Incorporated in 1988 as a business providing supermarkets with fresh produce by the Ball family in Lancashire, Lovania Nurseries diversified into bedding plants at the turn of the millennium. After a 22-year growth period, peaking at a £20m turnover in 2021, Lovania Nurseries has recently implemented a company-wide Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system, designed to help the business be more efficient.
The company – which now works from 13 different sites – has over 40 acres of outside and greenhouse growing space; consists of around 120 full time staff; and is a specialist plant supplier of over 45 million plants annually to over 800 customers (which includes 95% of the top 100 garden centres in the UK).
According to James Ball, head of strategy at Lovania Nurseries – and the son/grandson of the founders – the business would like to be seen at the forefront, leading a technological revolution in the sector. And they’ve turned to NetSuite to help them achieve this.
NetSuite ERP the one for Lovania
NetSuite is an all-in-one ERP cloud business management solution that helps organisations operate more effectively by automating core processes and providing real-time visibility into operational and financial performance. With a single, integrated suite of applications for managing accounting, order processing, inventory management, production, supply chain and warehouse operations, NetSuite gives companies clear visibility into their data and tighter control over their businesses.
“Since the business was incorporated until this ERP project began, all of our data was collected using Excel spreadsheets, office programmes and a lot of information contained in people’s heads – whether that is the sales team, production staff or the growers” explains Ball.
“It got to the point where we had grown to such a size, that we didn’t have any real data year-on-year that we could use to forecast things like sales volumes. We didn’t have access to particularly useful financial information from a management perspective, so we didn’t have margin data by plant variety or by customer in some cases. So, for large chunks of the business, £10m worth of turnover, we couldn’t attribute to varieties and customers. We knew what we were forecast to make on paper but couldn’t measure the performance to the detail we wanted.”
Ian Land, finance director of Lovania Nurseries, was part of the leadership team that implemented the new digital system. He says: “It’s fair to say that we didn’t have a stock system. We were using Sage 50 as our accounting system, but just for accounting and that was it – just a programme that could raise sales invoices and process purchasing invoices, but it really didn’t give us the data that we needed to interrogate what was doing well, what are the wins and losses.
“The thinking was to get a fully integrated ERP system that allows us to have one version of the truth.”
Lovania Nurseries explored a lot of different options such as SAP, Sage 200, OrderWise, Microsoft Dynamics and NetSuite and concluded that NetSuite was the most suitable for the company.
Land explains: “It’s probably the easiest to use – it had a lot of core basics off the shelf; we can tailor it to suit our requirements; and in fact, we went live with just the finance package solution last year. We’ve added the stock part of the system in January 2023. It gives us the flexibility to roll with it –you don’t have to start all at once, we started simple and as time progressed, we added extra modules onto it.”
One issue that Lovania were having, and a reason they researched an ERP system, was the ability to monitor and keep track of stock. With millions of plants produced and sold, and trollies leaving the nursery making their way to garden centres every week – the business was finding that often the sales team were producing orders for plants and being several trollies of a variety short.
Ball explains: “It’s a massive issue when you’re growing on our scale. Through this piece of software, and the scanning project we’re working on now, we should eventually be able to have an accurate stock count of what’s on the ground. We’ll have live figures as they’re scanned out the door, that will flow back to the sales team, and they can make sure that they’re selling from stock that’s physically available.”
Better reporting from an ERP system
Scott Bethel, head of supply chain within the business, believes that the ERP system has allowed them to better price their products, offering a quick and easy look at what has been profitable for the company, and maybe where they can better focus their resources.
Bethel says: “We have a division called Hardy Nursery Stock, which is shrubs etc, which is complex, difficult to grow, expensive to buy, and is on the nursery for a long time. We’d have some bedding plants that have been planted and are out the door within six weeks, but some of the shrubs are here for a year.
“There is obviously a ceiling to what someone is prepared to pay for that product and as a customer, when you’re buying those products from a garden centre, you don’t necessarily differentiate between that plant and another. But from a business perspective, that first plant has been here for six weeks and has cost us that amount, whereas the other has been with us for a year. It’s taking up space on our nursery, and you can only sell it once, so as a team we’ve looked at that and thought ‘a huge amount of work goes into that, and we could have had 10 crops of something else through’.
