Knowing what makes the real difference

“A lot of companies work along similar lines to a game of kids football,” says Martin Stewart.  “Everyone surrounds the ball wherever it is, but as a business grows, we can’t all be directly involved with everything.”

So how does the managing director of D Stewart & Son, the garden centre, nursery, and landscaping business define his role?

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“My job is people,” he declares. “I don’t say that glibly. But if you look at everything we are involved in, there is nothing that another company couldn’t do. How we interact with staff and customers is the difference. If as a company we are sincerely there for our staff, then they will be there for the customer. If a colleague has a family crisis for example, they will be willing to cover rather being told to.

“We can’t put a badge on someone which says my name is George and I’m grumpy today because my girlfriend dumped me last night. A company has to have the kind of culture which recognises people can have a bad day and is prepared to take them out of the firing line.”

Although he resents the notion that work per se, is some kind of battleground: “I have written to a GP before to say why have you given Johnny a sick note for stress, when the stress is at home not work. Being with us is his release. I never had a reply.” Every member of staff aged twenty-one and above has been on the living wage since 2015; those under twenty-one receive more than the minimum wage. “That helps to stop churn,” Stewart says.

Rather than the family concern, which dates back eight generations to 1742, being his career, Stewart wanted to fly helicopters in the Royal Navy. “But I said to Dad, before I take the sixyear commission I would like to spend some time in the family business,” he explains. “One Friday evening I was telling him how much I was enjoying it. On the Monday he died. I was twenty-three. For the best part of a decade I presided over one crisis to another. By the time I had got to my thirties I had done enough for the business to enable me to have time for backpacking and motor racing. Now I’ve done all that, and I just want to focus on the business.

“I think we can do something really special. There is a word I use which is intensity. For example in just a few short weeks, 13,000 children come to see Santa at his grotto here. And they get to see real reindeer as well. It’s a differentiator, something which sets us apart. When people get to the T-junction, I want them to turn in our direction. This is an interesting time for us. Dad used to say formalisation can be standardisation, which means a business loses its ability to be innovative. There is a need though to formalise procedures, but really I want people to react in a way they think is right.”

He says that belonging to a certain demographic hasn’t conditioned his view of how Stewarts Garden Centres can utilise technology. “We’ve built a warehouse for click and connect but I’m not a massive believer that online represents the future for our garden centre business,” he says. “With our garden centres we have created a destination where people can do more than indulge their passion for the garden; catering represents 25% of our business. An analogy I have used for the last fifteen years is that the internet started with online book selling and hotel booking – obvious uses of technology. At the other end, it’s the meal out, and you can’t Skype that. Which end are we? We’re closer to the meal out because we have created an environment which people want to come to.”

The company has captured 45,000 names and addresses (postal and email) and sends its quarterly magazine out to those who have actually made purchases based on their privilege card. “Garden centres I know have four times as many on their mailing list, but they have no idea how active they are as customers or not,” observes Stewart.

Every section of the garden centre – gifts, outdoor plants, catering for example – is run as a stand-alone business, each with its gross profit target. “Head office does the processing for them,” says Stewart.”It doesn’t tell the department heads what to do.”

The traditional view is that the only way for a garden centre to maintain quality is to grow the product itself. “Actually that’s cobblers,” says Stewart. “The easiest way is to roll the shutter up on the delivery lorry when it arrives, and if the product isn’t perfect, you simply roll the shutter back down again. We receive our poinsettias for example from a family nursery and the quality is perfect because when they wake up in the morning, that’s all they think about. Business has to be about sincerity. You can’t manufacture passion. We only grow what we can grow well, which is mainly herbaceous.”

Will growth come from strategy or opportunity? “We would consider making acquisitions, but I can’t determine when they are going to be available for us to consider, so the two are intrinsically linked,” Stewart suggests. It’s also about being able to apply considered thought to what at face value might appear to be the proverbial no-brainer. He gives a salient example. “Sometimes on our landscape side the customer will ask if we can look after one of their locations elsewhere in the country. But we can’t service them if we can’t react immediately to a phone call and go straight there. In that situation what we do is to say that we will find them a Stewarts in that area. On the one hand you could say we are turning down an opportunity, but the risk is that we let the customer down on service and that would have implications regardless of how good a job we have been doing closer to home.”

And the next generation? “I sat the kids down when they were in their mid teens and said if they want to give it a go I didn’t want them in the family business until they were at least thirty,” says Stewart. “Otherwise they wouldn’t have the experiences to be able to contribute new ideas. One is involved in the food packaging industry, the other is with the BBC. I’m fifty-nine, happy to be building the business, but at some time I will need to retire. The owner-manager of a company tends to be on it 24/7, because ‘what if-ing’ is in your thoughts constantly, and at times that can be quite hard. Nobody else really understands that.”

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