Looking back and looking forwards

Spilling the Beans by Tammy Woodhouse, managing director, Millbrook Garden Company

To say it has been an emotional and tough couple of weeks is an understatement.  We have all had to make huge changes to our lives and the speed of change and the unknowns have made it all the more challenging.

Just over 2 weeks ago on Monday 16th March we had an emergency management meeting to discuss the unfolding events of the Corona virus and the impact that we thought it would have on Millbrook.  At that meeting we made plans to protect the business including going out to our team to ask if anyone could volunteer to drop their hours or take some unpaid leave.  We were overwhelmed with the response from our people who wanted to support their colleagues and help Millbrook to survive.  In fact that was just the start of people’s generosity and caring attitude towards each other and us as a Management team.  Whatever plans we had made within 24 hours were out of date as the situation moved so fast, within 4 days the spacing of our tables in the café was irrelevant as we had to close.  Within 7 days we made the decision to close the garden centres as we were concerned for the safety of our team, that evening it was announced that all non-essential businesses had to shut their doors anyway.

So what now for us?  Currently all 3 of our centres are closed and all of our staff are furloughed.  I know many of you are desperate to buy plants and gardening products from us, but having tried to run a phone ordering and delivery system we just aren’t set up for this logistically and to be honest, however careful we are, it is still putting our staff at risk and I am not prepared to do that.

In the last few days there has been much in the news about the horticultural industry and the plight that particularly our growers are facing.  Spring is our peak time for trade – at Millbrook over half of our sales for the year come in the next 12 weeks and if we miss this time, it will be really tough for the long term.  Most of the plants we sell come from UK growers and they have been busy planting their seedlings and growing them ready for us to sell.  Have a look at this article from the BBC which I think shows the precarious position that the industry is in. I really do believe that those growers desperately need additional government support or else when we can re-open our supply chain will be broken and we could face the collapse of a precious industry – horticulture.

Many customers have been in touch worried about the number of plants that we will be throwing away.  So far we have managed to avoid that – anything that won’t last like bedding plants and vegetables we have been giving away to local charities, care homes, our staff and their families to grow on and enjoy over the next few months.  But as time goes on it will become harder to look after and maintain the plants we have left.

So what do I ask of you, our loyal customers?  Please remember us when we can open again, we are desperate to welcome you back to our centres but only when it is safe to do so.  Small and medium businesses are most at risk at this time and I think our country will be a bleaker place without those passionate and unique places to shop.  We employ over 160 passionate and unique people and we are all going to need you more than ever when we can open our doors again.