GCR Interview: Mark Cleary, Old Railway Line Garden Centre

Old Railway Line CVThe Old Railway Line in Powys is one of the most highly regarded centres in the country, winning numerous awards in recent years. Here, the co-director of the company discusses the secret to its success

What was the path that led you to open a garden centre?
My wife Christina and I just fell into it – we had no professional training.

There was no garden nursery in our area. Christina’s father had a little bit of land by the side of the road on his pig farm, and we put up an eight by six greenhouse with a small sales area and a couple of polytunnels. We only had parking for about 12 cars, but we were on a lay-by.

What were you selling?
Mainly bedding plants, really just for the benefit of local passing trade. We were only doing it part time, and initially, only for a single season, almost like a pop-up. That was 1990, and we were so successful that we carried on. We gave up our jobs after a year.

How did the business evolve from there?
We stayed in the greenhouse for four years, put up proper tunnels to grow more stock, and I’d go to three markets a week. We didn’t have huge quantities of plants, so whatever we grew, we could look after properly.

The big change for us happened in 2000, which is when we bought another piece of land. This meant we could open a shop and expand to a bigger car park. In 2001 we bought our first  catering outlet, which was a small tea room. Year by year, we’ve continuously added more improvements.

What was the initial outlay? ORL3
Our first bank loan was for £1,500. We also sold our house and went to live on site. We lived in a caravan for four and a half years.

We’re very proud of what we’ve achieved, and particularly that there are numerous members of staff who have been with us right from the beginning. We should unchain them every now and again and let them go home…

Who are your core customers and what do you offer the local community?
We’re in a rural location, so that’s reflected in our customers – we’re ten miles from the nearest town, but on a main road. We attract anyone who lives within an hour’s drive. I would say that we’re now what everybody refers to as a destination garden centre.

We’ve got a broad range of customers, from the people you’d expect like retirees to children at the local school. Our restaurant is right next to the local secondary, and that brings in a lot of young people as well.

ORL2That’s quite unusual…
It is. We introduced afternoon tea, and it ended up being quite cool to be seen eating scones in our restaurant. We get reps coming in and pointing it out, but it’s just  one of those things. It’s never been a problem at all, because they understand that they won’t enjoy it if they don’t behave themselves. It’s almost as if they age ten years when they come through the door. That makes us proud as well – that we’ve created that environment.

We do a lot of work with local schools, as it happens. We have children’s activities every Wednesday during the holidays, which has been a massive success.

How would you sum up your offer?
We sell a wide range of products – when we expanded, we knew that we had to weatherproof ourselves. At the same time, we’re conscious of our roots, and that’s plants.

When customers walk in, they know that they’re in a garden centre because plants are right there when they arrive. Once inside, they can make multiple choices of where to go – pets, clothing, gifts and so on.

The biggest hit in the last couple of years has definitely been our farm shop. It sells the sort of things that you can’t get from Aldi or Morrisons. The sort of people that you get in a garden centre don’t mind spending a little more on something different and of higher quality.

Would you say you mainly target ABs? ORL4
We certainly don’t sell on price. I’d actually say one of our main selling points is the service people get when they come here.

We’ve won quite a lot of awards recently, and much of that is to do with the team. They’re young and dynamic, and a real driving force when it comes to making improvements. They’re also knowledgeable and friendly – it’s a major USP. People come in here with the problems of the world on their shoulders and our staff will always take the time to chat and ask how things are going.

We don’t expect the members of our team to be salespeople. We want them to make customers happy, and that’s far more likely to happen if they’re not pressured into anything. We really admire John Lewis, particularly in relation to how they treat their people.  Obviously we can’t make ours shareholders, but the longer they stay on, the more perks they get. If our staff give to us, we give back to them.

With that in mind, how are you coping with the introduction of the National Living Wage?
To my mind, you can only give great service if you have enough staff. Obviously, that’s not cheap nowadays, but we don’t want to pass that cost on to the customer, or make people redundant.

We’ve just joined two buying groups, which is one of the ways that we’ve been able to take the extra cost into account. It’s amazing what the difference in price can be when you buy like that, and it’s helped us buffer what’s happened regarding the minimum wage.

ORL1What’s the most successful area of the garden centre?
The most successful areas are definitely food-based – either the catering offer or the farm shop. That may be because we’ve spent so much money recently developing them. I would say that the plants are still the backbone of the business, and that’s the way we want it.

When we re-developed, it would have been quite easy to push the plants to the side, but that’s really not what we wanted to do.

Has your customer changed as you’ve become more focused on other areas?
Yes – as you increase your catering, you change the type of customer that you get in, because they’re there for a different purpose. Generally people nowadays want instant results, so we have to show them how to achieve that.

Turnover on plants at the moment is around 21%, but that doesn’t mean sales have dropped – just that other areas have increased.

How does your plant area reflect that?
We’ve arranged it so that it’s mainly ‘hotspots’, rather than as an A-Z. There are fewer knowledgeable gardeners now, so we need to help them solve problems and make things as easy as possible.

Nowadays, if people are presented with an A-Z, there’s a danger that they’ll just take one look and just walk straight back out. It’s just too much information.

What does the future hold?
More expansion, and hopefully more success. Our children want their professional lives to be centred around the Old Railway Line, which I think is something that’s becoming more unusual. It’s a family business, and they’re most definitely the future of it.

CONTACT
The Old Railway Line Garden Centre
Three Cocks, Brecon Powys LD3 0SG
01497 847 055
info@oldrailwaylinenursery.co.uk
www.oldrailwaylinegc.co.uk

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