After only eight months in the role, John Cleland has stepped down as chief executive of Dobbies, replaced by former Wyevale boss Nicholas Marshall.

The appointment of Nicholas Marshall as the new chief executive of Dobbies marks the return to the sector of one of the pioneers of the modern garden centre.

Marshall replaced outgoing boss John Cleland this week, who has left his role for personal reasons, and my best wishes are with him and his family.

“The most intriguing aspect of Marshall’s succession is what it will mean for Dobbies’s strategy”

It is to Dobbies’ great advantage that Marshall is available and ready to return to the fray.

His experience in the garden centre business is unparalleled, having founded Country Gardens in the 1980s, which was ultimately merged with Wyevale in 2008.

Marshall ran the business under the Garden Centre Group umbrella for four years before it was sold to private equity group Terra Firma for £300m in 2012 – a phenomenal turnaround for a business that was close to administration when Marshall took over.

The most intriguing aspect of Marshall’s succession is what it will mean for Dobbies’s strategy.

When former Maplin and Somerfield boss Cleland was appointed in July last year, it was expected he would use his strong retail acumen to drive forward Dobbie’s growth strategy in a fragmented garden centre market.

To a large extent he succeeded during his brief tenure. Dobbies recently delivered its best Christmas in four years with like-for-like sales up 4% as Cleland’s focus on service and higher store standards paid dividends.

Only last week, he revealed Dobbies’s store of the future concept in Atherstone, Warwickshire, which aims to merge the retail and leisure experience and puts increasing emphasis on fresh food and food-to-go.

Despite the added frills, the core of Cleland’s strategy remains ensuring that Dobbies is best in the sector for plants and gardening, and Marshall is ideally equipped to take forward this agenda.

He is, however, a different type of boss to Cleland. If Cleland was a retailer first and a horticulturist second, Marshall is arguably the opposite, combining a love of horticulture and a passion for gardening with strong retail expertise.

He is renowned for his unrivalled knowledge of plants and gardening products, and while there seems no reason to deviate too dramatically from the path that Cleland has set out over the past eight months, Marshall will no doubt lean on his own experience of running successful garden centres to plot Dobbies’s future strategy.

It will be fascinating to see how the business evolves under his leadership, and I wish him every success.


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