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Let’s Hear It From…John Wyer

John Wyer has worked within the industry for over 25 years and is a widely respected designer whose schemes have won many awards. This month he tells Pro Landscaper about his journey up the industry ladder and of the success Bowles & Wyer have achieved since forming in 1992…

John WyerSo how did it all start for you John? How did you get into horticulture?

Going back many years, I was interested in architecture and town planning, and one of the A-levels I did was the history of architecture. Landscape architecture was suggested to me as a career so I took a look at it and it really appealed. Up until then, I had only helped my parents in the garden – a little piece set aside (where nothing else would grow!). I got on the course at Manchester, but I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, and back in 1978, there were very few landscape architecture courses but there were four that were really good, Cheltenham Art College, Manchester Polytechnic (now Manchester Metropolitan University), Leeds Polytechnic and University of Sheffield. There was a lot of competition and luckily I got a place starting the following year. In the meantime I worked, firstly at a nursery, then contracting on site. When I was working at the nursery I completely caught the plant bug and used to collect cuttings in my Tupperware lunchbox whilst everyone else was eating, snoozing or reading the paper! I grew them all on the kitchen windowsill, and then all the other windowsills! I got to know a lot about plants in a very short space of time. I worked on site in some pretty deprived parts of London – we were doing a lot of work on the regeneration around the east end of London and the Docklands. So I really began to get a grounding on which things worked, what would and what wouldn’t survive – not only in terms of plants but in terms of layout and how things went together. I got a real practical understanding which would, in the future, serve as a basis for design.

Were you interested in art?

Yes I did art A-level and really enjoyed it. I still draw and sketch and in fact, it is something that I attach a great deal of importance to. Most of our designs start on the drawing board with a big fat black felt pen. I sketch in meetings with clients and I think drawing is very, very important. There is no doubt that Photoshop and Sketch-Up and other 3D tools can bring a scheme to life, but I think it is very vital to draw and to communicate visually with clients.

The five year landscape architecture course was a three year degree, a year out in practice and a year doing a post graduate course. Actually I hated it, I just don’t like education. I really enjoyed what I was learning, but hated being in that situation. I suppose I’m quite a rebellious kind of person naturally; I don’t like doing what I am told which is probably why I run my own business! I remember one of my tutors sitting me down, and telling me to get my act together and do some work, in order to get a pass!

And once you got your pass?

The moment I got out in the real world I started working, it just all took off. I worked very hard, long hours and I really enjoyed it. I could suddenly see what the point of it was – it was all real.

What about your year out in practice?

I worked at Lancaster City Council, and in those days, local authorities had architects and landscape architects in a fair sized department. I was working under two landscape architects who were quite experienced but they were job sharing and I was an assistant to them. However, within a few months of being there, they both left, so I was there for six months basically on my own. I was completely thrown in at the deep end, I had never done anything like it before and it was the most exhilarating experience I have ever had. I was involved in all sorts of projects, which otherwise I would never have got involved in.

Did they want you to stay on?

No, it was a set year out placement and I had to go back to college the next year. After college the recession hit (in the early eighties), so I went back to contracting, working for the contractor I had been with during the holidays.

Was that domestic?

There was some domestic work but most of it was commercial. Whilst I was working as a foreman, I met Chris Bowles from Clifton Nurseries. He had been there less than a year when he met me on site and told me they were looking for another designer. He recommended me for an interview with the design director, Vic Shanley, who was an extraordinary guy and a very early member of the Society of Garden Designers.

Was he a mentor to you?

In design terms he certainly was. I learnt a lot from him. He was one of those people who inspired you and drove you mad in equal measure. I worked under Vic initially for two and a half years and then I took a year out and cycled to China as I was a very keen cyclist at the time.

Do you still enjoy cycling?

Yes. I cycle every weekend. In the winter, I still use the same bike I used when cycling to China with my wife Vicky (we weren’t married at the time). I came back after a year away completely reinvigorated and in fact, Clifton wrote to me whilst I was in Tibet and asked when I was coming back because they wanted me back there. I re-joined and eventually got promoted to running the design department when Victor retired. It had got to a fair size by then; lots of people in the industry went through Clifton at that time. I left in 1992 to start my own business and Chris (Bowles) joined me a year later.

Did you just think it was time to move on and take the risk to start your own business?

I didn’t really see it as a risk, I wouldn’t say I was naïve, but foolishly optimistic!

