Nicky Dulieu has taken over as chairman of Notcutts garden centre group. Business editor Ben Woods speaks to the high-flying business woman about her bold plans to take the company forward.
A warmer winter took its toll on high street fashion retailers this year – many of which were left with an over supply of woolly jumpers when the bouts of snow and below-zero temperatures failed to materialise.
But while clothes shops suffered, garden centres saluted the tail end of a successful summer.
A prolonged spell of sunny days from June until September look set to have boosted the bottom line of garden centre group Notcutts, as the heat spurred people off their sofas and into the shrubbery.
It certainly came as a relief. The £55m Woodbridge-based business had been searching for a boost since it was left nursing a 57pc fall in pre-tax profits from £2.743m to £1.168m when an unseasonably cold spring at the beginning of 2013 dealt a blow to its retail sales.
For Nicky Dulieu, the weather will always remain a cruel mistress for retail businesses – even on the back of a strong summer.
So instead of trying to swim against the tide, the new chairman plans to focus on aspects of the business she can control – by driving forward with the search for a new chief executive while rolling out a bold investment plan to ensure Notcutts has a bright future.
Part of this vision is being realised at centres in Nottingham and Tumbridge Wells where £3m and £6m has been spent respectively.
And in the coming months, both its garden centres in Woodbridge and Daniels Road, Norwich, are likely to receive a significant cash-injection.
But what direction will this money take the business, as many independent garden centres continue to straddle homeware, lifestyle products and plants?
Ms Dulieu said Notcutts will remain a “gardener’s garden centre” group, with some money being used to build on each stores strengths.
“Norwich is focused towards the plant side,” she said. “While at the other centres plants aren’t the strongest side, so some will be gifting or food.
“Each centre will be tweaked and its about getting that local flavour for what is appropriate.
“Some garden centres want to please everybody, but we want to have real authority in the departments that matter to each centre.”
One aspect of the business which will command investment at each centre is the restaurants. The key success of garden centres has been their ability to become a destination store for families, and while it is important to protect the needs of this customer, Ms Dulieu also wants them to chime with modern tastes.
“Garden centres are a great place to bring kids, it is a great place to come with grandparents. Restaurants are such a huge draw as part of that. And of course people’s experiences around dining have moved on so much. The restaurant at the Daniels Road Notcutts garden centre is perfectly nice, but it’s quite functional and people are looking for more of an experience. In Tumbridge Wells and Wheatcroft, which have been completely remodelled, we have gone for a street cafe, so there is fish and chip vans serving food.
“It is a much softer environment with freshly ground coffee, much better decor and improved acoustics. The restaurant will be a core investment in each of the centres as we upgrade them.”
Ms Dulieu, 51, who lives at Yaxham near Dereham, has a track record of helping well-established retailers evolve into modern, consumer-facing, businesses.
She started her career in accountancy at Marks & Spencer, where she climbed the ladder, playing a key role in bringing operations in Europe back to the UK, before taking charge of the retailer’s £3bn property portfolio.
By the time she left the business after 24 years, she had become the finance director of the food division and was part of the team that successfully fended off Sir Philip Green’s bid to buy the business.
Ms Dulieu believes that grounding in finance helped her rise through the ranks quickly.
“Having a finance background helps. It gives you the right to play in any area because you come with fact on your side,” she said. “If you have got a strong finance brain, and you are able to make that information relevant to someone commercially, it is one of the most powerful things you have got in your armour as a business person.”
It was her hunger to spearhead the commercial side of a business which led her to leave M&S. She became chief executive of fashion retailer Hobbs in 2006, with the aim of blowing away negative preconceptions pitching the brand as “frumpy” and out of date.
She brought in new designers and management teams to help stimulate change, including a successful expansion in the US market.
But her lasting legacy can be found in the business’ digital development, with online sales rising from a low base to £30m per year and 25pc of turnover – a revolution she hopes to repeat at Notcutts.
“While I could see your young teenagers and 20-year-olds buying cheap fashion online, I couldn’t see a woman spending £250 – that was back in 2007.
“But I am very happy to hold my hands up on that one and I say I got that wrong. But we are now having the same debate at Notcutts about live plants because do people want to come and look at them? Well, yes they do. But there will also be that person that just wants to order online, or click and collect, it is about giving consumer choice.
“That’s why retail is such a great industry because it doesn’t stand still.
“The things I had to learn about online – how you maximise that part of the business and make it work with your physical stores – is like gaining a whole new skills set.
“The people coming into the business teaching you are half your age, but that is exciting – you have to see it as a great opportunity and not as a threat – that is how you thrive.”
Consumer businesses without a woman on their board are “naive” because women are still the main decision makers when it comes to household spending, according to Nicky Dulieu.
However, the chairman of Notcutts, and non-excutive director of Adnams, has rejected the idea that Europe should introduce mandatory quotas on the number of female directors in British boardrooms – a proposal hinted by business secretary Vince Cable in order to meet the target of 25pc of FTSE 100 companies with female directors by the end of this year.
Ms Dulieu said there were still clear barriers, but the majority of successful businesswomen would rather reach the pinnacle of a business because of their skill.
She added: “If you talk to the majority of successful businesswomen we are against quotas because we genuinely believe the value a woman brings to a business should be there on merit. I understand the argument that where there is a barrier to that happening then quotas could help, but my preference is about educating and promoting the benefit a woman brings to the table.”
“In consumer businesses, to not have a woman on your board is naive because so much is about understanding your customer and if the female is inherent in the spend, then that is clearly a mistake.