Since its inception in 1966, the Garden Centre Association has been a key part of the UK garden centre industry.
As well as providing best practice advice, for instance – as well as a forum through which its members can communicate with each other – it also serves to keep the industry at the top of its game from a quality-of-service perspective. It does this primarily through its annual inspection process, centred around every different aspect of what now constitutes the garden centre offer.
That being the case, the organisation has proved itself to be especially important in recent years, over the course of what can only be described as the ongoing societal ‘permacrisis.’ Obviously, no one needs reminding about the impact of Covid-19, after which came the effects of Brexit and its attendant supply chain issues, followed now by the twin cost of living/energy crises.
With that in mind, it would be fair to say that the CEO of the GCA is somewhat of an important role, particularly now. It is also a role which has recently changed incumbents, from Iain Wylie (who resigned last summer) to Peter Burks.
Preparing for conference
As mentioned, the Garden Centre Association was established in 1966, by what the organisation’s website refers to as “early pioneers wishing to make plants available year round, and make gardening more accessible.”
Taking up the story, the website continues: “One of the first decisions when the association was established was to set up an inspection scheme for members, who were entitled to ‘Approved Centre’ status.
“The GCA asks its garden centre members, from the moment they join, to meet the highest retail standards. GCA members, large and small, set the benchmark for high retailing standards within the industry which others can only aspire to.
“The association can state, proudly, that it represents the leading garden centres within the UK and worldwide as part of its membership of the International Garden Centre Association (IGCA).”
Burks came into the post at the end of last year. Discussing his background, alongside his suitability for the job of CEO, he says: “I got a degree in horticulture from the University of Bath and worked in various roles off the back of that. I was initially interested in growing, which is why I came into the industry in the first place.
“After a while, however, you realise that the most important thing is not the growing, but the selling. I’ve worked for nurseries – both in the UK and in Holland -, independent garden centres, as well as Wyevale and Blue Diamond.”
He continues: “I would say that I have a massive knowledge of the industry, because, obviously, I’ve been working in it all my life. I was also actually GCA chair in 2012 and 2013, which was when I was working with Wyevale, so I have knowledge of the organisation itself as well. I think it was a very easy fit.”
In interview situations where the subject has recently been installed in a new job, the obvious first question is generally something around what the role might entail, or what they might want to achieve going forward.
As it happened, however, with this conversation taking place around mid-January this year, there was one thing, in particular, dominating Burks’ thinking. That was, making a success of the GCA’s imminent annual conference, which was taking place at the end of that month in Blackburn, Lancashire.
Having only been in post since the end of 2022, Burks freely admitted that most of his time up until that point had been taken up with the organisation of that event. (Or in his words: “Conference has really filled up my time because various bits and pieces had been left until I started. And then, by the time I did start, everything had to be done by tomorrow.”).
Looking beyond the event in question, however, he said: “Once we get conference out of the way, I can start to get to grips with business as usual, which obviously includes the workstreams undertaken by other members of the executive committee.
“That means around the inspections, but also things like e-learning [the GROW initiative] and offering members new incentives. I need to understand how I can help with all of those things and take them forward.”
He continues: “There’s a sense at the moment that the industry could potentially be facing some quite difficult times, which may or may not be the case. Personally, I think the thing which has the biggest impact on whether or not we have a good year, however, is still the weather.
“With that in mind, one advantage of being a member of the GCA is that businesses are part of a larger group, rather than if they were an independent operating on their own. And obviously, that large group has an awful lot of knowledge, and are always very willing to share it. There is huge camaraderie within the organisation.”
Staying on the subject of difficult times, one illustration of Burks’ last point is the role which GCA played during the Covid crisis, which saw many UK garden centre businesses having to shut their doors for weeks at a time. When those businesses re-opened again meanwhile, they had to put a number of – potentially costly – health and safety measures in place, such as limiting the number of customers who could shop on premise.
The GCA helped to mitigate this situation by providing up-to-the minute information to its members, including via WhatsApp. According to Burks, this is a platform which the organisation wants to continue to take advantage of, alongside other newly popular innovations, such as webinars.
He says: “I absolutely want to encourage the passing on of best practice, for instance via things like WhatsApp groups. Our next webinar [as of January], meanwhile, will be looking at cost-saving initiatives. That will be organised by Matthew Bent, who is someone who knows a thing or two about business.”
“We need to keep communicating what we’re doing as an organisation as well. Members need to know that things are happening all the time, for instance around what the executive committee is doing. Also, we as the GCA need to communicate with the rest of the industry and show them how welcome they are to come and join us. Tell them the benefits of coming on board.”
Rising to the challenge
While the initiatives mentioned by Burks so far are crucially important, for him the GCA’s most important function is the oversight which it provides across the industry (and particularly to its members).
In the first instance, this obviously takes the form of the annual inspections mentioned earlier. At the same time, the organisation is also increasingly promoting ethical/‘green’ selling practices across its member organisations.
Regarding the latter in particular, there are very good reasons for this – both ethical, and business-based. “GCA garden centres are increasingly priding themselves on their relationship to the environment,” says Burks.
“They’re working very hard to reduce some of the environmentally harmful products you can buy at the moment, the most obvious example of which is anything peat-based. At the same time, they’re also becoming increasingly focused on local producers and suppliers, a key benefit of which is the reduction of haulage.
“For me, all that is incredibly important. You’ve got to be happy that what you’re doing is the right thing for the world. And frankly, we’re going to be forced down that route, whether we like it or not.”
Moving onto the inspections piece, he continues: “Every centre has to achieve a pass mark, or they’ll be asked to leave. That’s not an idle threat and it does actually happen. The point is that, coming into a GCA garden centre, you know that the retail standards are great, which reflects well across the whole sector.
“The other side of that is that we have to find ways to make the public more aware of what they’re going to get if they visit a GCA garden centre. I don’t think that’s something we’ve been particularly good at in the past and is something that I would like to help us achieve.”
With the interview coming to an end, we move on to the biggest challenges currently facing the sector, something which seems like an increasingly pertinent topic as of the beginning of 2023. Naturally enough, the two things Burks identifies above everything else (bad weather notwithstanding) is the current cost-of-living crisis, as well as concerns around the cost of energy.
While for him these are clearly a challenge, he also appears surprisingly optimistic. He says: “Regarding the cost-of-living crisis, if people’s disposable income does fall, the question immediately becomes what actually choose to spend it on.
“However, in my experience, the garden centre sector generally hasn’t suffered in those times. People tend to stay close to home when things are hard, which of course includes the garden. People see them as a haven.
“Regarding the energy crisis, that has certainly impacted on businesses, particularly anyone who hasn’t been on a fixed term contract. But as yet, I haven’t heard about this tipping any garden centres over the edge.”
2023 is a year of both challenges and opportunities for the UK garden centre sector. It will be interesting to see the ways in which Burks and the GCA meet these head-on.