Profile - Independence still key for firm in 90th year

Following a restructure and rebranding, Gavin Jones is looking ahead to its centenary, says Magda Ibrahim.

When Colonel Gavin Jones demobbed following the First World War, he probably never imagined his hobby cultivating alpine plants would grow into a multi-million pound business.

Setting up in 1919 on a small horticultural property in Letchworth, Hertfordshire, Colonel Jones and his wife devoted themselves to their pastime.

Ninety years on and the firm has grown to encompass landscape construction, grounds maintenance and even specimen plant sales from its current home in Addlestone, Surrey.

With turnover to the tune of £17.5m this year and a series of contract wins and business achievements, Gavin Jones Group has plenty to smile about in its 90th anniversary year. Not only that, but executive chairman Martyn Mogford's father Peter - also a partner in the business - celebrated his own 90th birthday this year.

"We've had huge changes this year," explains Mogford, who took over the company in 1988 with his father and Colin Squire. As well as a management restructure, which saw Mogford relinquish the managing director role to Will Clark, Gavin Jones has undergone a rebranding and achieved the gold standard in business performance programme Investors in People.

"I had been doing the same job for 20 years and the timing was right to make the management changes," adds trained chartered accountant Mogford, who is also BALI treasurer. "The effect has been to galvanise the team."

Last week, HW reported that Gavin Jones, which was last year awarded the Royal Warrant, has won a new contract with Witney Town Council. The deal will see new employees transfer to the 260-strong staff from ISS Waterers.

In addition, the firm will play a central role in landscaping the Olympic Park after being involved in the winning bid by Oxfordshire-based White Horse Contractors to carry out work in an eastern section of the park.

"It was a joint bid because we worked on it with them in partnership, but the contract is in their name," explains Mogford. "There are contractual limitations around the Olympic site that make it difficult to apply as a consortium. Being involved with the Olympics is very good for our staff and CV."

Most firms have experienced the vicissitudes of the shaky UK economy over the past year and Gavin Jones has not been oblivious to the sector's concerns. Domestic work has taken a hit, but commercial landscaping and grounds maintenance remains strong, agree Mogford and director of business development Yvette Etcell.

"Some of our very close competitors have changed their structure due to being acquired by larger companies," says Etcell. "That creates opportunities for us because a lot of customers still want a bespoke service. Many contracts are not won on price but are more about a meeting of minds in terms of ethos. But clearly it's no good offering a Rolls Royce service to a client with a three pence budget."

The privately-owned company prides itself on its strong support of employees, an approach that Mogford believes has helped it to achieve staff turnover rates of less than 18 per cent over the past three years. The past 12 months have seen that fall to 10 per cent, although he admits that is "undoubtedly influenced" by the economic climate.

As well as running its own in-house NVQ qualifications, Gavin Jones employs eight apprentices. "There is a lot of concern about attracting new people into the industry," adds Etcell. "But our apprentice and NVQ programmes have allowed us to create opportunities. Being able to grow our own talent in an industry where it can be difficult to get skilled people has helped."

The firm's motto - recruit for attitude, train for skill - runs through everything and has helped it achieve the Investors in People gold standard. "We are creating opportunities for people to progress their careers within the company and the idea is then not to lose them," she explains. The new Witney contract has allowed for internal promotions and contracts are often tendered on the basis of allowing staff to move up the ladder.

Having weathered the previous recession in the 1990s, Mogford believes that Gavin Jones was better-placed to react quickly to the current economic challenges. "We did get caught out with bad debts in the 1990s but that forewarned us about carrying out financial checks," he reveals.

"Our managers were getting intelligence about how firms were faring and it was as a result of that vigilance that we've not had that sort of problem this time around." Monthly management meetings mean regular reviews of risk registers. "It is about keeping close tabs on things," he adds.

Ups and downs there will always be, but the firm's mantra is to pursue sustainable and continuous growth. The increasing interest in the green industries will certainly help, says Mogford, and the firm has been pursuing its own environmental goals.

As well as being poised to spend £40,000 on photovoltaic cells for the roof of the Woburn Hill HQ, which is also home to the Plantation Nursery, staff may soon be learning apiary skills as a bee hive is planned for the site next year. "There's a shared passion for it," Mogford explains.

As Gavin Jones enters the next decade - and plans how its will celebrate its centenary - its £30,000 rebranding will hopefully better reflect where the business has moved to.

According to Mogford, the new strapline "enhancing the landscape" is an important element of the new branding. "It has brought the whole organisation together in presenting a cohesive image," he adds. "It reflects the platform we now have and all the achievements of which I am massively proud."

1919: Colonel Gavin Jones sets up alpine plant firm in Letchworth,
1956: First RHS Chelsea Flower Show garden
1988: Firm sold
1992: Acquires Squires Landscape
1995: First grounds maintenance contract
2001: Buys Woburn Hill nursery site in Surrey
2005: Head office moves to Woburn Hill site
2008: Awarded Royal Warrant
2009: Awarded Gold Standard in Investors in People programme and
celebrates 90th anniversary.

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