Successful Operator Profile: Road to Prosperity

June 13, 2011
Written by
Jim and Peggy Godfrey are not ones to sit around and wait for things to happen. The co-owners of Atlantic Gardens in Middle Sackville, N.S., which has operated for more than 43 years, understand that running a successful garden centre is about being both farmers and businesspeople – and about getting your hands dirty.
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Robin, Peggy and Jim Godfrey run Atlantic Gardens, a well-established garden centre, nursery and flower shop.

 

Peggy is fresh from a hectic first Mother’s Day weekend at their new consolidated location in Middle Sackville. The weekend was marked by traffic slowdowns brought on by the economic stimulus-driven construction of exit 2A off highway 101, a project that was a major consideration in the move. In March they merged two locations, Bedford and Sackville, into one: a greenhouse and garden centre. Peggy thinks the move will pay off once the exit is finished, ensuring easy access to the centre. At the moment, traffic at their centre is both hindered and helped by the construction slowdown: “People still came because once they got up the hill, they had to come in,” she laughs.

The road from its first life as a roadside stand, in spring 1968, to its current efficient and bustling location, has been a long and interesting one, paved with challenges.

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Robin Godfrey gets hands-on with wood pellets. In 2005, the centre replaced its oil furnace with a Decker wood pellet-burning furnace.
 
In the late 1960s and early ‘70s, Atlantic Gardens was the only game in town, a mixed blessing, because it meant they had to source their own product and arrange deliveries. During the 1974-75 season, theirs was the first garden centre to offer container plants, a trend Jim picked up on in his travels to the southern U.S.

In 1969, Jim walked across the street and bought 1.1 acres of land that would eventually house three greenhouses and a container nursery and a three-storey main building, which became their central location, plus a residence and offices.

They bought land in Sackville in 1971, but didn’t develop it until 1976-77, starting with a warehouse long enough to hold an 18-wheeler, and followed by a 15-16,000-square-foot Paul Boers gutter-connected production greenhouse, and another eight houses in 1984. The Sackville location supplied both Bedford and another location in Dartmouth, which changed ownership and became Lakeland Garden Supply in 1972.

They started retailing on a seasonal basis in Sackville in spring 1987.

In the early ’90s, Ontario nurseries started supplying landscapers in the east. Atlantic Gardens focused more of its wholesale sales on greenhouse production. Today the focus is supplying its two locations of Sackville and Lakeland Garden Supply in Dartmouth as well as corporate contract work.

The growth of big-box stores has taught them adaptability. “These box stores have become very aggressive in the horticultural product lines,” says Peggy. But they often lack the expertise independents can offer. “You have to look at their weaknesses and capitalize on them.”

Independents need to diversify, but not so much that they lose sight of what they do well, she says. “We have to be very vigilant to try to keep our share.”

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Atlantic Gardens carries a wide selection of pots of all sizes and shapes.
 
Time was right for the move
The old Bedford location boasted a cozy boutique atmosphere, with the locally famous glass “dome,” but it was small and high-maintenance, and difficult to see from the Bedford Highway. An increase in highway traffic, a lack of parking space and higher expenses made it the right time for Bedford to join its Sackville location, which previously had consisted of greenhouses that supplied Bedford and Atlantic Gardens’ Dartmouth centre (now Lakeland).

After calling in U.S. garden centre design experts Ernest Wertheim and Jack Klemeyer to assess their operations and advise on consolidating, they decided to take the bold step of moving.

Everything is now on one site. The new eight-acre location has a municipal sewer and water supply and saves them the time and expense of transporting product. Some 2,000 homes are planned for nearby subdivisions, offering lots of potential for growth.

Customer traffic in the garden centre flows from a glass greenhouse full of tropical plants, pots and other hard goods down into a nearly 16,000-square-foot covered greenhouse featuring bedding plants and tender nursery stock.  A 7,000-square-foot section is now spacious retail, with new benches and lots of room for carts. The sides roll up so you can see the extension from the road and from the entrance.

