Strong roots at Haskins Garden Centres

    Warren Haskins tells Tim Wickham how enthusiasm, innovation and trust underpin the success of his South Coast chain of garden centres.

    It wasn’t all coming up roses when Warren Haskins took over running the family garden centre. His great grandfather had set up the market garden business in Poole in 1882. In 1969, the 20 year-old Haskins was studying nursery practice when his father passed away and the £17,000 annual turnover company was handed on to him.

    “At our first audit, the auditor said he didn’t think we were going to survive,” recalled Haskins, who is non-executive chairman. “I hadn’t really looked at our finances too much until then and realised that we had probably diversified the business too much and the profits weren’t there.”

    Pioneering approach

    Haskins embarked on creating what was then a pioneering concept that combined plants with a broader retail offering. Today, the company operates centres in Ferndown and West End, near Southampton, one in Angmering, and one currently undergoing a £15 million redevelopment at Copthorne, West Sussex.

    The company increased turnover in the year to February 2018 by 3% to £32.4m, with operating profit up 7% to £4.1m

    Haskins Garden Centres:                                            No 116

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    What has helped the business expand at a controlled pace is remaining private “Throughout my time running the business we have not had outside investors who needed quick returns and could well have pushed us to grow much faster than we were comfortable with. Our focus has always been on steady, manageable growth,” he said.

    “The management team carried out an awful lot of research before we revised our garden centre model, including putting restaurants at the heart of the business. I used to have sleepless nights about whether we’d done the right thing,” he added.

    He needn’t have worried. The attractive and enticing restaurants are crowd pleasers. “Without restaurants our turnover would be much more sporadic. They help us smooth out the peaks and troughs during the year,” said Haskins.

    The restaurants account for around 22% of the company’s turnover, and Haskins expects this to top 25% when the Snowhill Centre in Copthorne re-opens. About half the company’s 600 staff work in its restaurants, which sold more than 1.4 million hot drinks in 2017.

    While he recognises that customer loyalty can be fickle, even to a 130 year-old local name, he feels customers genuinely like and trust the brand. And that, he says, is down to the experience they receive from his friendly, knowledgeable staff.

    Early tech adopter

    Efficient management of around 60,000 stock units is crucial. A central replenishment team runs the company’s stock management system and controls every item, right down to the individual ingredients in the restaurants’ chilli con carne.

    The company has always invested significantly in IT. “Probably more than most other garden centres,” Haskins noted. “We installed our first computer in 1982 and were early adopters of electronic point of sale (EPoS) technology.”

    Family interest

    The Haskins family trusts own most of the company’s shares, along with some issued to directors. Haskins’ three children are enthusiastic supporters although not involved in the day-to-day running of the company. Haskins has no plans to sell the business, or to dilute the family interests by bringing in external investors. Still closely involved in the running of the business, he spends about a day and a half each week visiting the garden centres and meeting with the management teams and other board members.

    Aside from his garden centre success story, Haskins was also the brains behind the Hobbycraft chain of craft shops. He started Hobbycraft in the 1990s after handing over the reins of running Haskins Garden Centres and built the chain up to 47 stores nationally before selling it in 2010.

    Lessons learned

    One business lesson he’s always kept with him is never be complacent. “We constantly review every aspect of what we do. To stay competitive we have to keep moving forward,” he said.

    Another one is to trust the experience of your colleagues. “We have a fantastic board who aren’t afraid to tell me when I’m wrong and great staff who contribute enormously,” he said. “I trust my people and let them get on with it.”

    James Tetley, partner at RSM, commented: “Although Warren is naturally modest about Haskins’ success, it is an impressive example of how an unwavering focus on maintaining the core focus of the business on customer service, continuing to invest in his management team and staff, and maintaining a strong balance sheet, has made Haskins Garden Centres the success it is today.”

    Sol-250-759-Haskins-Garden-Centre

    Lessons learned

    One business lesson he’s always kept with him is never be complacent. “We constantly review every aspect of what we do. To stay competitive we have to keep moving forward,” he said.

    Another one is to trust the experience of your colleagues. “We have a fantastic board who aren’t afraid to tell me when I’m wrong and great staff who contribute enormously,” he said. “I trust my people and let them get on with it.”

    James Tetley, partner at RSM, commented: “Although Warren is naturally modest about Haskins’ success, it is an impressive example of how an unwavering focus on maintaining the core focus of the business on customer service, continuing to invest in his management team and staff, and maintaining a strong balance sheet, has made Haskins Garden Centres the success it is today.”

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