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Johnsons of Whixley celebrates 100 years

As a family run business Johnsons of Whixley celebrates its centenary this year, group managing director Graham Richardson explains how the Yorkshire based nursery has grown and the secrets behind its success.

How was Johnsons of Whixley first founded?

Mr Eric Johnson founded the business in 1921 on his return from service in the great war. After the armistice, Mr Johnson remained in Europe, assisting with de-mobilisation and policing the turmoil that followed the ‘war to end all wars’. Mr Johnson had studied botany and had a natural passion for growing – his new wife’s family owned malt kilns throughout Yorkshire and provided a small parcel of land close to the main nursery now. Production began on a tiny scale with no specific specialism. E.R Johnsons Nurseries was founded and rapidly developed a reputation for the quality of its stock and the reliability of its service – sentiments that we have never lost! Stock was supplied to local estates and landowners, the general public and via the accepted ‘market economy’ that accompanied every town. Roses, fruit trees, garden conifers, hardy shrubs and transplants and seedlings became the mainstay of supply.

How has the nursery developed since then?

Excuse the pun, but the nursery grew organically, and my father mortgaged his soul to buy the business in 1963/64; the company then consisted of 11 acres of production being tended by 11 staff. Within a few years, my father had consolidated commercial supply and had ditched retailing, which seemed wholly inefficient compared to harvesting, collating and shipping multiples of any single variety. The advent of containerisation was recognised as an opportunity for our business, as was the early use of polythene tunnels – my father developed a jig to bend steel tubes into hoops and became a very early advocate of growing under protection at scale. Markets and relationships developed, and our recognition of the need to reduce exposure as a result of climatic and seasonal variation was cemented in our policy to service a number of channels to market.

This (as it does now) consisted of a majority of supply into the commercial amenity sector, followed by supply to garden centres nationally and not long after the beginnings of our wholesale trade counter servicing smaller business regionally. This split is current 66% amenity, 20% garden centres and 14% wholesale cash and carry. Johnsons remain ‘growers’ at heart but also recognise the commercial folly of exposing ourselves to more production than we can comfortably sell – supplementing home production with traded material from trusted suppliers is entirely central to our successful business model.

How has the relationship with professional landscapers and garden designers grown?

Exponentially is the only accurate description I can give. Sales to ‘key’ accounts, meaning ‘cemented trading relationships’, remains at the heart of our success – woe betides if we ever take this for granted! These make up a significant proportion of annual sales, and the relationships are often much more than a commercial arrangement – they are much valued friendships!

Tell us about the nursery now.

The nursery consists of five production centres servicing a head office site that concentrates production stock and incoming goods and provides the platform for despatch. Most sites have dedicated staff managed by a long term manager (many of whom have at least 30 years’ service) – staff on these sites are supplemented by agency staff in response to demand and can call on production hit squads who can provide a rapid response to production challenges or other forms of demand. Our entire staff consists of 120 full time, and this is supplemented by a minimum of 20 agency staff that can rise by a further 40 at the point that both amenity and retail supply seasons converge. Our management, admin and sales teams consist of about 35 people and we also employ accountancy, H&S, HR, IT, logistics and engineering specialists. We typically supply six to eight million plants annually, although this can be heavily dominated by large quantities of seedlings and transplants.

So, what’s behind the success? What is Johnsons of Whixley’s USP?

Success is never taken for granted and we remain acutely aware of the objects that are likely to derail our trajectory – climate, seasons, economy and currently the pandemic. We tend to stick to what we know and what we are good at and recognise the importance of ‘service’ – we believe that people enjoy convenience and like to think of ourselves as solutions providers who make the challenges that our customers face that bit easier. We also recognise that we occasionally get it wrong and hope to be measured by our honest attempts to correct things.

What have been the biggest highlights for the nursery over the last 100 years?

Inception, purchase by John Richardson, containerisation, winter protection, a sales curve that plots an increase in sales from £33K pa to £15m+ in 2021, the adoption of forklifts; a reduction in permanent headcount in favour of some agency, the loyalty of our staff and the relationships forged with so many customers; and finally, our determination to embrace the contribution of technology and having the vision to seize on marketing and PR to reinforce our message.

What have been the biggest challenges?

World War II; the reduction in supply to local authorities in the late 80s; the loss of nearly £500k to a large scheme in the early 2000s; the economic depression beginning in 2008; several plant diseases including Dutch elm disease, Phytophthora ramorum, and fireblight; the really bad winters in 1981, 2010 and 2013; Brexit; and finally, the ongoing pandemic.

How does the nursery incorporate sustainability?

Being both accredited to ISO 9000 (quality standard) and the environmental standard 14001 and very recently the ‘Plant Healthy’ initiative, we believe sustainability is inherent in what we do – after all, we are one of a small core of businesses that can legitimately claim to be carbon neutral by virtue of our product. We are already ‘net contributors’ to the environment.

What does the future look like for Johnsons of Whixley?
In short, hard work and not taking anything for granted. We currently employ 11 members of the Richardson family and moves are already afoot to transition management control to the eldest of these. They already understand that each generation are custodians who should look after and nurture the business so that subsequent generations have an opportunity to benefit from the fulfilment and security that our company brings. Growth is likely to continue organically but is not a mantra – consolidation and maintained profits are at the heart of what we do. Financial reward is fundamental, but it doesn’t trump sustainability, personal fulfilment and the right to a happy life!

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