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  • Writer's picturePaul Andrews

Gardening Has Been In The Blood Since 1911

Like many family businesses, Palmers Garden Centres has an authentic story behind the award winning business that exists today. Paul Andrews spoke to Caroline Palmer, Managing Director and one of the current generation now running the business.

It began, all those years ago, on a small allotment on the edge of Leicester. George Palmer and his wife Julia grew fruit, vegetables and flower crops to sell to the local community. Five years later George and a friend bought a six acre field in Narborough, that came up for sale at auction. They planned to have half each, and tossed a coin to see who had which half, then planted a hedge down the middle to divide it up.

George’s three acres became first a flourishing nursery which then grew into Palmers Garden Centre. Caroline explains, “The business really did grow from there and undoubtedly one of the reasons behind our success has to be the continued investment in the business over the years, something that very much continues today.”

In the 1960’s, son Harold Palmer and Grandson Brian Palmer created a retail nursery and the transition to garden centre was made. Palmers is now in the hands of an incredibly proud fourth generation of the Palmer family; Caroline Palmer and brother Robert Palmer, Great Grandchildren of the founder.

“The business passed to my grandfather who continued its development and my father joined the business once he had completed his military service at a time when the nation was beginning to support the developments that’s became the garden centres we know today. The business was continually evolving with more plants and other products available too,” she continues.

Like many family businesses, Palmers have specific rules when it comes to the involvement of the next generation, especially in terms of their entry into the business. As Caroline explains, “I always wanted to get involved but it was my younger brother who joined the business first as at the time I decided it was not for me. I love plants and always knew that I would end up working in a business that I love. I remember working with my grandparents at the age of 8, both in the shop and on the till as the business grew. Even today, these memories remain strong.”

Caroline is now the Managing Director. She moved from a busy life in London, back to Leicester in the late 1990’s. She had a vision to develop the garden centre and make it more than the ‘traditional ideal’ of what a garden centre should be. Palmers is a place to take the family for a day out; a leisurely walk amongst the beautiful flower displays followed by homemade, delicious goodies in the café.

Having worked in the business for a number of years now, Caroline still gets a buzz every morning. “There is always something going on and the business is now much bigger than it was 25 years ago. It still surprises me how big it has become and both my brother Rob and I often look back and reflect on how far we and the business have come. The growth has always been organic and controlled as we take strategic decisions to reinvest in different aspects of the business.”

Plants are clearly integral to the business but catering has also become a big part of the business today. The first café opened back in 1999 and has subsequently grown to around six times the size of the original kitchen, providing revenue throughout the year and helping footfall too. As with garden centres across the country catering has become a real draw and helps the business become a destination attracting visitors other than those just interested in the garden plants.

As a family business, Palmers always have an eye on the future, taking the long-term view and when it comes to the next generation there are five members ranging in age from 20 to 28 years of age. They have already been involved and had a taste of the family business, working in holidays and gap years which like many other next generation is part of their rite of passage. As Caroline adds, “There are no guaranteed roles and we are not going to force involvement but there is already a lot interest amongst the fifth generation and some of them are certainly making the right noises and have skills that the business would benefit from.”

Palmers is a business that is built on a culture of trust, empowered team members and integrated values such as teamwork, quality and service/care at the fore. All of these are underpinned by the pride of the owning family who are justifiably proud of their journey. A good example of this was the renaming of the café to Café 1911 to reflect their heritage and longevity and the inclusion of images from the past adorning the walls.

When it comes to pride the family places a lot of importance on their longevity as a business. For Caroline this is part of their DNA. “We are really proud of what the business has become and that it is still going strong today. We are proud to have our name above the door and of our reputation in the community. We have a really strong, committed team in place and are very proud of how we continue to grow. We are also aware of the past and even today my father and I often ask ourselves what my Grandpa would say about the business today!” continues Caroline.

It is clear that this is a family business that is not resting on the history but incorporating it into their ongoing journey. For Caroline, it is clear that plants are in the blood and a real part of her journey with the business over the years too. She is aware of the need to talk about succession and the roles for the next generation, but also to allow time to celebrate their successes.

2011 was a big year for Palmers as they celebrated their 100th year and also expanded the business. The Palmers family business now consists of two garden centres, one in Enderby and another in Ullesthorpe. As Caroline explains, “This was a massive milestone for the business and one that we took time to celebrate, reflecting on where we had come from and celebrating the success of the generations that went before us. It also reinforced our passion for what we do and how important it is for us to continue to do what we do, investing in our people and our business to ensure it continues to be a success for future generations.”

Palmers now sells all you need for garden and home; plants, gardening accessories, gifts, homeware, furniture and outdoor features. There’s something for everyone. The loyalty of their customers, and dedication of their staff, have brought success to Palmers for 100 years. They have retained their reputation for unrivalled quality in the Leicestershire area, something that they are extremely and justifiably proud of.

This is a family business success story, a journey that began with a small plot of land bought at auction that has blossomed with the guidance, nurturing, belief and investment of generations of the Palmer family and we look forward to seeing it to continue to flourish for many generations to come.

Find out more about Palmers Garden Centres by visiting their website here


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