January has flown over here at The Garden Company and we are busy looking forward to the rest of 2023 – which is full of new opportunities, new projects and no doubt will bring new challenges too. When we pause to look back to 2022, we feel that it was a ‘standout’ business year in various ways. As well as working on several exciting projects throughout the year, we also received wonderful recognition for our work and for our ethos as a business. This included a Special BALI Award for Best Design-and-Build project, a Pro Landscaper Business Award in the Design-and-Build category, a Homes and Gardens Award – and our MD James Scott being named at Futurescape as one of the Top 25 Most Influential people in landscaping.
James had the opportunity to reflect on all of this and more when he was interviewed at the end of the year by Nick Ruddle. Nick is a highly experienced business coach who knows the landscaping industry very well. He has invited many industry leaders to share their thoughts through his ‘Grow Landscaper’ series of podcast interviews (see details below). This is a (slightly abbreviated!) transcript of Nick and James’s conversation. It delves into James’s thoughts and reflections on running a successful garden design-and-build business. James highlights the lessons learnt along the way and the people that he has drawn inspiration and support from over the years. It’s a different style to James’s usual blog posts, and we hope you enjoy it.
Early career years
Nick How long have you personally been in the industry? Was it a real passion from the start?
James I was quite surprised to work out that it’s 37 years! That’s 31 years with my own business, but I really started straight from school when I had a Saturday job working for a friend who had a forestry business. So I probably started working in the industry when I was 16. It was never really an intended career, I almost drifted into it. Even when I started working for my friend’s forestry business in the holidays, I didn’t really quite know what I wanted to do.
When I was growing up, I was living in the Cotswolds, a very beautiful part of the world. My grandparents had a lovely 1-acre garden in Slad Valley. If anybody knows the Cotswolds, it’s where Laurie Lee lived and wrote Cider with Rosie. They had a beautiful garden and my brother and I would spend a lot of time there. We would play in the garden, shoot air rifles and help my grandparents a bit. I just loved the space, but I never thought I would go into the industry.
When I dropped out of my A-levels after a year, I didn’t have a plan. I went and worked full-time for my friend’s forestry business and I started to drift towards doing that. I was about to start a forestry management course up in the Lake District. But I met a chap who came to work for the forestry company for a couple of days. He was at Merrist Wood College and he told me about this landscape design construction course he was doing there. It just sounded much more exciting than going off to this forestry course. I quickly found out more and got myself on that course and changed direction. I went to work for a landscaping company for six months before going to Merrist Wood. And that’s how I started out (or ended up) studying landscape.
Nick It’s like a ‘Sliding Doors’ moment that defines the rest of your life.- a decision you make that moulds the rest of your life.
James It was a really significant moment – brilliant personally as well because through people I met at college, I met my wife too. If it wasn’t for that moment … but I guess that’s the same for everybody.
Getting started in business
Nick What made you go into business for yourself? And what did the business look like when you started?
James When I graduated from college, I worked for a company called Capital Garden Landscapes. I got a job as a designer manager at the age of 21. I had worked a bit in the industry, including a year working in America as part of the course. But I went right in at the deep end, designing and building gardens in North London. I felt really out of my depth but I managed to make a decent go of it. I enjoyed most of it. But after a couple of years, the company I was working for was buying out some other landscape companies. They amalgamated several companies and I stopped enjoying it so much! There was a different management structure, I had a different line manager, I just wasn’t really enjoying it. At 23, I decided that the right thing to do was to set my own business up.
Nick That was a big step …
James It was a huge leap of faith. But when people say to me, ‘Oh, that was really brave’, now I think it’s much braver to do it when you’re 33 – with a family and a mortgage. At 23, you can do it and you’ve got to find money for rent and a bit of beer money. But you’ve got much more flexibility in life than when you’re older. So when I look back, it was both a really good thing to do, but also probably a naïve thing to do because I didn’t have that much experience.
Two of us set things up – I had a business partner until about 7 years ago when I bought them out. We set it all up, we bought a van and we ran things from a flat. We rented a garage to store things in – we didn’t really have much space. But fortunately, it’s the sort of business you can set it up relatively inexpensively. We handed our notice in very late in the year and in the time between Christmas and New Year I went walking around Hampstead Garden Suburb, dropping leaflets through peoples’ doors. And we got a few gardening jobs from that and some really small landscape projects – and 31 years later I still have a few of those clients now so it was quite effective!
