Business Small Business

Wednesday 11 December 2019

Careful pruning means brothers' garden centre continues to thrive

Family firm pioneered Sunday opening and draws in customers with large cafe and exotic shrubs

Sean Gallagher

Sean Gallagher

Situated on the N7 motorway, south of Dublin city, Johnstown Garden Centre is a site which is well known and easily recognisable by motorists. For those heading into the city, the site serves as an indication that they are now nearing their journey's completion. For those leaving the city, it is a gentle reminder that they have now exited the worst of the city's traffic.

The business was set up in 1974 by husband and wife team John and Elsie Clarke. Today the business is run by their sons, Sean and Jim. As they show me around the site, I am immediately struck by the sheer size and scale of the place. There are a number of spacious halls, each packed with an array of gardening delights. The plant and flower section is filled with an assortment of hanging baskets as well as all types and colours of indoor and outdoor plants.

The tree and shrubs area has everything from regular cherry blossoms and exotic lilies to orange blossoms and sweet smelling lavenders, each tagged with their official latin plant name.

There is also a whole section dedicated to garden tools, garden furniture, barbeques and fencing as well as an extensive area offering a range of homeware and gifts.

What really surprises me though is the size of the newly extended 250-seater garden cafe which is buzzing with individuals, couples, families and seniors enjoying a shopping experience and social outing all in one.

What quickly becomes clear to me is that Johnstown Garden Centre is no ordinary garden centre.

"Our parents literally started with a caravan in a field," explains Sean. "And everyone thought they were mad."

Sean and Jim both worked in the businesses on a part-time basis while they were growing up. After school, they studied horticulture at the Botanic Gardens and at University College Dublin.

Both brothers joined the business on a full-time basis in 1980.

"Our parents were very forward looking," explains Jim proudly. "They made the courageous decision to open on Sunday afternoons and, although that may not seem a big deal now, it was certainly a significant move back then".

"They quickly began to attract a steady flow of visitors who were looking for an enjoyable way to spend their Sunday afternoons and the garden centre was one of the few options people had at that time," explains Sean.

"Business was growing at an annual rate of almost 100 per cent so what we had to do was just keep up," he adds.

Around that time too, a number of changes were taking place in the gardening sector in Ireland. In particular, gardening, as a pastime, was becoming increasingly popular.

"Gardening also became more sophisticated," explains Jim. "This was really spurred on by the emergence of the plastic pot which revol- utionised the sector, making it much easier to grow plants as well as displaying them in garden centres," he adds.

Up to that point, a plant was just a plant. But now because it was possible to attach a description and picture to each pot, they suddenly became an attractive item to give as a gift. And so a whole new industry was born.

In 2000, Johnstown Garden Centre became one of the first retail businesses to put up a website and their move online has seen them ship products to the UK, Europe and even the USA.

Around the same time, Sean and Jim realised that because parking at their premises was limited and that, if not addressed, had the potential to seriously limit their future growth. To protect against this happening, they acquired their current site which was located directly across the road from their original site. At six acres, it was six times the size of their previous site.

They used the new site initially for growing plants until, in 2005, the business became so squeezed for space due to the widening of the N7 motorway that they decided to move their business to the new location completely. And so a brand-new Johnstown Garden Centre was born.

"It was a real turning point for the business," insists Sean.

"Everywhere was booming and customers wanted everything new – the bigger the better," explains Jim.

"People were looking for the best barbeques, the best garden furniture and it seemed as if ever house was buying two large pots for either side of their front door which came complete with two mature bay trees. Size in everything had become more important than price".

However, everything changed from August 2008 onwards. The brothers can remember it vividly. "The banking crisis put a halt to everything. Spending virtually stopped," explains Sean.

Customers now had less disposable income and began to look for better value. Average spend per customer dropped dramatically and the brothers found that they were now selling a larger number of lower ticket priced items. Many customers even turned to buying seeds and bulbs and growing their own plants. Overall, footfall fell dramatically and so too did the business's turnover. Sean and Jim had little choice but to respond to their new reality.

"We had to change our product range to include more affordable items whilst still keeping the quality to the highest standard" explains Sean.

Their troubles were compounded even further by the weather conditions of that Christmas. "We had bought in a huge amount of decorations for the Christmas market that year.

"However, the heavy snowfall meant that we had a store full of decorations but no customers. They simply couldn't get through the snow to get to us," explains Jim.

The two bad springs that followed made things even worse and heaped further pressure upon the business. However, they managed to drastically cut their overheads and set about implementing a important strategies.

The first was to increase the size of their cafe area. This, they felt, would encourage people to come more regularly to the centre. They also covered much of the outdoor area to ensure that customers would now be able to shop for plants, even in the event of poor weather conditions.

In addition they radically extended their product range beyond gardening products to include giftware, home ware, outdoor clothing as well as food products.

However, in 2012 the pair were faced with yet another serious decision. With reserves dwindling they decided they would have to either downsize or take the courageous decision to re-invest into expanding the business even further if they were to survive.

They chose the latter, this time investing more than €1m. They increased their signature garden cafe five-fold in size bringing seating capacity to 250. They then doubled their retail space from 20,000sq ft to over 40,000 sq ft. In addition, they made the centre fully wheelchair accessible with special parking bays and toilet facilities.

They introduced a loyalty card programme to acknowledge the support that they had received over the years from the community.

And they began offering a 10 per cent reduction for over 60s every Thursday.

This has now become the busiest day during the week.

"And we are delighted that turnover has not only returned to 2007 levels but has surpassed it," explains Sean.

The pair are also keen to give credit to their staff, some of whom have been with them for up to 20 years.

They are keen too, to point out that their brother Peter runs a conservatory business on the site and although a separate company, it adds to the overall attractiveness of the place.

What about plans for the future? I ask.

"We have no more room to extend on size of the place," explains Jim. "Our immediate plans are to continue to expand our product range and to concentrate on getting customer service, presentation and the display of our products just right."

John and Elsie Clarke started a small business and grew it into an even bigger one. Their sons Sean and Jim followed them into the business and took what was a great business and made it even better. Over the years they showed a determination to grow and expand the business in both size and diversity. They embraced technology. At each turn, they showed resoluteness and determination and took courageous and innovative steps to ensure their business continued to expand and to move forward. When I think of Johnstown Garden Centre in the future, I will remember with great clarity that this is no ordinary garden centre and that Sean and Jim are no ordinary business owners.

They are both hugely inspiring entrepreneurs and great business leaders.

Business Masters

Company Johnstown Garden Centre

Business Garden Centre, Home wares, Clothing & Cafe

Set up 1974

Founders John and Elsie Clarke. The business is currently run by their sons, Sean and Jim

Turnover €5m

Number of Employees 55

Location Johnstown, Naas, Co Kildare

Sean and Jim's advice to new businesses

1 Adapt and change

Business today is changing at a rapid speed and companies need to adapt and make changes very quickly if they are to survive. Don't be afraid to embrace such change. This is what keeps your business relevant.

2 Keep communicating with your customers

Your customers are the most important element of your business. Without customers you don't actually have a business. You must constantly communicate with them.

3 Focus on your goals

It is important to have clear goals set out for your business. Make sure your staff know these goals and how each one of them can contribute to the overall success of the business. Keep focused on these goals on a daily basis.


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