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Dreams can come true, if you dig deep


Sean Gallagher with Rachel Doyle and her sons Barry and Fergal in Arboretum, Kilquade, Co Wicklow Photo: Tony Gavin

Sean Gallagher with Rachel Doyle and her sons Barry and Fergal in Arboretum, Kilquade, Co Wicklow Photo: Tony Gavin

Sean Gallagher with Rachel Doyle and her sons Barry and Fergal in Arboretum, Kilquade, Co Wicklow Photo: Tony Gavin

These days, gardening and cooking have become so popular that it's impossible to turn on the TV without coming across a show on one or the other. While many people love to spend time on such hobbies, this week's entrepreneur uniquely found a way of combining both into a successful, sustainable business. And today, almost 40 years on, Arboretum Garden Centres employ 100 staff and have an annual turnover of more than €7m.

"This year our Carlow centre won the Retail Excellence National Store of the Year," says proud company founder Rachel Doyle, as she welcomes me to her newest outlet, the National Garden Exhibition Centre in Kilquade.

Set on five acres of beautiful Wicklow land, it's easy to see how the centre is already a magnet for garden lovers. A variety of beautifully designed garden layouts offer inspirational ideas to those looking to spruce up their own gardens - while for others, it's a place to shop, eat or simply stroll in the oasis of tranquillity that is the gardens.

As she takes me on a tour, Rachel stops regularly to explain the name of each plant and flower. Firstly she tells me the plants' official scientific names and then their everyday names. There's even an olive tree that is over 200 years old. Full of excitement and passion, Rachel is upbeat and animated. It's easy to tell that, even after all these years, she hasn't lost her love for what she does.

She tells me that the Carlow centre has one of the largest plant offerings in the country, as well as a wide selection of gardening equipment and furniture, a beautiful gift store, book shop, fashion area and a kitchen and home furnishings section. Not long open, the Kilquade Centre is fast catching up.

And just as with Carlow, at the heart of this is the beautiful Secret Cafe. And it is to there that we head next to meet up with Rachel's two sons, Barry and Fergal, both of whom now are full time in the business. Barry recently took over as CEO while Fergal is the CCO (chief commercial officer) and both share their mother's love of horticulture - and skill at business.

After driving the business for long and achieving so much, Rachel has decided it's now time to take on a new role - as executive chairperson. After nearly 40 years in business, she thinks it's time for her sons to take over the reins.

"The two guys are extremely capable and committed," says Rachel, smiling encouragingly.

Rachel Doyle grew up in the remote village of Clonmore on the Carlow/Wicklow border. Her father was a talented gardener - and Rachel recalls how she used to work alongside her father in the evenings after he came home from his day job as a builder's labourer. "Our garden provided an abundance of fresh food for the family - and in many ways we were really quite self-sufficient back then," she explains.

After school, she got a job doing office work - but after a while she began to feel unfulfilled. She tried her hand at primary teaching - but her love of gardening and the outdoors continued to dominate her thoughts. So aged 22, she headed to An Grianan in Termonfeckin, Co Louth, to study commercial horticulture.

"And I just loved it," explains Rachel. "We got to learn about everything from fruit and vegetables to protected crops and amenity horticulture," she recalls excitedly.

Having completed her degree, the young Rachel returned home with the dream of starting her own horticultural business with the help of her husband Frank.

Back then, it was difficult for anyone to get a bank loan for a start-up - let alone a young woman in what was largely a male-dominated sector. But Rachel wasn't about to give up - and eventually convinced her local bank manager to loan her the £2,000 she needed to get started.

Continuing to teach part-time, she would return home from school every day, immediately setting up shop in the family's garage to sell seeds and plants which she had grown from small cuttings.

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"Our up-and-over, roller-shutter garage door became my simple shop window," remembers Rachel with a hearty laugh.

She remembers too that it began to dawn on her that she might not be in the right location to make a success of the business.

"The business was literally miles off the main road, so it meant people had to travel off the beaten track to find me," explains Rachel. "So we decided to rent a premises in Carlow town and see if we could make a go of it there instead."

The decision proved a wise one and soon business began to boom. In 1999, they got the opportunity to buy a site in Carlow town and later were approached by Aldi who wanted to buy it to build a store. With the money from the sale of the site, Rachel and Frank were then able to purchase 10 acres in Leighlinbridge, just outside Carlow - where her dream of building her current business would begin to start in earnest.