Nick What does the business look like now, when you fast forward 31 years?
James I see myself as quite pedestrian as a business person and I’m not knocking that. Now, we employ 20 people. We have an office team of five people plus I have some freelance designers, planting specialists and so on. In addition, we have a network of specialist contractors and skilled craftspeople – metal workers, lighting people etc. So, it’s very much about the people we employ, but there’s also a much bigger picture of the people we work with, so that we can put a really good package together for our clients.
We’re really fortunate. When I look back at those days, we did tiny projects where you would have a few days a week gardening, and I would hope to get a little landscape project to fill in a few days a week. And now we work on some fantastic projects and some quite large projects which might take six months or so.
Running a business
Nick Over the years, obviously you’ve seen lots of ups and downs. What would you say now about the business side of things – what are the most important elements to running a successful business?
James I think there’s probably 3 or 4 things. The absolutely vital thing is that if you want to build a business, you’ve got to build a team. You’ve got to be pretty good with people and really make sure to look after people. And the same applies to people that you work with, people that work for you, suppliers, clients and so on. It’s all about building trust and respect, building your team and looking after your people. That’s a really key thing.
And then it’s about deciding what you want to do. I want to qualify this – I only worked for a business as a manager for two years. The rest of it I have made it up as I go along largely! It may be different for different people, but for me it’s very much about deciding what your core business is and then really working hard at that thing. Other people might think it’s about spotting different opportunities and going for different actions, but for me it was very much about trying to make sure that you’re always working towards a goal – does everything fit with your agenda and what you want to achieve?
Another very important thing is to try to get some thinking time for you as an owner-manager. It’s very easy to get drawn into the business running you. I can think of several times where I slipped into that mode over the years, and I’ve had to ‘reset’ to get things back to where I wanted them to be.
Nick You say people are the most important thing, and that’s in common with many other guests in this podcast series. But usually, the emphasis has been about recruiting your own people. I don’t think that’s what you’re saying. It’s not just about the people that work for you. It’s about having respect and trust for the people that do work for you, but also the clients and the people that work with you, such as your trusted contractors that you bring in for specialist stuff. That is a really good take on the people element – it’s not just all about recruiting the great people, which everyone wants to.
Also, you talk about focusing on the main event and not getting distracted by the sideshows. In other words, let’s focus on what we’re really good at. I think you’re right. A lot of people do get distracted, or they think, ‘oh, here’s the next shiny object’ and they go after that. But when you focus on what your core business is, you don’t necessarily need to diversify. Having a clear picture of what your core business is, that’s really important.
James I’ve been through a few recessions and ups and downs. I remember the financial crash back in 2008. Just before that, business was really good, but I was getting drawn much more down a contractor route. I’d always had a love of design. I wanted to focus more on that, but we were in a lot of demand from designers to build their gardens, and I was getting quite drawn into that. And then from 2008, for a few years, things did quieten down a bit and I did reset and decide what I was most interested in.
What I really wanted to do was to run a design-led business. I made a conscious effort to refocus on that. It was only then that I joined and became a Registered Member of the Society of Garden Designers. I’d never found time to do it before, and it was quite a key thing for me and for the business. It was about deciding to make time for me and giving myself the thinking time to find a way forward into who I wanted to be. When I look back on what was the recession, that turned out to be a really positive turning point for the business. From that point, we built our reputation much more as a design-led business rather than a business that was a contractor for other people.
Nick You have mentioned 3 great points – people, focusing on the core business, and thinking time. You can’t underestimate the importance of making time for peace and quiet and clarity of thought. There’s a brilliant book by Robert Kiyosaki called Rich Dad Poor Dad. The Rich Dad from the book is Keith Cunningham, a very successful business person in the US. His latest audio book is called The Road Less Stupid, and it’s all about thinking time. He sets up a chair in his office which has just a desk and a writing pad. Whatever he wants to achieve, he closes his eyes, and blocks out all the noise and gives himself thinking time every single day. He says it’s the most valuable part of his whole day.
