Gardenforum's Review of 2011

Here are the highlights from the Gardenforum Noticeboard in 2011. If you wish to catch up with a story you may have missed they are still available on Noticeboard or email and we’ll send you the story.

2011 has been the most difficult trading year for a long time, primarily because of the weather. Snow and prolonged cold last winter killed sales as well as many plants on nurseries and garden centres.

The cold gave way to an early spring and the best weather of the year in April. This, in conjunction with a late Easter and Mother’s Day and additional bank holidays for the Royal Wedding, led to a frenetic boom. Garden centres were 25% up for the month and confident of a good year.

Then in the second week of May the season came to an early and abrupt stop. All the early gains were lost by the end of July. Importers who had rushed in extra stock were left with bulging warehouses. Cashflow became very tight, especially with the demise of Focus.

The second half of the year proved better than feared. Plants and Christmas did well but it remained very difficult for garden furniture and other high value items. Retailers could be showing marginal turnover growth for the year, but this is unlikely to maintain profit levels after the VAT increase, which was passed on to customers only partially, if at all.

The Garden Centre Group (TGCG)
The process to sell TGCG started in July when the group bought the business of Country Homes & Gardens.

TGCG have leased the properties that Country Homes & Gardens retain.

This purchase was soon followed by the appointment of Rothschild to sell the group on behalf of Lloyds Bank, the main shareholder. The process continued into the winter and should be resolved within weeks, with one of four private equity houses emerging as the new owners.

During the year, garden centres at Church Lawford and Mill Hill were closed and the lease at Beverley near Hull was not renewed.

In the autumn a ‘Click and Collect’ service for plants was announced, which TGCG claims to be a major step forward in building the group’s credentials as a serious plant retailer.

Tesco made significant changes to the Dobbies board, although the group denied this indicated a change in strategy. Out went Lucy Neville-Rolfe (Corporate & Legal Affairs Director), Richard Brasher (CEO UK) and Steve Rigby (Store Development Manager at Tesco Property). They have been replaced by Kevin Grace, Tesco UK Property Director, who is Non-Executive Chairman and Tesco Finance Director Mike Iddon.

2011 saw a flurry of openings for Dobbies. But few new stores seem to be in the pipeline for 2012 and beyond, making their target for 100 stores by 2019 look ever more unlikely.

Garden centres at Ashford, Braehead and Livingstone were opened in the spring. There was a scare at Carlisle when it looked as if last minute works would disrupt the July opening. Dobbies’ most ‘Eco’ store yet opened at Peterborough in August and September’s opening at Speke in Liverpool made it six for the year.

In February, Focus DIY said it would sell 6 stores to Asda as one of the first outcomes of its strategic review. So it was a bombshell when it announced on 4th May that it intended to enter administration. It could not have been worse for suppliers and prompted questions about the timing of the decision that left debts of over £61m. Scotts UK were owed £5.8m, Landgard UK £1.5m and Meredith Nurseries £1.4m.

Outside interest in Garden Centres
A new thread to watch is the interest supermarkets are showing in garden centres. Waitrose announced plans to open stores next to Garden & Leisure at Shrewsbury and The Garden Centre Group at Northampton. Peterborough Garden Park said it was planning to build a supermarket next to the Van Hage store. Tesco said it would build a store adjacent to the proposed Dobbies in East Kilbride. In June, Stephen H Smith entered talks to sell Scunthorpe GC to M&S. Next opened its first garden centre in Shoreham in August.

Cotton Traders said it would open on 40 more locations within 3 years. Robinsons Country Leisure is one of the UK’s leading equestrian retailers, it opened a 4,000 sq ft unit on Pugh’s GC in Cardiff.

Two important industry figures died in February. Former GCA chairman Bob Bickerdyke died following a balloon crash in the Alps. Then Klondyke founder Bob Gault died after years of ill health.

Another of the industry’s great characters died in May. Peter Williamson, chairman of the Wyevale Nurseries Group and son of Harry Williamson, the founder of Wyevale GCs, died unexpectedly at the age of 68.

A number of family firms parted company with senior managers. Paul Wright left Frosts and joined The Garden Centre Group as a regional manager. Boyd Douglas-Davies left Webbs of Wychbold to build a new garden centre chain backed by The Hillview Group, an independent merchant bank. Philip Evason left Haskins after 5 years as buying director. Otter Nurseries parted company with William Casely.

