by Richard Buckley, Editor, Business Eye

SMEs are the cornerstone of the economy. They are the brave businesses that push on and overcome adversary, taking risks along the way to grow.


AIB prides itself on backing this bravery and in special series, ‘stories of brave’, we are shining a light on the qualities that can help make SMEs successful, such as those shown by Dundonald Nurseries.

We were getting 300 orders a day online and twice as many phone calls. If there is one thing that recent events taught us, it is that our investment in customer service was money well spent.”

The Coronavirus pandemic has been particularly difficult for those in retail dealing with perishable items, but for one family-run business nestled in Dundonald, business is blooming.

From the moment the pandemic hit, our phones didn’t stop”, says Malcom McCully, owner of Dundonald Nurseries. “Retailers quickly appreciated that due to lockdown people wanted to shop locally and enjoy their homes more, so the demand for garden products exploded almost instantly.”

The firm is one of Northern Ireland’s largest garden nurseries. With a farm, greenhouses and warehouse facility, the business grows its plants on-site and has a fleet of lorries to distribute to over 250 retailers including Tesco, the Henderson Group and other independent outlets.

Established in 1963, Dundonald Nurseries first spotted a gap in the market for hanging baskets. Since then, the company has grown to employ over 70 people. Dundonald Nurseries however isn’t your typical garden centre. It also has a 125-seater restaurant, a function space and a retail outlet with children’s, ladies’, and gents’ clothing alongside an extensive range of gifts and homeware.

We never set out with grand ambitions. We wanted to offer the community high quality goods and a shopping experience they would enjoy. That ethos has stood us in good stead, and we have also been able to spot changing customer needs and diversify in response to that. For example, people want to source family gifts, browse quality brands and enjoy a nice breakfast or lunch without travelling to lots of different places, so we established a restaurant, run by my daughter Emma, and expanded our retail range,” explains Malcolm. “Quality for us has to be exceptional. We pick every item we sell, travel across the UK to see best-practice in action, and we aren’t afraid to invest in technology that will give us an edge in our efficiency.”

The diversification of the firm into food and retail was a brave but purposeful move for the Dundonald business. “We are an energetic team – we work closely together, we research best practice, changing trends and new innovations. Everything we do is methodical which gives us the confidence to take calculated risks,” says Malcolm. “My son Andrew’s success running the wholesale division testament to that. He had the guts and determination to teach himself how to buy internationally, expanding our offering, something I’m sure his grandfather, Robert Hutchinson who founded the business, would be proud of.”

The business has blossomed under Malcolm and he also attributes working closely with the next generation and the company’s focus on customer service to its success. “Through our training structure, each area – from the kitchen team to the nursery– has at least two team members who can step in if a manager is unavailable. Having this level of skill across our team meant that when the coronavirus hit, we were fully prepared to meet the rise in demand and the challenges that presented. By participating in the ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme, we can expect over 300 sittings a day in the restaurant, so having confident and capable staff is a must, particularly to help alleviate any concerns guests might have about eating out.”

Talent however is a challenge for the business says Malcolm. “There is a big difference between learning about how plants grow in a classroom to managing a nursery, so we provide on-the-job training for all staff. The international buying market is becoming all the more important, so we are continually looking for people with import sales and buying experience. It’s a niche market when you throw horticulture into the mix.”

For a business that didn’t set out with ‘grand ambitions’ Dundonald Nurseries continues to expand, with support from AIB. “The close relationship we’ve cultivated with partners and suppliers like our bank, helps drive us forward. AIB has backed us from the start, and always listen when we have a new idea or project,” says Malcolm. “I’m lucky in that I have an exceptional team led by my family who continue to spot growth potential. Our future plans include expanding our glasshouses, opening us up to more wholesale customers. As COVID restrictions relax, we will also be able to show off the new function suite in all its glory.”

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Andrew and Malcolm McCully and Stuart Grigg, Dundonald Nurseries

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