Business owners are so used to running around, chasing their tails, not having time to think. But if you have thinking time, you can be a lot less in ‘busy fool’ territory and instead thinking about what you really want. It’s quite impressive that you’ve mentioned that is one of the most important things that you’ve found in your business: having thinking time.
James I found the same thing during the COVID years. Obviously, for a lot of people there was a lot of hardship. But in our industry, we were hugely fortunate in lots of ways. Again, it gave me a bit of a chance to think. I wasn’t feeling the need to rush around so much, it was acceptable to spend more time at home etc. And I found that was a good time to be able to think clearly about what I want to do with the business.
Nick We’ve talked about people, focus and thinking time – what’s the fourth element in running a business that you referred to?
James You do have to be a good financial manager. You have to be commercially aware. I don’t feel I’m driven by the financial side of things. Of course, I want to be comfortable but what I have found is that when I’m looking after the other things, the financial side tends to look after itself reasonably well. But you can’t take your eyes off it. It’s really important because if you don’t look after it, then running a business becomes a horrible thing. It’s vitally important that you are reasonably commercially astute, and you keep that side of things well-managed.
Nick Absolutely – if you don’t, you can get some nasty surprises and then there might not be a business! So, you need to understand your numbers. Not like an accountant, but it’s important to know what are the key numbers for your business, what are your KPIs?
James Yes. Cashflow is important, but if your cashflow is okay, what you’ve really got to look after is your profit and loss and whether for the turnover you’re doing you’re getting a reasonable return on it. And are you in a part of the market that allows you to do that? For us, fortunately, what we love to do is high-end design-and-build building gardens for other designers with high-end clients. The point is that we want to work in that part of the market that’s more quality-driven and less commodity-driven. Understanding and making sure you’re in the right part of the market is really important.
Nick Especially going into recession. You want to be at the top end – not that they’re not affected by the recession, but they’re not as affected as the people in the lower to mid end of the market.
Nick We’ve talked about a lot of good things about running a business. In terms of maybe mistakes or potential failures, what kind of setbacks have you had or challenges that you’ve overcome?
James I’ve been really fortunate over the years. We’ve had fantastic, wonderful clients by and large. Like everybody, I probably had the odd project that that’s been really challenging. Touch wood, in 30 years we’ve never had any significant bad debts. But we’ve had a few minorly painful ones. My business progression has been a little bit like a stock market graph where it’s got better and better, but there’s definitely been ups and downs along the way.
If I had my time again, it’s tricky to say what I would do differently; going into business so young worked out well for me, but second time around I would probably spend another couple of years working elsewhere. I’d try to work for at least another company or two. Because I went into it without a lot of management experience. I didn’t really know how to run a business, and I just had to make it up as I went along – I’d probably do that a bit differently!
I did immerse myself in the industry a lot, I’ve always gone to trade events and I’ve been to Chelsea Flower Show every year for probably for the last 30 years. But if I were back in the early days, I would try now to do a bit more of that, to find out how other people did things. I probably banged my head against the wall quite a bit when I was trying to grow the business.
The real challenges I’ve had all come back to team building and key people. What I’ve found is that every time I’ve tried to move the business to the next level, I have felt I’ve had to ‘break through’ and work out how to do it. I remember trying to get our first employee into the business. We interviewed somebody and we agreed a start date which was a couple of months down the line. Within a week it didn’t work out. We had a couple of attempts to try to get our first employee. Then we found somebody that was great and it all became a bit easier. But initially finding the right people was really hard. Possibly at that point it was almost the only time I ever thought ‘I’m not going to do this, I can’t, I won’t succeed at it’.
Also, when I wanted to stop working on site myself and concentrate on design and management, that was difficult. The financial model completely changes. I didn’t fully realise that at first. When you’re not working for your own wages, that’s quite difficult. You’ve got to have people you really trust doing the work, and you’ve got to make enough money from profitable projects to pay yourself as a manager. And if you’re designing as well of course, you hope to get an income from that. That was really challenging. But I did always stick with it and try slightly different angles to make it work.
