Peter Dowdall tells a story of passion, hard work, success, failure and new horizons that will be familiar to many in the industry.
In November 1997 I opened a garden centre in a green field on the outskirts of Cork city. I opened with about 10 timber display tables, pallets, some imagination and a shop which was a glorified garden shed. I still remember vividly the day I opened and thefirst few plants I sold (an apple, a plum and a cherry tree).
Before opening Dunsland Garden Centre I had trained at Merrist Wood Horticultural College in the UK and worked in garden centres in Cork, England and Jersey. The job that started it all was a summer position with Dr Neill Murray at Regional Nurseriesin Dundrum, Co Tipperary. I brought every bit of knowledge and experience I’d picked up to Dunsland, and through perseverance and hard work I developed it into a plant focussed garden centre of some repute.
Turnover grew year-on-year and during the late noughties our figures were looking great, everyone was getting paid, the bank was happy and we were selling a lot of Irish, Dutch and Italian plants. It had always been my intention to develop a coffee shop and restaurant, but I never had the wherewithal to do it. I didn’t really want to go further into debt with the bank, and hoped the business would generate the capital.
In hindsight this was a big mistake. In addition to increasing footfall, coffee shops are an important source of cash flow. For 15 years I put my heart and soul and every penny I ever earned into developing Dunsland; 12 to 15 hours a day and 7 days a week.
Only other garden centre owners can really relate to what that means. It literally is constant, life consuming; even nurserymen can take weekends o¤. It’s what you sign up to though when you open a garden centre. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not moaning, I loved my job, everything about it. I loved the plants, sourcing them, ordering them, merchandising them, combining them with other plants on displays – and more than anything I loved selling them. I still get a great kick when I see plants selling from a good display. I also loved the back office, setting targets, watching the percentages, customer numbers, average spend, number of visits per year and year-on-year figures, looking at any changes good or bad and the reasons for them. I loved the marketing side of the business too, developing new and unique campaigns to entice people in, and loyalty schemes to keep them coming back.
Most folks know that you don’t pursue a career in horticulture for the money. I was building a business, this was to be my livelihood and this is what would sustain myself and my family (if I was lucky enough to have one) in later years, it would be my pension. That would make it all worthwhile. It was this driving belief that made the business successful but it was also this unflinching belief that kept me going maybe too long. Towards the end of 2009 I took on a further development at Dunsland, restoring the Victorian Walled Garden as a visitor attraction in the centre.
“For 15 years I put my heart and soul and every penny I ever earned into developing Dunsland; 12 to 15 hours a day and 7 days a week”
Then came that winter and in one fell swoop all the stock we were carrying was destroyed. Like many small to medium garden centres, everything was tied up in stock and then suddenly it was gone, load after load was dumped in the ditch. Turnover dropped during 2010 due to very bad weather along with the continued economic downturn. In my naivety I had thought that after a drop in 2009 we were over the worst of it. How wrong I was. Cashflow was crippled. I had always worked so hard to maintain cashflow, it was now proving more and more difficult. Then came the second hard winter which completely wiped out the stock all over again. Debts were mounting, payment plans and proposals were devised to try and get creditors paid so that stock would continue to come in and hopefully we would manage to trade out of the mess and get back on our feet once more.
“The money wasn’t there, and no amount of solicitor’s letters or threats to sue or get judgements made would magic up the money. It was time to call a halt.”
The noose was tightening however, cashflow was suffering, everything that was coming in was going straight out to service older
debts. One bounce of the ball was all that was needed I kept telling myself, just one good spring and summer and the business was out of trouble.
I came up with plenty of great ideas to increase turnover and profits but the problem with each idea was that it
needed capital. In August 2010 I went to AIB for assistance. Every aspect of the business was there in forensic detail, historic figures, explanations for the trouble that the business was in and plans and forecasts to get the business out of trouble over three to four years.
This wasn’t back-of-a-beermat stuff . This was detailed, sensible, realistic and structured backed up with fi gures from previous years’ trading. The business needed fi nancial help. AIB did give me what I was asking for in December 2011. Read that again, December 2011.
15 months after I first went to them for help they made their decision. This is a business that was viable and successful
but was suffering a serious cashflow crisis and they took 15 months to make a decision. The situation had just got worse and worse but still I kept trying. I was changing completely as a person as the extreme stress was taking its toll. The feeling of owing money to suppliers many of whom were in a similar situation to me was horrible. In truth this is one of the things that kept me trading for the last two years, trying to turn over money and generate profits to pay suppliers. In the meantime my doctors were worried that the stress levels would lead to a relapse of the cancer that I had fought for five years in my twenties and which I had beaten.
