Growing Burford Business

Andrew Davies, Barclays

Andrew Davies, Barclays - Credit: Barclays

Barclays helps garden centre boss create the country’s third biggest independent

It is something of a surprise to hear Cotswold garden centre boss Nigel Johnson reveal that he enjoys renovating his 12th century manor house home in his spare time.

It’s not the choice of pastime that comes as a surprise but the fact that the entrepreneur, businessman and father of three has time left for hobbies of any kind.

“I really enjoy doing up old houses,” explained the boss of Burford Garden Company, neatly positioned in ‘celeb central’, half way between Oxford and Cheltenham. “I must have worked on about 20 over the past 20 years.” That’s an impressive tally for a man who employs around 120 people in the third biggest independent garden centre in the country as well as chairing an award-winning charity.

It’s a far cry from the 18-acre field that was the garden centre site 37 years ago. That was when Nigel and his father Eddie, who ran a landscape contracting business, bought the land as a site for new greenhouses in which they could grow the plants they needed.

At that time Nigel was also developing his retail skills, running a restaurant and a Harley Davidson franchise while supporting his father in the landscaping business. When his father retired, Nigel was forced to admit that he wasn’t that keen on working in the nursery, and so he started to transform some of the greenhouses from growing plants to selling them – along with a wide range of other garden centre wares.

“Like most garden centres, we began by selling plants from the greenhouses and have steadily expanded over the years,” he said. Then, as now, the business turned to Barclays when it needed investment. “I have banked with Barclays since I was a boy and they have always supported me,” Nigel commented. “They have backed the business at every step, and as we have grown, so the bank has increased its stake.”

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The garden centre now takes up about half of the site, leaving “plenty of room for the next generation to expand”, while the products on sale include gardening equipment, timber buildings, fashion and interior design accessories.

It also boasts an impressive range of antiques –currently including a Ming Dynasty terracotta horse – and an art gallery offering original but affordable paintings.

With a Masters Degree in Art from the University of Oxford, Nigel is keen to develop that side of the business, and expansion plans include a range of art studios and workshops for which there is planning permission. Nigel’s wife Louise is co-director of Burford Garden Company and heads up the food side of the business as well as the all-important buying operation that keeps the visitors coming back.

A few years ago Nigel felt he wanted to do something to help underprivileged people and so he joined Aspire, an Oxford-based homeless charity that then employed two workers and now has a team of 12. Now chairman, he has seen it grow and estimates that it helps about 75 people off the streets and back into employment each year. One of Aspire’s main aims is to give people work skills, which is where the Burford helps by providing its kitchen garden as a venue for horticultural training. Aspire was named as The Guardian’s charity of the year for 2013.

The company, supported by Barclays relationship director Andrew Davies, recently borrowed £100,000 from Barclays under the Government-backed Funding for Lending scheme in order to refit the kitchens and provide more space for local fresh produce.

“As always the deal went through quickly and without any fuss,” explained Nigel. “Andrew and his team are always happy to discuss new investment and Barclays continues to support our long-term growth plans.”

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