The Big Interview: Dobbies CEO Nicholas Marshall

Marshall at the Lasswade site where Dobbies has been headquartered for 75 years. Picture: Colin Hattersley
Marshall at the Lasswade site where Dobbies has been headquartered for 75 years. Picture: Colin Hattersley
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This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of James Dobbie, the founder of Dobbies Garden Centres, but the company’s newly installed chief executive, Nicholas Marshall, can trace the history of his family as pioneers in the world of horticulture back even further.

His great-great-great-grandfather Sir William Jackson Hooker, born in 1785, was Regius professor of botany at the University of Glasgow and director of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew.

And Marshall’s great-great-grandfather was Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, “probably the most famous botanist in the world and director of Kew for 25 years”, a founder of geographical botany and close friend of Charles Darwin. “I like to think that Joseph went out and found plants, and I now sell them,” jokes Marshall.

He is speaking during National Gardening Week, ending today, which he says has coincided with great weather that has “done wonders for gardening and actually wonders for our sales too, which are at record levels, which is fantastic. The season has started early and that’s always a good sign.”

Marshall joined Dobbies last month, replacing John Cleland and bringing more than three decades of experience in the garden centre sector.

Not only has he timed his arrival to coincide with a welcome spell of good weather, but it has come in the run-up to the pivotal sales period of Easter. “We’re looking forward to a really good weekend,” he says.

Trading across Scottish stores is expected to peak over the Easter bank holiday, according to Dobbies. The Easter week is also forecast to be the group’s busiest of the year, 75 per cent more active than an average week. Generally the 100 days from the start of spring account for 31 per cent of sales and 70 per cent of profit.

Marshall, who is from Monifieth in Angus, originally trained as an accountant, following what he says was the best business advice he’s ever been given. It came from his uncle, who believed the profession meant that “whether you run a bar on a beach or ICI, it’s the best way to know if you’re truly making a profit”.

But Marshall says his true passion has always been gardening, and he founded and built two garden centre chains, Country Gardens and Country Homes and Gardens, both plcs.

He explains that the former grew from one site in 1985 to a large group that was sold to Wyevale Garden Centres in 2002 for about £120 million. But Wyevale had, within a few years, “got into a lot of trouble – it had lost its way. It had stopped being keen on gardening and so I was brought in to turn it round with my team, which we did successfully.”

He was chief executive of Wyevale for four years, and it was sold to private equity firm Terra Firma from Lloyds Banking Group for not far off £300m.

“Then, a month ago I was asked to come in to run Dobbies. Interestingly, ten years ago there were three garden centre companies in the UK listed on the stock exchange, and with Dobbies I’ve now run all three.”

Dobbies was founded in 1865 in Renfrew and has grown to 34 stores in the UK, comprising 15 in Scotland, 18 in England and one in Northern Ireland.

It has been headquartered for 75 years at a 70-acre site at Melville, on the outskirts of Edinburgh, which is also home to its flagshop store, and has more than 2,600 staff.

Marshall evidently has strong ambitions for the business. “We want to both expand the existing stores and improve the restaurants and the gardening offer [there],” he says, noting that “as the internet grows, so we’ve got to do more to entertain people and we’re up for that”.

But he says the business is also interested in buying more garden centres in Scotland and England. As for targets, “we do have a few”, but he declines to say exactly how big he sees the branch network growing. “We will buy what is sensible to buy, but undoubtedly we will grow the business quite considerably in the next few years.”

Growing up in a family of “very keen” gardeners, he stresses his own love of the activity, adding: “I have a garden at home of six acres including a walled kitchen garden and orchard.”

Marshall is also sure that key to a garden centre business blossoming is having green-fingered staff. “Everybody that works within the business likes gardening, and you don’t get that in any other retailing. At Tesco you don’t get people with a great love of food or washing powder, so we’re lucky.”

Tesco last year put an end to its ownership of Dobbies, having acquired it in 2007. The supermarket sold what it said had become the UK’s second largest specialist garden centre retailer to an investor group led by Midlothian Capital Partners and Hattington Capital for £217m.

When the deal was announced, Andrew Bracey and Barney Burgess of Midlothian and Hattington respectively said they were “very optimistic about the potential of the business, and we look forward to growing [it] across the UK from its base in Scotland”.

From Tesco’s perspective, chief executive Dave Lewis said it was a tough decision to sell up, but one it felt gave Dobbies “a bright future, while allowing our UK retail business to focus on its core strengths”.

Around the same time last year, Tesco also offloaded interests in restaurant Giraffe and cafe Harris + Hoole as part of a drive to streamline its operations, and it said gross assets relating to Dobbies as at 27 February, 2016, were £255m, and the business contributed £17m to the plc’s pre-tax profits for the year ending on that date.

Dobbies therefore now finds itself under both new ownership and leadership, and Marshall has relocated to Edinburgh for the role, saying he has brought a team of about 12 “that helped me turn Wyevale round and they’ve all moved to Scotland, which is brilliant.

“They have between them more than 200 years of experience so we have big plans and we’re very enthusiastic.”

He said when his appointment was announced that he had “known and admired the Dobbies business for many years, both as a competitor and indeed as a customer”, and he praised former Dobbies boss James Barnes, who left the organisation in 2013 along with finance director Sharon Brown in a boardroom shuffle, for building “a great business”.

Barnes’ father David had acquired Dobbies in 1984 from Waterers, a horticultural business based in Surrey. James Barnes then joined the board, and by 1992 Dobbies says it was focused on growing its garden centre operations, and “quickly became known as a leisure destination for all the family”. In 1994, it underwent a management buyout before further capital was raised.

Marshall says he has “a lot of respect” for how Barnes ran Dobbies, “so I want to take it back to its roots. I want to reaffirm with people that we are first and foremost about plants and about gardening and I also want to do much more to use local nurseries in Scotland and England to stock our plants and to encourage nurseries locally.”

He also cites the local focus when addressing the impact of the UK’s vote to leave Europe, and consumers’ tightening purse strings. “I believe that Brexit will encourage people to shop locally, buying British goods, as European goods have become more expensive with the higher exchange rate.

“To save costs for consumers, I hope to be able to support local nurseries, rather than buying from abroad — it’s more suitable for the climate, generally better quality and we have always found customers prefer local products.”

And while Dobbies says only 13 per cent of UK families spend time in the garden together, Marshall expects this to grow. He notes the increasing popularity of herbaceous plants and homegrown vegetables,

“Gardening itself, I think, is just growing in appeal, because people see the environment as being a more and more important thing”.