The Bridge Interviews
Burford Garden Centre
Following our recent interview at the Cotswold Wildlife Park and Gardens, The Bridge has been to meet the man who runs another local institution. The two organisations have quite a lot in common. Both are family-owned, have been around for some decades, pull in visitors from a wide area and make a huge contribution to the local economy.
Paul Gingell is managing director of the Burford Garden Company. He was born near London and spent his early years in France. His family then moved to Oxford where he grew up and attended Abingdon School. He took a degree in languages and business studies followed by a masters in international studies. Later he also obtained an MBA.
After graduating he ran a business in the south of France providing cycling holidays for British tourists. He sold that after two years and joined Harrods under their management training scheme. Because of his language skills he was put in the export department where he had to deal with some very demanding customers – the rule was that, if they wanted something, you had to find it for them. A pet alligator, anybody? Next he went into buying toys and games, which he found provided a very good grounding in retail. After that he moved to work for the Burton Group and then to John Lewis, where he had a senior buying role and later moving into store operational management.
At this time Paul had met his now wife Deborah, who also worked in retail. They decided in 2000 that they would like to move away from London. He saw what he describes as a quirky advertisement in the magazine Retail Week for a job in Oxfordshire. The Burford Garden Company had been started in 1975 by the father and son team of Eddie and Nigel Johnson. Nigel was still running the business and wanted some help so that he could have time to do other things. Paul went along for a chat. He felt that it was a disadvantage that he knew nothing about gardening but Nigel said this did not matter. At that time the company was less structured and Paul joined as manager, later being appointed managing director. Nigel went off to take a degree in history of art and then a masters in the same subject, but he remains chairman and he and his wife and co-director Louise remain actively involved in steering and guiding the business creatively.
The garden centre provides 65% of the turnover while all the rest put together accounts for the other 35%. There are 185 staff, 100 full time and 85 part time. Gardening is, of course, seasonal. “There are three busy months, three shoulder months and six quieter ones” so some staff switch roles at the end of the summer season to work in the Christmas department (“A popular change as it’s warmer inside”).
Is recruitment difficult?
“It’s a challenge. This is a prosperous area and there is wide choice of jobs. Retailing does not usually pay high wages so we try to make up for this by treating people well. It’s not a shouty place. We give them opportunities to learn and climb the ladder. We have apprenticeship schemes in the café and admin. We provide RHS accredited training for the plants people. We usually recruit people with some experience and train them on the job. Our accounts staff are AAT (Association of Accounting Technicians) qualified. They go on day release or do evening training”.
What has changed since Paul joined?
“It’s easier to say what hasn’t changed. The bedrock is the garden centre. It underpins the whole business”. They try constantly to improve the quality and range of plants sold and to make sure they are sustainable. Although the horticultural industry is thought to import much from abroad, in Burford 98% of the stock comes from the UK. They also try to be different from the mainstream. For example Little Burford, the toy department, doesn’t sell and toys with batteries. “We sell traditional toys which look good, not the sort of thing you might buy on Amazon.” Other innovations have been the café and development of the home furnishings side (see very comfortable example of this at side!).
What is the best selling item?
He asks us to guess. Box? The answer is Hidcote lavender followed by Rosemary officinalis. They outsell everything else by five to one. Also popular are Wisteria Burford and Lady Hamilton’s Rose. “I’ve had to learn about these and now I’m a keen gardener.”
Being where it is and what it is, the garden centre gets its fair share of celebrity customers. Paul is discreet about the names but if you think about who has a home in the area you can make an educated guess. “We don’t make a big thing of it but we normally greet them and say ‘Don’t hesitate to ask if you need any help’”. The arrival of Soho Farmhouse has also brought in some hedge fund managers presumably needing help with their hedges. One famous person he does mention is the late Ronnie Barker who came in to buy – of all things – a garden fork. The staff went through the “four candles” sketch and he joined in.
There was for a time a second garden centre at the other Burford near Tenbury Wells in Worcestershire. “There is a lovely Georgian mansion, Burford House, with beautiful gardens and a garden centre. The previous owners put the business up for sale and we bought it. We turned it round and put the Burford stamp on it but it took a long time to get there with two hours following a tractor and it had reached its ceiling so after ten years we sold it.”
Has anything they tried not worked? “Landscaping materials. They are big, bulky and hard to deliver to our site. Installation was difficult and we found we were not at our best when working off our site, so we farmed it out to another company”.
They have also worked for the last 15 years with Aspire, an Oxford-based charity for the homeless; Nigel Johnson was chairman of it for three years. “Homeless people are often homeless because of a single traumatic event in their lives. Many are intelligent and educated and are desperate to reboot their lives but society keeps knocking them back. Their way back to sustainable employment is through gardening. We help to keep Aspire going, for example advising them on business and employment law. They are now in a good place and we can look at alternative charities to support”.
Paul and Deborah live in the area with their two young daughters. Deborah now works in health management and dietetics with terminally ill people. In his spare time Paul takes part in amateur dramatics. He recently appeared in a stage version of ‘Allo ‘Allo as Captain Bertorelli for which he had to assume the accent of an Italian with a bad German accent while actually speaking English. He also goes mountain climbing with a group of friends. His ascents include Marmolada, “the Queen of the Dolomites”, Mont Blanc and many tricky mountains in Wales.
The garden centre management admit to being nervous about the forthcoming housing development in Shilton Road. This has caused some misunderstanding in the area. “Six months ago two ladies accosted me in the café and challenged me that the garden centre was going to be sold for housing. The confusion may have arisen because we used to rent the field across the road (the land which is to be developed) which is actually owned by the Burford School Foundation. People have heard that the field is being developed, thought it was something to do with us and came to the wrong conclusion.”
In fact nothing could be further from the truth. “Nigel did not build up the business for 40 years to sell it. We intend to go on for another 40 years and beyond.” Nigel and Louise have three children: Sam (a film maker); Tom (a photographer who works for Vogue amongst others; and Eleanor (a portrait painter). Paul expects that in due course they will take over the business and bring it new ideas and a new lease of life.
Brexit is a concern (and no doubt will have moved on by the time you read this). “As a business we would like to know what will happen. It could be unsettling for the economy. Will the effect be positive or negative?” Many products are sourced from Europe. “Business is very globalised. A jar of jam may have fruit, sugar, the jar, the lid, the label and the printing on the label coming from different countries”.
Have there been any dramas at the garden centre?
Yes, a few. “Ten years or so ago Elaine, who is now our retail director, had just joined us and it was her first weekend in charge. We were having some cabling done near the children’s playground. I was quite a few miles away when she called me and said a large Second World War bomb had been found, the army were there and they wanted to close the site. I spoke to the army and police and persuaded them just to screen off the affected area instead of closing the site. The bomb was detonated by a controlled explosion at 4.30pm while the garden centre was still open.”
What is he proudest of?
“That the company is still here progressing and growing its reputation in a massively difficult retail environment. We have 185 staff who by and large enjoy working here for what is still a family business. We try to improve the business and the people, the standards and the training. We have tried to improve our environmental credentials with products with sustainable products and supply chains and which are of good quality with a longer lifespan. Our furniture is built to last and our plants have a ten year guarantee. The café has won a number of awards including Oxfordshire Restaurant of the Year. Online side is growing but the business is about people coming here, having good food, good shopping and a good experience”. It sounds as if the Burford Garden Company, like its furniture, is built to last a good while yet.