William Notcutt made a surprise announcement that he would leave Notcutts at the end of November to set up his own agriculture and forestry business and would resign as deputy chairman of the Notcutts board.

The heads of three trade associations announced their departure in the last 3 months. Gillie Westwood leaves the GCA at the end of January, handing over the reins to Phil Slinger; David Gwyther retired abruptly from the HTA in November and is yet to be replaced; and Phil Gibbs replaces Richard Plowman as LOFA secretary and the organiser of Solex.

Garden Centre Developments and Changes
  • Squire’s reopened Shepperton GC in March after a £4.2m rebuild. Then they bought the three Shoots GCs in May, bringing the store total to 15.
  • Haskins has almost completed a £16.5m project to rebuild Roundstone and upgrade the restaurant at West End.
  • Longacres started work on rebuilding its Bagshot GC in the summer.
  • Planters started the redevelopment of its GC at Bretby, with the installation of a £400,000 retractable roof.
  • Bents announced further massive expansion at Glazebury over the next 10 years.
  • Sussex Country Gardens opened an eco-friendly GC at Portslade.
  • Hillier opened its first new-build GC at Eastbourne in February.
  • Carr Hall Home and GC opened in the Ribble Valley near Blackburn.
  • Garden Wise (Dumfries) won permission to double the covered retail area of the garden centre.
  • Berwick-upon-Tweed won approval for a new garden centre at Dunbar.
  • Park GC won permission to redevelop Almonsdbury GC, near Bristol.
  • LXB said they were planning a new GC for Rushden Lakes, near Northampton.
  • Keydell Nurseries won approval to move from Horndean to a new site at Rowlands Castle in Hampshire.
  • Thurrock GC got permission for significant expansion as did Chepstow GC.
  • A major fire closed Klondyke’s Wilmslow GC in June.
  • In September, a fire at an adjacent scrap yard damaged Crooklands GC at Dalton-in-Furness in Cumbria.
  • Van Hage said it was closing its floristry departments at Peterborough and Great Amwell. 
Garden Centres Bought and Sold
Despite Quinton Edwards saying that GC values had fallen by 15%, there was plenty of movement in medium and smaller sites.
  • Probably the biggest deal of the year was Blue Diamond’s acquisition of Fryer’s GC, Cheshire.
  • Hills near Knutsford was bought by All-In-One as their second site.
  • Hillview Capital’s first garden centre didn’t materialise until September when it bought Studley, in Warwickshire, from Hillier.
  • At the same time, the nearby Badger Nurseries was bought by Golden Acres.
  • Palmers GC made its first acquisition, purchasing nearby Ullesthorpe GC in September.
  • The British Garden Centres Group added Yorkshire GC in March shortly after buying Towneley GC in Burnley to give the group 6 GCs.
  • The Garden Store went to 7 with the purchase of the strongly plant oriented Walled GC at Elton Hall, which is between Oundle and Peterborough.
  • Vermeulens near Woking was put up for sale for a second time in January.
  • Oaktree GC near Bracknell, a 23-acre site, was sold to John & Eve Went.
  • Planters purchased Bradley Nursery and GC in Stafford to become the second site to trade under the Garden King banner.
  • The retirement of Stephen H Smith has prompted the sale of Bolton, one of his group’s four garden centres, as part of the transfer of the business to the next generation.
  • In February Toad Hall GC said it would relocate to the Wyevale site at Shiplake, but the deal fell through in September.
  • Garden centres closing at the end of this year include the famous Stapeley Water Gardens and the two Roundtrees GCs in the West.
There was plenty of evidence that garden furniture and barbecue suppliers are under pressure:
  • Alexander Rose Furniture was sold to the Roda Group, which also owns Jensen Leisure Furniture in the United States.
  • Weber-Stephen Products, maker of barbecues, was sold to an American investment group.
  • Firmans Leisure said it would be wound down as the directors focus on building Firmans Direct, which imports containers and delivers them direct to the retailer.
  • UK barbeque brand Outback predicted "a bright future" after a takeover by China-based TPA.
  • In September DKB, owner of Outdoorchef and Gloster, acquired the HEAT brand of high end barbecues.
  • Then in November PSGF Ltd, which traded as Peter Smith Garden Furniture at Bradford, called a meeting of creditors with a view to putting the company into liquidation.
There has been further rationalisation in wholesalers. Monro Horticulture entered administration on 31st of January followed by Sarum Wholesale in March. In July Solus Garden & Leisure announced the closure of its small depot in Newcastle in the quest for greater efficiency.