“It’s given us the ability to reaffirm the decisions,” explains Bethel. “With NetSuite, like any other system, it takes time to build up data, so the more data you can get in, the information that we can pull today versus the information we’ll be able to pull in year, two, three, four – it just grows exponentially. It will enable these good decisions for us and the customer.”
The initial view on implementation of the ERP software was that “it benefits us, which in turn, benefits the customer” – but there are direct customer benefits too. These customers will have an array of reports available to them, better visibility on stock at the nursery, and there’s the possibility of better pricing.
Ball explains: “From our perspective, by collecting this data on accurate volumes to fulfil the sales that we need, and on selecting the most popular varieties, we in turn will be more efficient when it comes to production. We’re not going to over order, so we’ll suffer less wastage because we’re growing the correct amount and we’re not growing the varieties that are perhaps more challenging. That improves our efficiencies, and it helps us control our costs so we can make sure the price that we charge our customer is controlled.”
Wastage and sustainability
Having been able to access more data, this year Lovania Nurseries has grown somewhere in the region of 800,000 fewer pots, whilst increasing its profits. They’ve thought smarter about order volumes and are now able to link pot volume to turnover.
By controlling the number of pots, and limiting the amount of wastage, there’s certainly a thought that the business is becoming more sustainable.
Bethel continues: “From a recyclability, sustainability perspective, we’re all trying to use less. From a buying perspective, we’re always looking to make sure we’re using recyclable products. We try to use less virgin plastics. We’re also looking at a process of reusing as well.
“Historically, if something has been disposed of, that plastic pot will sit somewhere forever and a day. We can now get that back in, cleaned and back onto a stock system so that pot gets reused. We make sure any stock that’s dumped is recycled, sent somewhere for processing, and potentially goes onto our own fields as fertiliser so we’re always trying to make sure we’re reducing what we use and reusing where we can to maintain that sustainability cycle.”
Wastage incurs costs as well, often acting as a hidden expense that can unexpectedly affect unprepared businesses. In fact, Bethel believes that the labour cost associated with a disposed-of product is higher than the labour cost for a sold plant.
Land explains: “With the bill of materials module, we’ll know that if we’re making say 5,000 of these plants, we need two bales of compost. Once we’ve made them, we’ll have half a bale left. In the past, no one would’ve known about that or where that was. That will now be recorded on the system, and we’ll know we’ve still got half a bale of compost left that we can potentially use on something else.”
Staff challenges for Lovania
Ball, Bethel, and Land all agree that, as with all major ERP software rollouts, it’s been challenging getting staff on board with the project and there have been teething issues from a customer perspective, which the company has had to react to. Now that the system has been integrated into the day-to-day running of the business, it should only improve in 2024 and beyond.
Ball says: “It’s fair to say this is not the most technologically advanced sector and it’s the same from a growing perspective. Some production staff who produce the plants aren’t that way inclined.
“Generally, there’s a resistance to technology. Doing what we’ve done for 20 years, we’ve got into bad habits, and we’ve become accustomed to what we do. When you try and wrap a system around it all like this, it does create work for certain people. They must record numbers, they must record what they use to make the plant and how many pots we’ve got on the ground, and possibly scan labels on the way out of the nursery which they didn’t have to do before.
“Slowly, though, it’s turning around – certainly in the sales team. The team likes it now that they can see the benefits. It’s quicker to key orders, the system saves information and it’s all pre-populated. They can see what customers have previously ordered so they can give them that feedback, which they like. It should free up their time to connect with customers and drive more sales.”
Lovania Nurseries was able to move forward with these plans thanks to a grant from Made Smarter, a government scheme aimed at helping businesses implement technology and software. The overall three-year investment, including implementation cost and licences, is around £180,000.
And moving forward, there are several other technological implementations that Lovania is looking towards – all based on the success it has had with NetSuite’s ERP.
“The information that is now available isn’t necessarily information customers want or care for, but it’s the direction in which the world is moving”, explains Ball. “And, as and when they need that, and when they realise the data is there for them, we’ll already have implemented this, and it can give them the information needed.”
Lovania Nurseries www.lovania.co.uk 01772 817030 188 Blackgate Lane, Tarleton, Preston, Lancashire, PR4 6UU