Nearly 80 years have passed and Almondsbury Garden Centre is very different from its humble beginnings.
Through War, crop shortages, inclement weather and even recession, Almondsbury Garden Centre and its sister sites at Cheddar and Lechlade still reverberate that “it’s not so much of a business as a passion for us” says Phil Hodges, the third generation of the Hodges Family to run the garden centres.
“It all started in 1933 when my father, Fred, rented a 16 room house and 7.5 acres of land from the Hiatt Baker family in Almondsbury for 26 shillings a week. His father already had a nursery in Henbury and I suppose you could say gardening is in our genes! This was the kitchen garden, and father produced fruit, vegetables and flowers for the house and the community.”
This continued for a few years but things changed dramatically during the war.
“Dad, became a producer of vegetables as you couldn’t grow anything else. You were regularly inspected to make sure you were not growing flowers. In 1942, he provided fruit and vegetables for the Bristol Aeroplane company Canteen, who were serving lunch for 2000 workers a day. It was tough during the war and you would walk around Almondsbury and see all the cars up on bricks as they couldn’t afford fuel. We were lucky that we had Petrol coupons to help deliver our produce to the companies and families who needed it.”
“As a child in the war, we used to go hunting for Shrapnel, the Americans were based down at Overcourt, so for me sometimes it felt like a giant adventure. I do remember one day during the war, when father was out hoeing the ground and he was shot at by a German Bomber!”
In 1946, the Hiatt Bakers moved to Oxfordshire to another estate they owned and he auctioned off the properties. In a rare act of kindness, Mr Hiatt Baker, had agreed prices with all his workers before the sale and ensured that the properties were sold to them at the agreed prices where Fred Hodges bought the house we see today and seven acres of land.
“After the war finished in 1945 you couldn’t build structures or anything because of permits and rationing. Father would even need his ration book to buy a piece of wood to raise a bed!” Towards the end of the 40’s, the government began to release pressure and Fred began growing things he liked. He built 4 greenhouses down the slope (in the same space they are today). “The greenhouses all had separate boilers and all needed stoking and constant care so there were around 5 people working for father at that time”. When Keith was 15 he began working for his father, Fred for £1 per week. “I worked with Dad for about two years but we had completely different ideas. So I started a greengrocers on Gloucester Road, Bristol.” Keith called his business Park Garden Nurseries and he purchased a lot of produce from his Father Fred.
In 1969, Fred Hodges died from Chronic Asthma and Keith inherited the business which to all intents and purposes was on its knees.
“I learnt so much from working in the retail game and really only the money made from selling the greengrocers and my bank manager Phil Jones, kept the nursery afloat. They were a tough few years. We began to develop the business by producing John Innes Compost and we also installed gas heating into the greenhouses to help streamline the activity.”
Access to and from the nursery was through the house. The lorries were getting bigger and more regular and in 1974/75, Keith built a new entrance, which is the same entrance used today. “The wall used to run the length of the road and as soon as we put another entrance in, customers started driving up asking us what we sold. We didn’t really expect that! The road was only mud path and customers used to get their cars stuck!
The composting side of the business was really taking off and they were producing around 1000 tonnes of bagged compost a year, but they were also getting asked more and more for dry goods and sundries and towards the end of the 70s Simon Yelland from Gibbs Palmer (which is now Solus Garden Leisure – Park Garden Centre’s oldest supplier) got in contact with Keith.
“I remember Simon asking me to visit him to talk about retailing in the nursery. I was not at all interested in this as I really didn’t believe this was the way forward, but Simon was very enthusiastic and offered us tremendous support to set the shop up. We started by building a shop which was 4 bays long, I said to Simon how are we going to fill this? He was so reassuring and he told me not to worry, he would fill it for us and that we could pay him back monthly.”
Keith ensured that Gibbs Palmer were paid monthly and the retail side of the business began to take off. In the 1980s Keith expanded the retail side of the operation to the size the store is today “Whilst it was great to maintain the nursery and composting side of the business, Wholesale and Retail didn’t mix and the site was not big enough for both and we made a decision to concentrate on the Retail side of the business.”
The shop expanded and the car park developed to enable customers to frequent the Garden Centre easily. Keith also developed a very successful gardening club.
“We used to clear out the bottom greenhouse and fill it with 250 chairs. We had around 230 members with a large waiting list. It was so successful that it began to put a strain on my staff. We would host a night once a month on a Wednesday during the summer and staff would come in first thing and work right through. I think as an employer it was an important decision, but a sad one at the same time! We would love to get this going again and are trying to plan a series of events towards the end of the year in 2011.”
The Gardening Club at Almondsbury had some extremely interesting speakers and some even arrived by Police Escort! “We had been alerted to a problem at the Garden Centre and the Police had closed Over lane. The members started abandoning their cars and walking down. Nothing was going to stop them! The speaker had to come from Gloucester and they went into the Police Station and said can you help and they gave her a police escort all the way to the garden centre! Imagine that happening nowadays?”
Almondsbury Garden Centre is steeped in tradition and family history and you can feel a sense of the family atmosphere when you walk in through the main doors.
“We have always tried to look after our staff, they are such an important part of the business. Whilst the goods are there, it is your staff that the customer creates the relationship with and we want it to feel like you’re visiting family every time you come!”
