Major Woolworths supplier comes back from the brink

The main supplier of plants to Woolworths has managed to recover after the 800-store high-street chain went into administration this month.

Alternative retail promotions, more advertising, its own good reputation, the boom in grow-your-own (GYO) fruit, the strong euro and considerably more business from fellow nurseries gained through "genuine sympathy" after HW publicised AE Roberts' plight has led to a recovery, said managing director John Gwynn.

He said the Hampshire nursery losing Woolworths, its biggest customer, has promoted "a revolution" in his business, which is now set for best fruit plant sales for five years.

In the 5 December issue, HW reported on the expected loss of £4m of gardening business as Woolworths went into administration, naming AE Roberts, Mr Fothergill's, Scotts and Porters Horticultural as some of the suppliers that had orders ready to be delivered in January.

Gwynn said: "We'll still be around in a few years - we've been incredibly lucky in a number of ways. If Woolies had gone two months later it would have been catastrophic because we'd have supplied 30 per cent of the year's intake. They'd have not paid for any of it."

He added: "Because we're heavily involved in GYO, combined with a number of sales contacts we've made, it's entirely possible that by the end of April we'll be as close to sold out as at any time in the past five years."

He added that after Woolworths finally closed on 3 January "survival was the first priority". He said: "Cashflow is tight because we won't get paid for £60,000 of goods supplied to Woolworths before administration. We deliver direct to stores and it's impractical to collect from 800 stores."

AE Roberts grew its own fruit crops for Woolworths and contract-grew other ornamental stock, which is "making progress but not cleared". Gwynn said: "The position is looking quite promising. Most customers we'll speak to again in the summer because their plans are already in place." He added that competition from abroad is less strong this year because of the euro's strength against the pound.

Gwynn said: "The biggest challenge is the global environment and that fits perfectly with GYO. We're making quite reasonable progress, but I don't know if the whole industry is following suit. HNS is suffering the same as the rest of the economy at the moment."

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