Three steps to success in a new era
Author: Martin Emmett*

We have all heard enough about a certain disease – so its name does not need to be mentioned. Instead, let’s concentrate on the challenge and opportunity we face as an industry.

In my country, the UK, the garden plant sector has taken a big hit; with garden centres being closed for at least seven weeks (coinciding with the peak of the season) and those in Scotland being the last to open in Europe. The total value of ornamental plants and flowers grown in the UK is estimated at over €1.5 billion – at times like these, national governments need to know how important horticulture is both to their economy and to the wellbeing of their citizens.

As businesses come to terms with the impacts of the crisis, it is helpful to break the strategic response into three steps: survival, recovery and growth.

Step1: Survival

UK growers in garden centre supply chains might this year lose up to 70% of their annual turnover; all other supply chains have suffered significant losses and many businesses are at risk of collapse. With cash flow jeopardised, growers needed to make immediate use of government aid packages. In the UK a ‘Job Retention’ (furlough) scheme allowed employers to lay-off staff, for a minimum of three weeks, with the government paying up to 80% of their normal wages. Difficult decisions had to be made regarding maintaining production capabilities to ensure there was the capacity to re-supply the market once it reopened. We are still in survival mode! As businesses negotiate finance packages with their banks, they may need to make use of government-guaranteed loans (bizarrely compromised by ‘state aid’ rules). The compensation scheme offered by the Dutch government to their growers gives timely support and the prospect of carrying a minimum amount of debt forward; other countries need to follow their lead if their national industries are to compete on equal terms in the future.

Step2: Recovery

As lockdown conditions ease, the next challenge is to minimise losses and restructure operations to efficiently accommodate social distancing procedures. Maintaining efficiency, whilst keeping employees as far apart as possible, needs careful consideration. Whatever solutions we develop may be incorporated into long term practice and give us more resilience if we return to a lockdown situation.

It was inevitable that going into lockdown, businesses were focussed on their immediate internal priorities at the expense of wider external collaboration. Now, as we enter a phase of recovery, it is essential that effort is co-ordinated. In terms of maintaining supply chains: if the actions we take now don’t help everyone, they are unlikely to help anyone!  A single nursery business cannot survive on its own, it needs its suppliers and they, in turn, need a buoyant customer base. There has never been a more important time for trade bodies to work with the full support of their members (and those who should be members), and for the trade bodies themselves to be working together.

Step3: Growth

The first two steps put huge demands on the resources and resilience of growers, but the third step does provide some reward for these efforts. One of the consequences of lockdown has been a re-evaluation of the role of gardens and green spaces both in our wellbeing and as areas of recreation.

It is no surprise that, when garden centres did re-open in the UK, there was an immediate surge in demand for both plants and sundries. With restrictions in travel likely to either remain in place or, possibly, be re-introduced, it is only natural that homeowners will want to invest in plants to make their homes and gardens more visually appealing.

There will be shifts in demand for certain product groups – for example, fewer trips to supermarkets may encourage more fresh produce to be grown at home. A global recession looms, but history has shown that this has often had a limited impact on garden plants. We need to start thinking ahead and anticipate: what type of products will customers want in the new era that lies ahead?

For further information, we have support for you in our Covid-19 resource centre.

*About the author
Martin Emmett is Strategy Director at Tristram Plants, members of the Farplants Group; which supplies garden plants to retailers across the UK. He also operates a training consultancy and currently lectures on Diploma courses at RBG Kew and RHS Wisley. He is active in UK trade bodies including the Horticultural Trades Association, the National Farmers Union and the Ornamental Horticulture Roundtable Group.