It was raining – an occupational hazard if you operate in the horticultural sector – so I wasn’t expecting Oliver Good to be smiling when he undertook this interview, writes John Burbedge.
Maybe it was his increased turnover last year to £9.5 million. Or perhaps, more obviously, the success of the busy retail nursery and café in which we sat, located within the Stubbings Estate near Burchetts Green, the headquarters of the Stubbings Group of which Good is managing director.
Either way, the Good family seem to have got things covered to offset the ‘rainy days’ of commercial endeavour. For whilst the group office may be located within the estate environment with its horticultural and events interests, it has diversified into several offshoots that provide income streams supporting the overall entity.
Perhaps it is this diversification, underpinning the Stubbings Group success and stability, that helps maintain Good’s friendly smile.
The Good family’s commercial interests in the Thames Valley go back to 1870 when Good’s great, great, great, grandfather established a farming and dairy enterprise in Holyport. This flourished until the mid-1960s when the business, by then expanded throughout the region with a production unit in Newbury, was sold to Express Dairies.
In the 1980s, Good’s father Dudley created a garden centre group in southern England with plants supplied from the 85-acre Stubbings Estate. As a teenager, Oliver spent school holidays helping out at the nursery.
Following the sale of the garden centres, the nursery at Stubbings was retained and its retail operation developed alongside the current café-restaurant.
Today, Stubbings Nursery has a horticultural operation with heritage and character; a café-restaurant with ambiance and locally produced food.
But that’s not all…
Today, a good portion of the group’s income is derived from the design and construction of agricultural and industrial buildings throughout the south of England by its Marlborough-based subsidiary Scorpion Buildings, an established business bought in 2007.
It was an interesting time to buy a construction company – 10 months prior to the credit crunch ‘cliff’ – nevertheless it was astute. The demands of the agricultural sector and home-grown food production has provided a reliable base for expansion – Scorpion’s turnover has grown by around 35% over the past three years.
Additionally, from a commercial property portfolio built up in the ‘noughties’, but partially divested prior to the recession, Stubbings Estate remains as the flagship of the group. Along with the nursery and café, it provides serviced executive office space and business lettings.
For the past 15 years a short opera summer-season has been a local feature at Stubbings. (Good’s brother is professional opera soloist Richard Burkhard.) The estate grounds also provide for outdoor events ranging from weddings, plays, business seminars, filming, fairs and circuses – their location, adjacent to the A404M and nearby M4 and M40 junctions, being a major access advantage.
The recent development of the 70-seat café-restaurant has proved challenging but very rewarding. Assisted by Nathalie Rippon (Good’s sister), the design and development of the café overlooking the Victorian walled garden has proved a remarkable success – sales are up 40% year-on-year. Not surprisingly, an extension is already planned.
Landscaping, garden design, delivery and expert advisory services, particularly for mature and semi-mature plants, are now also available for customers.
“Since 2008, having a diverse portfolio and income streams has been very welcome, if not vital to where we are now,” states Good.
Being a family business, commercial prospects are thoroughly discussed and decision-making can be quick, but the Goods gain professional assistance when required. “As we grow there will no doubt be a requirement for more external advice, but I suspect that had I been horticulturally trained (he has an MBA and a music degree) I would have been held back in business terms by the plants.”
Good accepts his limitations. “Clearly, I juggle a lot of balls and can’t be operationally involved constantly everywhere. But, that’s what makes it fascinating, every business day is different.” He has introduced personally selected staff and a management structure to run key business elements. “It’s about having trust in the right people around you.”
And what of the opportunities and challenges ahead?
Growth is one. With the spectre of higher interest rates, Good aims to self-fund growth where possible. “Our objective is to remain independent and make sure more customers know about us.”
Nearby motorway and A-road links provide excellent access to Stubbings Nursery, yet Good recognises its footfall could be greater. Improved publicity and marketing of Stubbings business activities are an obvious opportunity. A revised website, better use of social media, online technology and cross-marketing are likely.
“The challenge for us is to maintain a pleasant environment here, a welcoming customer experience to which people will want to return and tell friends about.”
Future challenges for Stubbings Group are similar to those of the Thames Valley – a competitive local economy, demand for skilled staff, the commuting impact of Crossrail – but not problems when it rains.