They pulled the Bedford flower shop out as a separate business entity, and moved it into a lower-cost 2,000-square-foot, high-traffic location at street level across from the former Bedford garden centre. The signage links the two but emphasizes the florist: AtlanticFLORISTGardens.

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Customers seek out the centre for quality product and for staff expertise.
 
Seasonal operation, seasoned staff
The centre is known for its bedding plants, but also carries a wide variety of tropical plants, water garden plants, selected pond supplies, a wide selection of pots of all sizes and shapes, and garden furniture. On expert advice, they stick to garden-related products.

Customers go to Atlantic Gardens in search of high-quality products and expertise, two things often scarce in big-box stores.

And Peggy says they can be demanding. Staff never take their customers’ trust for granted, but instead earn it by sweating the details, by offering experience and comprehensive plant knowledge, and by treating them with respect.

“You have to really show your appreciation to people,” she stresses.

Atlantic Gardens’ expertise and experience comes from a pool of seasoned staff.

Peggy is president and chief operating officer, and oversees buying, retail operation, staff and administration. Jim looks after production.

The couple’s son, Robin, manages day-to-day operations. After graduating with a business degree from the University of New Brunswick, he joined the business full time, and in 2006 bought Lakeland Garden Supply, bringing things full circle. The Godfreys anticipate Robin will take over the business eventually.

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One advantage of Atlantic Gardens’ eight-acre consolidated site at Middle Sackville is its municipal sewer and water supply.
 
Their daughter runs her own unrelated business, but takes a great interest in the family enterprise, offering feedback about trends and overall development.

They have eight or nine full-time seasonal employees during the busy season, but make do with three to five during the winter.

Each summer they take on three to five new students, plus returning high school and university students. Peggy helps mentor new employees, working with them to develop crucial plant knowledge. Trainees receive a hard-copy manual and one-on-one training, especially during their first month. They are paired with seasoned employees, and taught everything possible about the plants they are selling, a strategy made easier by having everyone at one location. Most importantly, although many staff have horticultural backgrounds, they are taught to be good sellers.

Multi-pronged marketing
With the move, the Godfreys wondered, “Will customers come to us?”

To ensure they do, the centre has kept its old phone number, a simple – but important – point.

They engineered a marketing blitz, buying a number of ads on the weather page of the local newspaper and another ad explaining the move, which ran three days a week through the spring season. They hired an experienced marketing team and were featured on the cover of a local monthly magazine. Flyers went out to 30,000 customers. And then they decided to try something a little outside of the box.

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Robin Godfrey checks on the plant selection in one of Atlantic Gardens’ greenhouses. In 43 years, the garden centre, nursery and flower shop has gone from “the only game in town” to a sought-after veteran of the garden scene.  
Robin created and voiced ads for three radio stations, and, in an effort to reach out to a male audience – not the centre’s typical customers – he convinced Jim and Peggy to sponsor a Mother’s Day contest on a radio station that targets men. Guys in their 20s, 30s and 40s were invited to submit pictures of their favourite mom. Prizes were Atlantic Gardens gift certificates, and the contest was a rousing success.

Finally, they branched out into television, with a CTV ad showing colour footage of the greenhouse for three weeks in May.

“We’re doing multi this year,” says Peggy.

The heavy marketing seems to be paying off. They have always seen a high percentage of female customers, but staff has noticed a lot more young people in the flower shop since the move. Peggy estimates that 75 per cent of customers at the new location are drive-bys, and a higher volume of goods has been going out – good indications they made the right move.

Running a garden centre, Peggy cautions, is “very, very challenging” and not for everyone. She describes herself as driven, with a high work ethic – the one who pushes those around her to excel.
Her best advice? Be prepared to work hard. It is both a farm and a retail business, and to succeed you need strength on both sides. “You have to do whatever it takes to make it happen, because of all the things that are out there to sabotage you,” she says.

“You have to go from zero to 60 in the spring season this business.”

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