Westland took Unwins out of the bulbs market, transferring the bulb assets and customers to Taylors Bulbs. This was followed with management changes including the promotion of John McDowell and Keith Nicholson to the management board.

William Sinclair continued its strong progress with the purchase of Yorkshire Horticultural Supplies, a compost manufacturer near Doncaster. It said this was an important strategic move into green composting.

Six and a half years after rescuing Stewart Plastics from administration, Lee Mowle sold the Stewart Group in a deal valuing it at £17m. Later Stewart agreed to take on the UK distribution of Harcostar water butts and accessories.

Garden trolley maker Ace Equipment was bought by the Richard Alan Group.

2011 has been the year for investment by the more progressive UK growers:
  • Farplants opened a £2.75m finishing centre to distribute plants for its member nurseries. This helped them handle the April surge in sales.
  • Palmstead Nurseries opened a 1-hectare glasshouse near Ashford in Kent, to grow over 1.5 million young plants a year using the latest equipment and technology.
  • Bransford Webbs' 2300 sq m. dispatch centre will be completed ready for the spring.
  • The weak house building sector forced the closure of Johnsons of Whixley's southern operations at Chobham, Surrey.
So serious has been the outbreak of Downy Mildew on Busy Lizzy (impatiens) that nurseries have told retailers that they must sell them at their own risk in 2012. Some retailers have decided, therefore, not to sell the plants.

The closure of the sales tax loophole on goods imported from the Channel Islands scheduled for April 1st 2012 will hit young plant retailers adding 20% to every pack of plants.

There was collaboration for the first time between producers of TV gardening shows and the people that supply the products they feature. GIMA teamed up with makers of ITV’s Love Your Garden with Alan Titchmarsh to give Gardenforum a list of products for mailing to retailers in advance of the show. And it looks as if it will happen again in 2012.

The peat issue keeps bubbling away; William Sinclair called for legislation to ban the use of peat in UK horticulture. There was also controversy over the RFID tagging of CC trolleys.

It was another troubled year for mail order group Flying Brands. They renegotiated banking terms in April after poor early spring mail order sales. In August it announced further negotiations admitting to mistakes and difficult times. Another warning in September brought share values down so that Sir Tom Hunter’s investment had lost 97% of its value.

The RHS started the year by saying that it wanted to work more closely with partners in the garden trade. In November it said it would be working more closely with the HTA on plant trials and selecting plants for the Diamond Jubilee. In December the RHS said that it planned to invest £27m in innovation and modernisation.

Choice Marketing, the buying group for independent GCs, added 6 more members during the year and then said enough, as 31 was all it could manage.

New websites of interest include that claims to be the world’s first on-line horticultural classroom.

The HTA launched a garden gift card at the end of the year that would be sold in supermarkets for redemption in member garden centres. Despite nervousness, 400 garden centres are said to be backing the trial.

A preview of the Olympic park showed the innovative landscaping that has restored the polluted wasteland. The days of blocked bedding have passed. The future lies with meadow planting.

Trade Shows
  • Golden Acres said February’s GAN Trade Show would be the last.
  • PATS claim to have become the leading trade shows for the pet industry. Visitor numbers at Sandown increased by 20%. They announced that in 2012, the northern show at Harrogate would be rescheduled for September in direct conflict with Glee / Pet Index.
  • The HTA patched up its differences with Glee and became a principle sponsor.
  • The success of the HTA’s second National Plant Show confirmed that this would become a permanent feature each June.
  • In the Autumn, Woking Show announced that it would close after 33 years.
What to watch out for in 2012
The Garden Press Event – 2 February
Garden Re-leaf – 13th March
The Chelsea Fringe
Will the trade associations take the opportunity of fresh leadership, to share resources and work together?
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