Second generation brings company to a new level
Paul Gosling talks to two very different families about how they forged their respective businesses and made them into modern-day success stories
Although the largest part of the Cameron Landscapes business is its grounds maintenance, tree surgery and landscaping operation, its garden centre on the Ballylesson Road between Belfast and Lisburn has a special significance in the family business.
Both the landscaping and garden centre businesses were started in 1968 by husband and wife Ronnie and Pat Cameron, with Ronnie running the landscaping side and Pat in charge of the garden centre. Today the businesses are still in the family's hands, led by son Geoff Cameron and daughter Kathryn Wilson, along with their spouses.
A substantial investment – significantly above a quarter of a million pounds – has gone into the transformation of the garden centre. "It had a few changes over the years, but it really needed to be revamped," said Kathryn.
A big opportunity arose in 2003, when the garden centre had the chance to expand through the purchase of neighbouring land that enabled it to open a coffee shop. "We never had car parking because it was also the family home," said Kathryn. "It was a very small garden centre."
But even after that land acquisition, the business was constrained and unable to maximise its trade, not least because it continued to operate out of an attractive, but old, stable building.
"We really needed to do something and we had plans drawn up," Kathryn said. "People want to have a day out when they go to a garden centre – it is more than just being about the plants. Now we have a new coffee shop, a new plant display area and a gift shop.
"It was quite a substantial project, but we wanted to keep the old stone work of the stable building and keep the character. We wanted to keep the essence of it being a family home and the character and the warmth. We didn't want it to become just a big car park with signs." As part of making the garden centre a leisure destination, it has increased its range of attractions and product sales.
"We have diversified into the deli and food side and extended the gift ware, with local craft," said Kathryn. Suppliers include local food producers and stallholders at Belfast's St George's Market.
In addition to the normal opening hours, the centre has a monthly 'gourmet night', which has a regular clientele. Kathryn said it enables their highly regarded chef to expand his usual menu.
"I think dad would turn in his grave," she said. "But we had to compete with so many others opening and others who were diversifying and extending. So we had to say, what do we want for the next generation, for our kids?
"The result has been great and the feedback has been great. We never closed. We managed to work through the (construction) work, much of which was done through the winter and much of which was done by the family business."
Regular customers were "very patient" and loyal, continuing to use the garden centre and cafe during the refurbishment, said Kathryn. "We didn't have the same number of customers, but we did keep our loyal customers and we kept our staff on."
Following the expansion of the garden centre, an extra 10 employees have been recruited, taking staff numbers at the garden centre to 15 and in the whole family business to over 50. Most of the employment is in the landscape side of the business, which is itself a significant operation – it did the landscaping for projects including the Odyssey, Newcastle Promenade and Custom House Square.
Both sides of the business are now well positioned for the future.
Website helps expanding Craigmore to be switched on in the marketplace
The Craigavon business Craigmore was set up by its managing director Geoff Baird in 1990, when he realised the family business he was a member of was not for him.
"I had a business idea and at the time I was working very long hours for my father's haulage company – and as a young man, I didn't feel I was having a lot of fun doing so," he said. "I realised it was not what I wanted to be doing."
Geoff took on agency arrangements with various suppliers of industrial cleaning equipment, bought a van and went on the road to find customers and sell them equipment. That business expanded over the years and now employs 12 staff. Craigmore is today an agent for industry leader Karcher, 3M and SIP.
"Gradually I took on sales staff and then moved into selling cleaning equipment and then took on engineers to service the products we sold," Geoff said.
The business is now in expansion mode, having taken on an extra staff member this year and it intends to recruit another two people in 2014.
Geoff is keen, in particular, to employ a graduate with strong IT skills who can improve the company's website capacity and appearance.
"We built a new website and it went live over the last 12 months," said Geoff. "We demonstrated there is a demand for it, but no-one here can develop it. So we are looking for someone who can develop it."
The core business operates through a direct sales staff, who sell across Ireland, with service and maintenance back-up available to customers. But the website sells to other markets, offering a simpler business model as the service and maintenance back-up are not included. Some 70% of existing web-based sales are outside Northern Ireland, mostly to Great Britain. The business is not targeting other geographic markets, because of the nature of the agency contracts it holds with manufacturers.
Craigmore is now well positioned, said Geoff. "We are coming out of recession," he said. "We are leaner and more prepared for what is ahead. One person left the business because they were getting older and wanted to work less, but the business is also leaner in other ways.
"We are leaner in the sense that we have a new computer system and we are better at what we are doing and are better equipped, more switched on," said Geoff. "The recession has made a lot of us more focused.
"In the next 12 months I believe we will move out of the recession and people will be more confident, so there is an opportunity to sell more of what we already sell. The more we scratch below the surface the more we find new customers and opportunities. This year we have seen our sales grow by 33% over the last year. That growth in our industry is good."
The business is fortunate with the agency deals it has, adds Geoff. "Karcher is one of our main suppliers. We can ride on the back of their success as their main distributor in Ireland," he said.