When I started to have managers and office-based people, it was exactly the same barrier. I promoted my first manager from team leader level to manager. I didn’t realise it was a completely different skill set and I couldn’t make that work. Then I realised, okay, this is how I need to go about it a bit differently and became a bit more successful about building an office team. It has still absolutely got its challenges and having the right site people is still a challenge. But somehow it can be easier to employ 20 people than it is to employ one or two. Because with 20, you’ve always got some people coming in and some people going out. Whereas if you’ve only got one or two, you’re suddenly losing all or half your workforce if something goes wrong.
I probably lost a few key people over the years that – in hindsight – I would have loved to have kept in the business. Most of the time they’ve gone on to do something for themselves and I’m sure other people in my position have the same experience – people want to go and set up their own business too, and it’s hard to stand in somebody’s way if they want to do what I wanted to do. And there are a few relatively successful businesses around me that are run by people that used to work for me. I’m quite proud of that.
Nick It’s a massive kind of learning curve, isn’t it? You don’t wake up one day and know how to recruit or manage great people. And there’s an element of doubt – am I set up for this? I think it’s just because you don’t have the knowledge. It’s like anything in life: when you don’t know how to do something, it seems really difficult and confusing until you learn how to do it. Nowadays, people are much better positioned, because we didn’t have the Internet in 1991. We couldn’t turn to Google or YouTube. We had to go to the library probably and find a book!
James One of the things I found most beneficial when I was in the early days of the business was joining BALI. There’s a strong link between BALI and my college Merrist Wood. After college, I was really tuned into getting involved with BALI. I went along to the North Thames meetings, Mark Gregory was Chair when I joined up and I met quite a few other people too. They were all very generous from their advice and time, and I was very grateful. The late great John O’Conner would give me sort of pearls of wisdom. You’d sometimes realise that other people might have a better way of doing something. Or they’d say, ‘Oh, we’ve got exactly the same problems and we’re banging our heads against a wall as well’ – and then you realise you’re not alone.
Nick This industry is so abundant. A lot of the people I’ve interviewed for my podcast series have said: ask people, you’ve got support, you’ve got SGD, you’ve got BALI, APL, Pro Landscaper – you’ve got all these other organisations that you can tap into. It’s all out there and everyone’s open to helping others because everyone’s been in that situation and knows how hard it is sometimes, and how lonely it can be on your own.
James It’s a great industry for that. Also, your point about being lonely is a really important one. When you’re a business owner and you’re not sure where to go, I would just say go, depending on what sort of sector you are involved and get involved with your trade associations and societies. Go to meet people who are facing the same things and you will find support.
James One thing I’d add is that if you’re setting up a business and learning to manage, I think you can learn a lot from other people, but you also need to learn to do it your own way. I know when I started, I looked at people like John O’Conner and Mark Gregory, who had great businesses. And I felt a bit: ‘if I’m going to be successful, I’ve got to be like them and they’re quite extroverted characters’.
Personally, I’m much more introverted and I realised I had to find my own ways of doing things. Fortunately management styles have changed a lot over the years, and I didn’t need to model myself on Alex Ferguson! I feel much more comfortable trying to talk to people individually to encourage and motivate them. It’s important for people who want to develop a business to realise that they’ve got to develop their own style. You can’t be out of your comfort zone all the time.
Nick You can’t pretend to be someone you’re not. Everyone’s got their strengths and you play to those.
Best parts about business ownership
Nick What have you found the most rewarding parts of running your own business?
James One of the most rewarding things is when I’ve got people who’ve come through the business and they’re doing well – whether they’re gardening or building landscapes or designing. And they become what I call a self-directed person. I think that’s one of the most rewarding things, when the team around you is doing really well. They’re doing stuff where your intervention is a bit less. It’s really satisfying.
I love when the business gets a great accolade – maybe it wins an award. That’s great though it’s also quite a fleeting thing. It’s not as long lasting as if you have a project that hasn’t gone well. That can be painful for a long time. But the really rewarding thing is just when the business is working well and we are building good projects, and it’s all in harmony. The teams are happy and the clients are happy. If you can almost bottle that and keep it going, that probably is the most rewarding thing.
