News Review 2007

For once it has not been the weather that has dominated talk in the garden industry. The main topic of debate has been change and how to manage it. In particular, Wyevale’s owner, Sir Tom Hunter, and Tesco have dominated the headlines.

In January, Blooms Garden Centres announced talks with a bidder. By Valentines Day, Hunter was in control of 50% of Blooms’ shares, sealing the deal in March. In May it was revealed that Hunter was building a significant stake in Dobbies. When the country’s second largest garden centre group announced bid talks at the end of the month, there appeared to be only one possible bidder. The shock of the announcement of Tesco’s bid on June 8th shook the industry. After a prolonged phoney dual with Hunter, who threatened a counter bid throughout the summer, Tesco completed the purchase of Dobbies at its original bid of £15 per share, albeit with Hunter uncomfortably placed with almost 30% of Dobbies shares.

Consolidating within garden centres has gathered pace with more independents cashing in their asset. In January, Peter Barretts bought Vista Garden Centre, before selling out all three centres to Wyevale in September. Wyevale also acquired Sanders Garden World and Old Barn Nurseries in a £50m autumn shopping spree.

Other centres sold this year include: Three Legged Cross that became the fourth in the Golden Acres Group; Holland Arms GC on Anglesey was bought by Klondyke in April; Gardens Etc at Stanmore has been taken by Shoots of W. Sussex; Mike Withers has bought Sefton Meadows Garden Centre as an addition to the group that includes Trebaron Garden Centre, Snowtime and Suntime, and, at the end of the year, Hazelfield Garden Centre has been bought by Blue Diamond Group. Oldrids, the owner of Downtown Garden Centre, is currently in bid talks.

The few casualties among the retailers included Burrington Combe that was destroyed by fire. Murrells Plant & Garden Centre in Pulborough closed at the end of March and The Coach House at Hartley Wintney closed in July following the bankruptcy of its owner.

In July, the debt laden Focus DIY was sold for £1, ending months of speculation about the chain of 256 DIY and garden stores. Former Wickes directors Bill Grimsey and Bill Hoskins took control and announced the sale of 41 stores following a strategic review.

The wholesaler Spread closed its Thatcham depot in August. While Solus Garden and Leisure announced in February that it was realigning its business around its strength with logistics. Recognition came in the autumn with news that Wyevale has dropped plans for its own central distribution hub.

The biggest story was released days before Christmas proving that there was substance to the stories circulating at GLEE. Paris Natar, the owner of Gardman, has sold a ‘major shareholding’ to Barclays Private Equity, at the same time raising additional cash for growing the £85m company further.

Other acquisitions include Briers, the importer of gloves and garden accessories, which was bought by the Monro Group. Syngenta acquired Fischer, a world leading breeder of pelargonium (geranium), poinsettia and New Guinea impatiens. Turf grower Q-Lawns was bought by Harrowden Farms Ltd from Northamptonshire. Following a European wide management buyout, Guaber UK, responsible for brands such as Fito, Vape, Vapet, Vim and Bionsen has been renamed the Spotless Group. Chicago based Ball Horticultural Company has acquired Dutch perennials company Darwin Plants - a leading exporter of herbaceous perennials.

Managed change was the theme behind two major announcements by Notcutts. In July it announced the sale of its nurseries business to a management buy-out. This was followed in November with news that the landscape division was being remodelled, becoming a design consultancy operating from all 13 garden centres, using local installers to complete the work.

Casualties include the voluntary liquidation of Scotts of Merriott, subsequently reopened by one of the previous directors; and Suttons Horticulture, a plant supplier to supermarkets that also owned PA Moerman.

Several famous names in the garden sector passed away this year. In January, Christopher Fairweather, the much liked and respected plantsman, nurseryman and Beaulieu garden centre owner died aged 73. Peter Hayes died in April. With his brother Leith, he rebuilt Hayes Garden Land in Ambleside to be one of the first destination garden centres. In September, Pershore College announced the death of Owen Gale, aged 85. Denis Miller, a director of Solus, died in November.

Jon Kitching, MD of Blooms and before that Jardinerie, decided not to remain with the business for family reasons after the acquisition by Wyevale.

Responsibility for the environment and social issues is becoming an important marketing tool. In the spring, Sinclair published an embracing environmental policy, which will include a massive reduction in peat, and carbon footprint data on bags.

Wyevale showed it is serious about the environment with the appointment of Dr Alan Knight as its ‘Green’ adviser. In the autumn he published a draft of 10 environmental and social commitments that suppliers are expected to follow.

The horse chestnut leaf miner has relegated slugs and snails to the second spot on the top ten pest enquiries of 2006 to the RHS. This tiny moth was not known in Britain before 2002. Then in September came news that the potentially devastating fuchsia gall mite (Aculops fuchsiae) has been found for the first time on mainland Britain in a fuchsia sample received by the RHS Members’ Advisory Service at RHS Garden Wisley. The pest has the potential to spread rapidly, affecting gardens and greenhouses throughout Britain

All eyes will be on Solex in July and its impact on GLEE. Last July the garden furniture association, LOFA, a founder of the GLEE trade show, announced a rival furniture show, better suited to the manufacturer’s lead times. Solex is fully booked for 2008.

The GCA, the association for the country’s top garden centres, also flexed its muscles by joining forces with the country’s leading non-food buying group, AIS. Together they launched GRO in December with the aim of combining the purchasing power of all independent garden centres.

In July, Marshalls, the main sponsor of Chelsea, told Gardenforum that it will have Transformation Centres across the country within 3 years, offering a complete design and installation service for gardens, patios and drives. The aim is that Marshalls is the first place homeowners look when considering an upgrade for the garden.

The sector’s most influential Association, the HTA, is also adapting. A very successful one day conference on catering in garden centres attracted some of London’s top restaurateurs as speakers. There will be more specialist seminars like this in 2008, heralding the end of the annual autumn conference.

In trading terms 2007 has been a topsy–turvy year. The January storms produced a surge in fence panel sales, creating a national shortage that lasted into the summer. At the end of April the industry was confident of record growth and then came the floods and sales got bogged in the mud. Particularly badly hit were the furniture suppliers, who had added extra orders to the supply chain following April’s record sales. These remain unsold in warehouses to be cleared in 2008. The fine dry autumn helped retailers recover some ground. Christmas sales appear to have shrugged off the shortage of Nordmann trees and the scare about premature needle loss, and seem to be close to expectation and in some cases even better.

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