Expanding Your Horizons

‘I feel I have reached saturation point in my local area, having landscaped many gardens over the past fifteen years. I am pretty well known locally, and now wish to look for new markets further afield. I work mainly in villages, and would like to try to attract more prestigious   work in larger towns. How should I go about this?’

I well understand your situation, and assure you it works both ways. Rural businesses hanker after more lucrative markets, and see cities as a means to write their own cheques, whilst city firms welcome the opportunity to work in more relaxed surroundings, with no traffic wardens and parking or congestion charges and accordingly seek less stressful sites.

First of all, you should take stock of your business. Obviously, you are successful. You need to analyse that success, and consider the financial facts. Your profitability is directly related to the costs of producing current projects. Your accepted quotations and related outgoings, including labour, materials, transport and yard rental are all part of one set of equations.

These figures are highly relevant, as they only relate to your existing business including and especially, your current work force. Although you may feel frustrated, are they willing to stay with you if you decide to increase the distances you are prepared to travel for work? Starting work on site at 8am may mean leaving at 5.30 or 6am, with a lot of overtime to take into account when quoting for ‘City’ projects. Increased transport costs and vehicle depreciation will certainly affect your profits.

Whilst it is certainly true that ‘City’ firms can and do charge more money, these increases are all inter-related. Higher charges do not necessarily lead to increased profits. I said earlier that it works both ways. I used to operate from mid-Sussex and for many years, carried out ‘prestige’ projects, mainly in the West End of London, working for ‘Society’ Designers. I can assure you that although these schemes were very interesting and profitable, the only way I could make money was down to the fact that my overheads were so much lower than my city rivals. What they spent on office/yard rentals and higher wages (London weighted) I was spending on fuel, tyres and overtime, so we were pretty much on a par.

Somewhere along the line though, the workforce grew older and less tolerant of early starts and long drives, often leaving site at 4pm and getting home four hours later, only to start again at 5.30 the next day. Tired staff equals a negative downward spiral as the years go by, and eventually I gradually changed my marketplace back to more local work.

A possible alternative would be to start a new depot, under your current name, and using some of your existing staff to open a new branch in your favoured town/city, begin the process of training new staff to your standards. This way, as your existing staff become older and less tolerant of travelling, your new team will have had the benefit of your talents, and continue operating to your high ideals.

You would have to be extremely cautious in your financial evaluations, working with a trusted accountant to guide you at all times. Whilst I appreciate that you are currently frustrated by your limitations, you need to keep a clear and unsentimental logic to all your undertakings, whilst at the same time running your existing company. Anything else, and you may find the parent firm loses profitability and thereby threatening both new and existing ventures.

I found there were distinct advantages to my time in London. We were obliged to become highly efficient in all sorts of ways – everything required military planning and logistics, as without this discipline, every job would have been lossmaking. We learnt all sorts of ‘tricks’ when working through houses for example, having to protect carpets and wall paper. Disposing of rubbish became a fine art, and the efficacy of the whole team was both humbling and inspiring!

Gaining access to site was a serious business, and I would reconnoitre the site beforehand and sort out everything from parking arrangements to the nearest Builders Merchant and office of the Traffic Wardens to beg for permits. So many additional disciplines must be learnt of necessity that have nothing whatsoever to do with landscaping, yet be mastered to survive the experience.

I suggest that you compile a dossier of your work and open discussions with an established garden designer – perhaps even a local group of SGD members – with a view to tendering for work in the city, and rely to some extent on their local knowledge to help you break into your chosen market. Whichever course you choose, you will need contacts in the area, and designers are the obvious professionals. They too, may be keen to work with someone who has skills and specialisms their existing landscapers do not have. Any Unique Selling Points you may have will now come to the fore!

Expanding your business is fraught at any time, as increasing in size does not necessarily mean a comparable increase in profits, and the strength of your existing business model, with its’ current infrastructure and management base will be sorely tested unless you write a comprehensive new business plan, with your senior staff, family and professional advisers.

Build on your present strengths, and incorporate what makes you currently so successful.