Did you have contracts lined up?

Yes two – one small and one medium sized.

Was your idea then to go purely down the design route?

No, it was always going to be design and build. I was interested in design and build because although I am a designer to the centre, I think because I started in contracting even before I went to college, I found it very difficult in my mind to separate the two processes and I still do now. It’s an artificial separation. Capability Brown worked on a design and build basis.

How is the business structured now?

There are three businesses. The design practice and design & build companies which are owned by Chris Bowles and I jointly, and then there is a build only company which Chris, myself, Dan Riddleston and Matt Maynard own between us.

Do they all trade separately?

Yes they do, but projects do get passed between the companies. Although strictly speaking it is a group of companies, I suspect many clients just see it as Bowles and Wyer. I guess the divisions are artificial to an extent, although I have much less to do with the build only side (Bowles & Wyer Contracts Ltd) in order to avoid conflicts of interest.

How many staff members do you have across the three companies?

There are 26 directly employed staff, but we also have a number of sub-contractors who work with us on a regular basis. I would say, at any one time, we have between 30-50 people working for us.

What is your turnover?

It’s been pretty steady for the last three years at around £3 million. This year it will be higher than that, next year it will probably be closer to £5-6 million.

What’s the reason for that increase?

Larger country gardens and estates – we have been seeing a lot of growth in this market, particularly from foreign buyers.

In terms of where you sit with pricing, are you at the top end?

We are competitive. Although having said that, it’s not uncommon that our design fees are higher than those of our competition, and we still get the job. This is something that has been very interesting since the recession started, it was clear that the market was going to become more competitive. We resolved very early on in the recession not to compete on price but to compete on quality; quality of service, design and what we could supply. I get involved directly in all client contact and that is because I am passionate about design, and about what we do and I like dealing with people. That is my strength. It is very rare that we get into a tussle on fees.

Is there a Bowles & Wyer style? Can I look at a garden and say that is John’s design?

If you ask me, I would say no, but if you ask anybody outside Bowles & Wyer, they will say of course you can recognise a Bowles & Wyer garden!

What’s the giveaway?

I say it’s not about style, it’s all about space, and I always talk about it as a triangle between the client, the site and the designer. If clients can do it without the designer’s input, they wouldn’t go to a designer; they want what you bring to a project. The designer input is very important but the site is equally very important. The project that I won the SGD International Award for, was a big demonstration of that and I was really glad that the judges recognised that I had completely adapted my design process to meet the local conditions; not only in terms of plant material, but the whole way that we approached the project. The client is very important too; they don’t usually have a clear design brief, some will give you a list or show pictures, others will tell you their ideas. You have to take all of those things and come up with a coherent brief. Clients’ design ideas are also partly driven by budget, although they won’t usually admit that.

When do you qualify a lead? When do you start talking price?

You know straight away whether it is likely. It becomes clear fairly early on; we sometimes take on projects that don’t entirely make commercial sense because we like the client, much to Chris’s dismay! We have a base level as a starting point which is around £50,000. We don’t really have an upper limit; we are looking at one contract running over two years starting soon which is £5 million. The bulk of our work is in the £50,000–£500,000 price bracket.

What do you do about International projects? How do you source products and where do you look for work?

Although we have won two international awards (The SGD International Award was shared with Dan Pearson), international work doesn’t feature hugely in our business plan; however we will take on projects when they come up and interest us. Other designers deliberately target international work and a lot of people will say that they couldn’t have survived without this work over the last five years. I would rather do projects in the UK where I can use locally sourced materials and work with our existing staff. We recently quoted for a big job in Moscow so if they interest us, we will go for them but it is not something we target directly. When it comes to sourcing products abroad, you have to be flexible. I had some ideas about a project we did in Spokane (USA), but first I had to completely immerse myself in the landscape. I spent time walking around the site, photographing it and then went trekking in the local mountains looking at the flora and fauna. I also visited all the local nurseries and stone suppliers. It was only after going through that process that the design really started to crystallise. You have to understand the environment and the client, and then look at what is available.

What are your interests outside of work?

Growing food and cooking. I cook for the whole family every day and I like to think I’m a very good cook – I have a very large, unwieldy collection of cookery books dating back 35 years! The other thing I am fairly passionate about – mainly through Vicky – is the Triangle Community Garden in our local area, and through this I have become interested in is permaculture. Of course, I still love the cycling as well and try to get out as much as possible on my bike.




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