With gardening aficionado Nicholas Marshall now at the helm of Dobbies, the once-Tesco-owned garden centre business looks set to blossom.
The new boss – who founded Country Gardens and ran Wyevale between 2008 and its sale to private equity firm Terra Firma in 2012 – has been quick to bed into his new role.
“At only 35 units, the Edinburgh-based retailer with the majority of its stores in the North has aspirations to sprinkle its seeds further afield”
He recently shared with Retail Week initial plans to freshen up Dobbies’ food offer, bolster its online and delivery services, and re-emphasise its plant proposition – positioning it as a destination for plants first and foremost.
But at only 35 units, the Edinburgh-based retailer with the majority of its stores in the North has aspirations to sprinkle its seeds further afield.
So could a merger in the gardening sector be imminent?
Dobbies’ new owners, Midlothian Capital Partners and Hattington Capital, stated their intentions to expand the gardening centre chain as soon as the £217m deal with Tesco was confirmed.
Midlothian’s Andrew Bracey – the former Ocado finance chief and now Dobbies chairman – told Retail Week there was scope for consolidation in the “heavily fragmented” sector and was open about wanting to expand Dobbies’ store footprint, particularly in the South.
While that part of the country is home to a large number of independent garden centre businesses, Wyevale – the UKs biggest garden centre operator with over 150 stores – has a particularly rich coverage.
So, in order to quickly fulfil its expansion plans, Dobbies could consider a takeover of its biggest rival.
And the company’s private ownership would put it in a strong position to do so. Its wealthy, experienced backers, who have vowed to support the business for the long term, have the personal cash to bring the idea to fruition.
Ambitious new boss
When Dobbies’ new owners took over, they hired former Maplin boss John Cleland to steer the ship. But following his unexpected departure after less than a year in the role, it is now green-fingered Marshall steering the ship.
And, unlike Cleland, Marshall has gardening in his blood.
He is generally considered the common thread that has run through all the big garden centre businesses over the past few decades and his relationship with Wyevale, in particular, is a close one.
In 2000, he reluctantly accepted a hostile bid from Wyevale for 40 of his 46 Country Garden stores – a move he later told Retail Week he regretted.
He then contributed to restoring Wyevale’s fortunes as its chief executive for four years, taking it from the brink of administration to the subject of a £276m acquisition.
“If Dobbies puts together a bid for its rival, more than four times its size, it really would be shooting for the stars”
As well as having that personal attachment to Wyevale, Marshall has now been joined at Dobbies by a handful of his former colleagues, who departed Wyevale when news of his appointment emerged.
What’s more, Marshall is reputedly ambitious, as evidenced by his personal bid for the 265-store Homebase business in 2015.
Having been pipped to the post on that occasion by Australian giant Wesfarmers, Marshall may still be itching to attain a large number of bricks-and-mortar stores to satiate his ambitions.
When asked about his property plans earlier this month, Marshall said: “The sky’s the limit.”
If Dobbies puts together a bid for its rival, more than four times its size, it really would be shooting for the stars.
Ripe for the plucking
Increasing the plausibility of this speculative takeover approach is the fact that private-equity-owned Wyevale is ripe for the plucking.
Having had Wyevale in its clutches for more than five years, Guy Hands’ Terra Firma may well be considering its options.
A merger of the two biggest retailers in the sector wouldn’t necessarily be plain sailing, of course, with the Competition and Markets Authority to contend with. But Dobbies and its new boss won’t be oblivious to the fortuitous timing.
Even if there is nothing formal yet on the table, the arrival of Marshall will have planted the seeds of growth in its owners’ minds.
So perhaps, with appropriate nurturing and watering, talk of a takeover could sprout as the spring and summer season progresses.