Terra Firma chairman Guy Hands says The Garden Centre Group is 'perfect match'

Terra Firma chairman Guy Hands emerged today from Channel Islands tax exile at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show to open Burncoose Nurseries' Great Pavilion display.

The owner of The Garden Centre Group was with colleagues Dan Zinner, Kevin Bradshaw and Tim Clapp to open Hands' old university friend Charles Williams' display, which features trees, shrubs and perennials grown at the Cornish nursery.

Hands said he had sponsored Burncoose for 12 years. The Prince's Trust chairman appeared at Burncoose's stand with model Jerry Hall.

He said in a piece for the Evening Standard: "Our love of gardening - and for Alan Titchmarsh who has designed a garden for the first time in three decades - means tickets for the 101st Chelsea Flower Show are changing hands for £575, nine times face value.

"But while this bonanza for the touts only lasts a week, the British obsession with gardening provides a £5 billion, and growing, business opportunity. According to Barclaycard, spending in UK garden centres – helped by a mild winter - rose by a remarkable 22 per cent in the first quarter of this year compared to an overall rise of retail spending of just 2.4 per cent.

"It is why, while some thought Terra Firma’s purchase of The Garden Centre Group two years ago a surprise move from a private equity firm, I saw it as right in our sweet spot.

"After all, our strategy is to look for opportunities in essential asset-backed industries in need of change – and, for me, its 129 garden centres and rich potential to grow ticked all the boxes.

"The sites themselves across the country add up to a very attractive asset. And when the Office of National Statistics classes nearly half of all UK adults as gardeners, serving this market can certainly be classed as an essential industry.

"It is an astonishing figure which rises to two out of three of those aged over 45. Indeed for men above 50, gardening ranks as the second most popular activity – below watching TV but above sex... Gardening really can be described as the British passion.

"Nor, of course, is this a recent development. As a nation, we have loved gardening and visiting gardens for generations. It was to feed this appetite that botanists set off to every remote corner of the globe to track down and send back plants to be grown here.

"It is a history celebrated in this year’s Chelsea Flower Show exhibit of 101 Chinese plants from Burncoose Nurseries. Terra Firma is again sponsoring its exhibit to draw attention to the work of the Prince’s Trust in helping young people get the right skills and support to become gardeners and landscape gardeners.

"But while the British passion for gardening is long-standing and widespread, we don’t all class ourselves as experts. Just a quarter of the visitors to our garden centres tell us they regard themselves as knowledgeable. One in three admit they lack confidence in knowing what to buy, the same proportion arrive looking for either inspiration or guidance while ovekr 80 per cent plan to browse. 

"For many a visit to a garden centre is, in fact, not a shopping trip but an outing. It explains why, on average, visitors stay between two and four hours. When you think that our Bridgemere Nursery in Cheshire covers a site as large as 800 tennis courts, there is plenty to see.

"This is where we saw the potential to change and grow the business through investment to expand what’s on offer. We have improved, for example, our garden centres’ restaurants which are now visited by over one in three of our visitors and given more thought to our on-site partners and what products we should sell.

"We have also made sure that we make more of the horticultural expertise and the individuality of our garden centres which is part of their appeal. Our experts now share their gardening knowledge through demonstration programmes. Local markets are hosted and local produce sold whenever we can.

"There is still plenty of scope to grow.  We have already added 11 new sites to The Garden Centre Group and will look to grow further. With research linking gardening to a whole range of benefits including longer life, better health and happiness, gardening’s appeal is only going to get stronger."

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