"To survive and thrive in what was becoming a competitive market, we had to continually seek to distinguish ourselves from other garden centres that were popping up," explains Rachel. "Some of the pioneering things we did included introducing a covered outdoor plant area where customers could come year round - irrespective of the weather conditions - and also the targeting of bus tours and school groups as a way to attract new visitors to the place," she adds.

Her decision to turn Christmas at the Arboretum into a magic time for children and families also proved a major success. With everything from supper with Santa and animations from favourite children's books and movies, people began to travel from far and wide to experience the atmosphere. In doing so, she managed to turn what was the company's second worst month into their second best of the year. To increase her visibility further, she began writing gardening articles in the press, which she kept up for years.

Most business owners will tell you that it is usually possible to identify a small number of key decisions they took which helped catapult their businesses to a new level. For Rachel, it was her decision to open a café on the site.

"Food is a huge success for us - today, 30pc of our turnover comes from food. Everything we sell is either cooked or baked on the premises - even the biscuits you get with your cup of tea," explains Rachel.

Written in big bold letters on the wall of the café is their creed: 'All of our recipes are created with one driving ambition - passion. Whatever we cook, it's because it's in season, because it's local and because we want to eat it ourselves.'

Costing almost €2.5m, the decision to buy and redevelop the Kilquade facility earlier this year was a courageous one - especially as it followed another recent investment of over €2m in the Carlow site. When she first discussed the idea of the second site with Frank, his advice was simply to follow her dream.

"I've always followed my dreams and I believe all of us can achieve whatever we want as long as we have a vision and the passion and willpower to see it through," explains Rachel.

"Now it's time for our sons to follow their dreams. They each have their unique strengths and talents, and their enthusiasm and drive for the business has already taken us to new heights," she adds proudly.

Barry studied horticulture at the Botanic Gardens in Dublin before becoming a landscape contractor. He enjoyed the work, but realised that his passion was more for retail than design and so joined the family business in 2006.

Fergal chose a different route and went to the Cork institute of Technology to study Business and IT. He joined the company in 2002 and quickly got to work implementing improvements in the company's IT infrastructure and EPOS systems (electric point of sale) to help support their growth plans.

Although no longer CEO, Rachel is far from bored. Last year she was elected the President of the International Garden Centre Association, in which role she visited 11 different countries.

"I love to travel and visit other garden centres around the world. I'm constantly on the lookout for new ideas and examples of best practice and innovation which I can bring home," she explains.

Earlier this year, she was appointed to the board of Bord Bia and is excited about trying to help the Irish horticulture and associated sectors develop in the coming years.

Are there plans for a third garden centre?

"There might be," she says with a smile. "But first we need to develop this one into a commercial success and to continue to grow our flagship site in Carlow," she insists.

Rachel Doyle is a legend in the garden centre world - not only here but internationally. She is bubbly, enthusiastic and passionate about everything she gets involved in. She also seems to have found something that eludes many people in their lives - joy. The constant smile on her face says it all. When you point out how hard she works, she simply laughs - because for her, it isn't work: it's what she loves.

Starting out, Rachel Doyle believed that she could make her dreams come true. And she did. She now wants to see her sons have the chance to do the same. What a truly remarkable woman.

For further information, contact Arboretum, Old Kilkenny Road, Leighlinbridge, Co Carlow, and the National Garden Exhibition Centre, Kilquade, Co Wicklow. Website: www.arboretum.ie

1. Be passionate about what you do

"To succeed in business, as in anything, you have to have passion. And you absolutely have to believe in yourself. With passion and belief, you can move mountains to achieve your goals. With passion and belief, nothing is impossible. Never give up on your dreams."

2. Write down a simple business plan

"This is a bit advice I once got from one of my mentors. Write down your plans. What gets written gets done. It is a good way to visually and mentally clarify and record your goals and allows you to gauge your progress against your set objectives."

3. Your location is critical

"If you are in the direct sales business, then you have to be available to your customers, and convenient to where those customers are — so they can visit and do business with you. Usually, this will mean going to where your customers are. Proximity can be powerful."

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