The Big Interview: 'If we were doing today what we did 10 years ago we wouldn't be here... you need to evolve,' says Alan Mercer
Hillmount Garden Centre is a success story for many reasons.
The business, which was set up amid the dark clouds of the Second World War, is now in its fourth generation - an accomplishment that only 16% of family firms in the UK have managed to make, according to Deloitte.
Secondly, in a retail landscape that has seen some of the biggest household names succumb to the e-commerce revolution, Hillmount has thrived.
It's gone from a simple one-store operation in 1940 in the Castlereagh Hills to a three-branch business with what current managing director Alan Mercer describes as a department store set-up.
Alan is one of three brothers raised by Robin and Edith Mercer who own the business. He is the only one of the three brothers to be active on a full-time basis at the company.
His siblings David and Andrew went on to become a training pilot for Jet2 and a dentist respectively.
"But we all had a stint working in the centre. I loved it and they saw other opportunities," says Alan. "We grew up opposite the garden centre. We had a different life from our friends and when other people were going to the seaside on sunny days we were at the garden centre, but it was nice because we got to spend time with dad and we were surrounded by customers who were friends and some of whom, today, still remember me being in the store aged five or six."
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Robin and Edith encouraged their children to pursue their own goals and whether that was taking the reins at the family business or not, they ensured they still got a third level education.
"I went to Grosvenor Grammar School and then onto Essex to do a degree in horticulture. When my parents asked me what I wanted to do I said to them 'grow plants and make money'," adds Alan.
A father of two boys, Ollie (2) and Jack (1), Alan says he will encourage his children to follow their own dreams, but admits: "I'd be delighted, personally, if they became the fifth generation to run the business."
He adds: "My parents said to me your life is your own but get an education and in the worst case scenario you've got this (Hillmount) to fall back on. I would like to be like my parents in that way and allow them to make their own decisions. In the end I'll be happy as along as they're happy."
Alan has done more than "grow plants and make money" since he became full-time at Hillmount. He has helped the business establish a name for not just its horticultural offering, but its add-on services too including its BBQ cookery school, cafe and unique Santa's Grotto for not just children, but dogs!
From succulents to spider plants, giftware and clothing, to top-of-the-range barbecue equipment, Hillmount's stock has expanded greatly from its beginnings.
Its events are expansive too with a programme that spans Ladies Night to Bring a Dog to Santa days, free kids' gardening clubs and even AQE and GL exam days.
"Looking back to my childhood I remember bagging bird food and sticking labels on it - today that bird food comes pre-packed. My dad Robin remembers picking sprouts in freezing temperatures when he was younger. So much has changed since then and it's really worked," says Alan.
Today there are three Hillmount stores. The original shop in Gilnahirk, a Bangor store, which opened in 2013, and an Ards centre, which cut its ribbon in 2017. Collectively they employ around 90 staff.
Hillmount was set up by Alan's great grandfather Hill Mercer and his wife Lily, though Alan is not entirely sure if the name was inspired by Hill or its location on the hills overlooking the city.
The couple returned home after emigrating to Australia in the late 1930s and set up a grocery store in Belfast where they grew their own vegetables. They diversified that range over the years with post-war demand for luxury items shaping their offering.
Today the Mercers continue that way of working in line with demands, or in many cases ahead of the demands of its customers.
"It is tough," Alan admits. "But if we were doing today what we did 10 years ago, we wouldn't be here.
"I can still remember when we started off with the cafe as something new, it became so busy it couldn't cope so we decided to extend that. My granda (Trevor) was still with us and he was getting fed up with the money being spent on the extension project and said that unless we doubled the turnover at the cafe there was no point in doing it. We did double it and the spend was worth every penny,"
Over £500,000 was spent on that project at Gilnahirk, during the recession no less.
"We were told at the time that we were the only people doing an extension," adds Alan.
The extension paved the way for a bigger cafe, a function room catering to businesses who are seeking an alternative backdrop for away days, and a BBQ school where "people can learn to cook more than burgers and sausages on a Weber. Because why would you spend £1,000 on a barbecue and not cook other things?" says Alan.
Asked what he thinks his grandfather Trevor and great grandfather Hill would make of the business 80 years on from it launched, Alan says: "I honestly think they'd be blown away."
Alan and his wife Ciara, an anaesthetist, are expecting their third child in January.
The arrival of the newest Mercer member will mark the beginning of a year of celebrations for the family as 2020 is also the 80th anniversary of the opening of the very first Hillmount store.
It's also going to be a year that will present the company with many challenges.
Alan revealed that already, before our exit from the EU the impact of Brexit has been felt.
The Mercers have received planning permission to build a beauty salon on the Gilnahirk site. They also plan to double the size of the plantery there and replace existing roofs, "But that's all on hold," Alan explains.
"I think that's the thing with Brexit, it's putting people off investing. We had been holding off for two years and now we're going to defer it again."
Brexit hasn't just hit investment plans at Hillmount. It's also posing a threat to its plant and flower offering.
"A lot of our plants come from Holland and we are cautious about ordering from there, not in terms of potential tariffs but time scales.
"When we place an order in Holland on a Monday we usually get it by Saturday. My concern would be that Brexit would delay that and three days extra delivery time could ruin the plants and create mould. What we're also finding is that a lot of our suppliers from Holland haven't released new price lists. We've ordered already but we're seeing a delay in getting information and prices and those that have put up prices have added a 5% increase. We just want a decision to be made so that we can move on. We don't mind what happens but it's the uncertainty that is causing unrest," he says.
"We feel like it's going to be tougher to get growth under Brexit."
In the immediate future, the company has more light-hearted issues to overcome, like finding elves for its widely acclaimed Santa's Grotto.
The festive event at the Gilnahirk site has, like the rest of the business, evolved over the years to become something of a Christmas custom for those living in the area.
"The grotto began as a charity event in 1990 and people came to see it and really in the last five years its been taken further and is competing with many of the mainstream grottos," says Alan.
Looking beyond Brexit, Alan believes the gardening centre sector will experience a bit of a renaissance as the great outdoors and eco-friendly living takes on a much bigger role in society.
"We get different trends through all the time but this one is here to stay. People want a bit of greenery in their houses. They want to experience it and see it and we are seeing that gardening is coming back as a hobby, more so than what it was 10 years ago.
"It starts with the easy to look after plants like succulents and cacti and goes from there. What we will do is keep working to get the best prices for the customer. By doing that we always have a good turnover year on year. I think that's where we differ.
"Some of our competitors have given up or lost their way or they continue what they've always done. That's not how we work."