“In 1992 we added Lechlade Garden Centre to our Family. It really was a chance meeting at the NFU offices where I met the owner of Lechlade Garden Centre. On the train back we got talking and he told me all about his lovely fuchsia centre, we felt compelled to have a look! We turned up and there were 3 cars in the car park and the place was tired, but we saw massive potential, a beautiful area like this deserved a garden centre they could feel proud of.”
Whilst on Holiday, Keith received a phone call about Lechlade advising him it was up for sale and with limited fuss, Lechlade became part of the family. “The Garden Centre was really run down, but we didn’t have lots of money to fix it, we had to tidy it up and make best of what we had. I don’t think people saw what we saw!”
“We bought Lechlade with Phil in mind, we never thought he would join the business, but he was like a duck to water. He had the business savy that we maybe didn’t and he moved up to Lechlade in 1994.” Added Keith.
“Lechlade enabled me to learn all my retailing. It gave me the opportunity to look at everything from ordering to merchandising and to really understand Garden Centre retailing” added Phil. “Lechlade was by reputation before we bought it expensive and poorly stocked and staffed. I stayed there until 1997, and I have to say they were 3 extremely tough years. We worked really hard to improve the business, and overcome its poor reputation.”
“I never doubted Lechlade would be a success but I do think we all underestimated how much damage the old management/ownership had done.” Lechlade Garden Centre is situated in the Cotswolds, right on the border of Oxfordshire, Wiltshire and Gloucestershire. “We brought our quality, our fair pricing and our customer service to Lechlade but because of its location, customers needed a reason to come and it was not until we flattened the site and provided a modern large Garden Centre that enough customers had a reason to drive out to visit Lechlade Garden Centre.” Added Phil
In 1997, Phil took over running the whole business as Keith decided to retire.
“We held our first ever management meeting, and I operated completely differently to my dad. Dad was great at gardening but didn’t want to run anything he didn’t understand. He therefore had the rest of the garden centre run on a series of franchises. There was a Coffee Shop, Aquatics Centre, Landscaping Centre and Garden Buildings all run on the site as separate businesses. Within a two year period I had taken over all the franchises and ran them within the business growing turnover and more importantly profitability allowing us to invest in the business.”
Almondsbury also had fundamental retailing problems. “The car park at Almondsbury was a field, on a wet day in April, cars would be queuing back to the M5 to get into the Garden Centre. This wasn’t helping our relationship in the community nor was it growing the business. In 98/99 we redeveloped the car park and added two new bays onto the existing building to allow us to have a Coffee shop and also offer our customers more choice!”
Whilst restructuring the business, Phil also made some big decisions with his team and empowered staff to make purchasing decisions “We wanted staff to be more responsible for their ordering, to ensure the quality was high and as you can see today, the teams know their products, the quality is exceptional. It made such a difference, they felt more involved and ultimately saw that we believed in the team!”
The 2000's to now...
In 2000, Phil decided to knock down Lechlade and start again.
“Hindsight is a wonderful thing, knocking down Lechlade when we bought it would have made a real statement, but we just couldn’t afford it. We were now in a position to make this happen and what a difference it made.”
Within a year Lechlade began to see a flurry of younger, more affluent customers, who felt that Lechlade was a place to go. Almondsbury and Lechlade continued to grow and in 2001, Phil received a rather odd phone call from a gentleman in Cheddar offering them a huge area of land with planning permissions to build a garden centre.
“At the time, we went and had a look and we did feel like the offer was too good to be true at the time. Dad came down with me, and we asked how he had found us? And the guy replied with, you were the first garden centre in the phone book, so you could say we were very lucky to get the opportunity to open up our third Garden Centre in Cheddar”. It took around 4 years to actually get Cheddar Garden Centre open.
“The experience was very enjoyable but extremely gruelling. We had set ourselves a target of opening in March 2006 and we came in on time and on budget. We would have struggled without the support of Allen Associates and Brittannia Construction who were absolutely superb throughout in what was a very pressurised build” add Phil.
Cheddar is very different to both Lechlade and Almondsbury, and is the flagship store of the group. A modern building, fantastic facilities, breath taking views of the Mendips combined with an amazing selection of products; Cheddar really is worth a visit.
This March saw Cheddar celebrate its 5th Birthday and it was a happy milestone for Phil and the family.
“We have always tried to provide a fair and equitable workplace where everyone is treated with respect. I believe in progression and it is great to have such a fantastic team of staff, who are incredibly knowledgeable and very proud of what they do.”
The business, in its 78th year of trading, continues to be a place of the community where people can meet, feel welcome and just enjoy beautiful plants and wonderful food.
“I miss meeting people the most, we have so many lovely people visit our Garden Centres and that does make you feel very proud. The three sites have a tremendous buzz are all unique and one thing remains the same, WE LOVE OUR PLANTS!
I wouldn’t have changed anything, and Phil had a much harder job than we did and both Sue and I, are very proud of him and his staff for their achievements. My ambition was to not be like any other garden centres and Phil has maintained my vision and I cannot thank him enough for that” added Keith
“We have three beautiful Garden Centres, that are well stocked with quality plants, excellent service and at good prices. We know once you visit Park Garden Centres, you will see our quality, our price and our service and know why so many people continue to recommend us day after day!” added Phil