My partner gave birth to our beautiful daughter and what should have been a wonderful time in my life was ruined by what was happening. During 2012 I kept fighting but it got to the stage where I could go on no longer, some creditors started to take legal action against the company. I had been doing my best but this was killing me. The money wasn’t there, and no amount of solicitor’s letters or threats to sue or get judgements made would magic up the money. It was time to call a halt.
I’m not crying, blaming the bank for taking so long to throw the lifebouy, I can’t cry about the weather, it was the same for all garden centres. No, I was the captain of the ship, I was responsible. And now we were going into liquidation and no one would get paid. How could I ever hold my head up in the industry again. It was an absolutely horrible feeling. I had lost more than anyone, I had put 15 years of my life, every penny I had ever owned and earned and now I was leaving with nothing.
Did it break my heart to close? Yes. Was it a relief? Also yes. Closing the business meant that everyone who was owed by the company was not going to get paid because liquidating the assets was not going to raise enough to cover the debts. And I felt so bad that I had let so many people down.
The business which was supposed to provide me with a payback for everything I had put into it was now derelict. What was I to do, how was I going to pay my bills? How was I going to put food on the table? How could I put diesel in the car? All I had ever really known was self employment, I didn’t know how to look for a job. Like a homing pigeon, I kept going back every morning at 8.30 to the now closed Dunsland. It’s what I had done every morning for the last 15 years, what else was I to do, where else was I to go? What else was I to do? Where else was I to go?
During the same time that I developed the garden centre I had also been developing my own profile. I presented my first series on RTE1 television in 1999 and guested on several other programmes on RTE and BBC. I then joined TV3 and worked with them for five or six years as the gardener on Ireland AM, leaving when RTE came knocking to offer me the role of presenter with chef Richard Corrigan on the City Farm project which ran for two series during 2009 and 2010. I then went on to present two series of How to Create a Garden on prime time RTE1 television during 2011 and 2012.
Since 2000 I have been working with the great crew on C103 FM in Cork as the resident gardening expert, answering gardening queries and hopefully shedding light on matters horticultural.
These gigs were always welcome but they were never my bread and butter. The way I looked upon them was that they would help my business. But now I had no business but quite a serious profi le in the industry, what was I going to do with it? I knew that I could sell product by recommending it. I had helped several products launch and develop in the Irish industry and I had helped to promote several well established brands and again in my naivety I had receieved nothing for it, because I hadn’t asked for anything. Doing a good turn in the hope that it will be reciprocated isn’t the way it works. So now that I am reliant to a larger extent on my profi le to earn a crust I have had to become more mercenary and business-like. 18 months later and I am working with Charlie O’Leary in the Pavilion Garden Centre in Ballygarvan in Cork. This is a fi ne centre with a thriving restaurant, home store and gift store and a lovely place to work. The plant area has developed into one of the fi nest in Cork and I am loving my work once again. I teach gardening to adults and children and this year I have started a new concept where I teach families in the Peter Dowdall’s Family Gardening Project at the Pavilion Garden Centre.
This has proved to be hugely successful with parents now learning with their little ones and bringing the bug home. Charlie gets the benefi t of my 25 years experience, using my name and capitalising on my media work and I have the luxury of a paycheck each week. I am still rambling horticulturally every week on C103, I am now also the gardening columnist with the Irish Examiner writing what is the most widely read gardening page in Munster. I’m sure I could be doing more to promote myself and also new and established products through my media work and I am always open to new opportunities, suggestions and to being contacted by anyone.
The last few years in business were pure hell. Looking back, I should have taken the decision earlier but I needed to exhaust every possibility fi rst. There is life after liquidation, the stress is gone, I am beginning to recognise myself again I know that there are many other struggling businesses out there. I can’t tell you what to do obviously, but look as clinically as possible at your situation and just remember that if you do take the decision to close, it is not the end of the world-merely the beginning of a totally new chapter.
For this industry to thrive in the future in Ireland without being consumed by the multiples and foreign imports, a total sea change in thinking is necessary. I see several opportunities for the industry, more on them at a later stage.
“There is life after liquidation, the stress is gone, I am beginning to recognise myself again I know that there are many other struggling businesses out there”
PETER DOWDALL is one of Ireland’s leading horticulturists. In addition to being the gardening columnist with the Irish examiner, a regular gardening TV presenter on such shows as How to Create a Garden, Nationwide, Ireland AM, BBC’s Groundforce and Channel 4’s Plant Life, he has also authored a book on gardening entitled Gardening with Peter Dowdall. Most recently he has joined the management team at the Pavillion Garden Centre and continues to deliver a weekly radio show on C103 FM.
Peter can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org