. Sargent thinks as fast as he talks. So must landscape professionals to weather the persistently choppy economy.

- Alan Sargent will be giving a talk - Surviving the Recession: Identifying & Creating Sources of Work - in Pulborough, Sussex, on 24 January 2013. Email

Alan Sargent's Top Five Tips for Survival

1. Make an honest inventory of your strengths - schedule all of the skills that are available within your company.

2. Avoid sentimentality - reduce overheads by shedding clients and staff who are costing you money.

3. Ensure that every job makes a profit - do not chase turnover, even to maintain cash flow.

4. Keep your staff onside at all times - be totally honest about your current situation and future plans.

5. Develop a company marketing strategy that continues even into good times - every job is part of the next job and every job was part of the last.

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