Occasionally I’ll get something out of the blue from a client. I got something recently from a client who I hadn’t seen for a couple of years. It was a one-line message saying: ‘My garden makes me happy every day’. And that was it. It’s all about little moments like that
Nick That’s what you do, that’s your purpose. It’s nice that people give you that feedback and make the effort to say: you know what, I’m loving my garden every day. After all, that’s what you’re in it for, that’s the passion. Creating happy memories in their gardens for them with their families, chilling out or entertaining their friends. That’s what a garden gives you.
James Moments of joy like that are great. Because you have to spend a lot of time running a business, grappling with gnarly problems and issues and trying to get things back on track how you want them to. I enjoy those moments when they come along. That’s the joy of our industry – we do make people happy. When you get evidence of that, that’s probably the most satisfying thing. It also makes me realise that – when I am designing a garden – I am driven by trying to recreate the immersive, contented, happy experience for my clients that I had myself in my grandparents’ garden, all those years ago.
Nick Let’s talk a bit more about self-directed people too.
James It’s when you’ve got a team that just know when to report and when not to. I try to get my teams to take up the highest level of management they possibly can themselves. I really encourage that. That takes the strain off me and it gives them more satisfaction. They know they’ve got the trust and more autonomy. They’re responsible for the decisions. And hopefully most of the time they make good ones!
Nick If you’re a bit of a control freak, then people are scared to make any kind of decisions. But if you give them the opportunity and you support a bit of risk taking – as long as they’re well thought out risks not silly ones – then you do need to encourage calculated decision making. Otherwise, the onus is always on you to come up with all the ideas if people are scared to make any decisions for themselves.
Advice for others
Nick If you had any advice for anyone – maybe they’re setting up a business, or they’ve got to a point where they’re stuck – what advice would you give them?
James I can only really advise on how I’ve done things. Being tenacious is really important. I’ve always stuck with things. You have to be careful – if you’re digging the wrong hole, you don’t want to keep digging it. But if you’re focused on the end game and you know what you want, you’ve really got to stick with it. You’ve got to just keep plugging away and not get too disheartened because you’ve tried something 2 or 3 times and it hasn’t worked yet. But of course, don’t do that if you’re in financial trouble or similar. In that case you probably need a different type of advice.
As I’ve said, I am also a huge believer in getting time out around the industry and talking to lots of industry people. I’ve always found them very generous with their advice. Sometimes you need a different angle so you can think about something in a different way.
Nick Having tenacity is great along with the faith that you are going in the right direction. Obviously, like you say, not when you are going in the wrong direction! Talking to others really helps. Because sometimes talking to people either confirms what you’re doing as right or wrong. And you’ve got to be resilient and persevere. Actually, you’ve got to be quite tough in business.
James Resilience is another key thing. To go back to what I was saying about different personality styles, I believe you can do it whatever your personality type. You can do it and there’s a place for you. You just need to go about it a little bit differently. But the one thing I think most people have in common that do build a business over quite a few years is resilience. Because you are going to get knocks. You’ll probably get a few knocks or possibly even some small knocks every day. And you’ve got to be able to work through them and you can’t let them sway you from your path.
Nick You’ve got to become bullet-proof. As long as you’ve got that vision of what you’re trying to achieve and keeping focused on that, you’ve got to be able to roll with the punches to some degree. You’ve got to get up again when things are not going your way.
There’s a quote from Rocky Balboa (added post-interview!) – You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward; how much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!’.
Nick It is survival of the fittest really in business. But the best companies attract the best people and you’ve just won one of the major awards in the industry. If there’s ever a good time to join The Garden Company, then it’s definitely got be now. You could attract the best people because you’re doing great things in the industry.
James Thanks Nick. If people are looking to develop their career in design, landscaping or gardening, we’re always looking for positive and client-focused people to join us!
If you would like to listen to this interview – and others in The Grow Landscaper Podcast series of interviews – you will find the link here. It’s also available on Apple Podcasts, Amazon Music, Audible, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Tunein, plus many other platforms.
And if you would like to find out more about The Garden Company and browse some examples of our design-and-build work, you can visit our website and/or follow us on Instagram (@thegarden_company) or James on Twitter (@gardencomp).