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From a seedling to a major business

Published: 16 January 2017

The Blake family has been getting things right for nearly 35 years – transforming a small nursery plot into the blossoming year-round St Peter’s Garden Centre. AMC has supported them throughout the journey.

Back in 1982, horticulturist Tony Blake bought seven acres of disused and overgrown land at auction. His dream had long been to have his own business but the old Pear Tree pig farm on Norton Road in Worcester was a brave move. Within a year, however, he had tamed the land and opened a production nursery, growing in bulk and supplying plants to landscapers, developers and councils throughout the UK.

The business was very seasonal. So, in 1985, the Blakes built a small glasshouse as the base for a new retail garden centre.

“It was certainly a decision that paid off,” says Will Blake, who came into the family business four years ago after a career in logistics. “Demand for plants in volume fell in the ‘90s, but the retail side was strong. My parents were able to stop wholesale production and expand the garden centre.”

Continued expansion

Over the years, with flexible funding from AMC, the Blakes have developed and redeveloped the site. A loan of £650,000 helped transform the café into the stunning 290-cover Potting Shed restaurant. A series of canopied buildings house departments selling garden care equipment, garden furniture, barbecues, clothing, gifts and, of course, plants – many of them still grown on the site.

The latest project is the Food Hall, which opened at the beginning of September – timed strategically to ensure they were up to speed ahead of the peak Christmas trade.

“Around 15 years ago, we had a cheese concession that did very well, so I’d been thinking about how to create a place where people could do a proper food shop, albeit buying special, artisan, local products,” says Will. “The linchpin had to be a good butcher, because people will travel a fair distance to get good quality, local meat. We found Checketts of Ombersley, which has been a family business for more than 90 years.”

Having recognised that they would generate more turnover from deli-style foods than they would from items such as cookware, Will designed a food destination with a wide range of fruit and vegetables, local bread, cheeses, wines and beers and other groceries. Less than two months after opening, the food hall was seeing a 25 per cent rise in sales week after week.

Looking ahead, staying ahead

“In this sector, you do need to keep moving,” says Will. “If you don’t look ahead and invest, other people will catch up or surpass you.”

Sometimes, though, a stroke of good luck doesn’t go amiss. Around 3,000 new homes are to be built in the field bordering the centre, and some of the development work at St Peter’s has been with an eye on that increased traffic.

AMC Regional Agricultural Manager Martin Waite has worked with the Blakes over the years. He’s been impressed by the family’s approach to researching and costing their projects.

We’ve supported them in many ventures and their cash flow has always been excellent. This business has a proven track record of generating turnover and profit. In a downturn – and St Peter’s has withstood a few of those – people still want to spend money on their gardens, homes and, of course, on food.

Martin Waite AMC Regional Agricultural Manager

Knowing how best to develop and where to invest next is often difficult for businesses in other sectors, but the garden centre industry is very well connected. Because centres tend not to be next door to each other, they’re rarely in competition. That means they can share information, sale data and best practice.

“We keep a close eye on what others are doing, how they’re performing and what they’re spending on,” says Will.

“When it comes to getting help for new projects, we like the fact that AMC is tried and tested. They have in-depth knowledge of this market and industry. Whenever I’ve met with Martin, he’s been very helpful in making sure that we’re doing all the right things – even if that means challenging the business case so that it really stands up. That brings benefits for us because we’re clearer about how to make things work.”

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