Many alternatives, but

4 August 2000

Many alternatives, but

which one to choose?

Looking for an alternative

business to boost meagre

farm returns? David Cousins

looks at two franchises that

might interest farmers and

spoke to a new business set

up to help farmers decide on

the best diversification for

them. First off, what about a

landscaping franchise?

IF theres one thing to be learnt from watching television, its this: the nations TV executives have gone gardening-crazy. Dozens of programmes exhort householders to dig up their sad rectangle of grass and flowerbeds and replace them with decking, water features, exotic shrubs, glass-block walls and all manner of other exotica.

But while we may all covet the sort of garden that Alan Titchmarsh and others create each week, most of us are reluctant to tackle the job ourselves. Instead were increasingly inclined to lift the phone and call in a professional landscaping company to do the job for us.

All of which makes Judy Behl rub her hands with the satisfaction of someone who knows theyve gone in to the right business. A pig-farmers daughter from Nottinghamshire, she was an NFU group secretary for 12 years before starting a landscaping business with her husband Ted and an ex-NFU colleague Ray Thwaites in 1994. They first called it The Landscape Company, but the arrival of a rash of rivals with similar-sounding names prompted a recent name-change to the more trendy Scenic Blue.

So successful was the Kent-based business that in 1998 she decided to offer Scenic Blue franchises. There are now 10 of these, plus the original pilot franchise, spread across Kent, Surrey, Herts, Oxon, Yorks and Wilts and scope for as many as 300 more.

"These gardening programmes have certainly raised peoples expectations about their gardens," she says. "But while 20% of the population are keen gardeners, the other 80% are interested but want someone else to do it for them."

In the past, that would have meant ringing up the nearest landscape garden company, who would probably have given one quote for the whole job, she adds. If the quote was too high, the householder would probably have left it at that and attempted a low-key version themselves.

Where Scenic Blue is different is in providing a menu of items, each fully costed out, that make up the overall scheme. So changing the shape of the lawn might be £600, putting in a water feature £500, planting up a particular bed with specified shrubs £150, and so on. So if the overall cost is too high, the client can lop bits off until they have something they can comfortably afford. Its not unlike the way people buy fitted kitchens.

The value of orders currently on Scenic Blues books ranges from £300 to £17,000, but most of them slot into the £3000-£10,000 category. You dont need a degree in maths to work out that potential turnovers can be high.

In fact averages for the ten existing franchises show that a two-employee business (the minimum starting size) should have turned over £90,000 in the first year, while an established 10-employee one could have a turnover of £400,000. And unless the UK suddenly plunges into recession, there seems no reason to think that the market for the services of firms like Scenic Blue shouldnt be assured for years to come.

Ideal group

Where do farmers fit into all this? Not as potential customers of Scenic Blues services, probably. However, Mrs Behl believes that farmers (or their wives, sons or daughters) would be an ideal group to take on a Scenic Blue franchise.

They have the room (so no need to rent an industrial unit), they increasingly have family labour that cant be supported by the farm. And theyre used to dealing with soil and plants.

However, this isnt a business that can be slotted into quiet times on the farm, she stresses. It requires at least two full-time staff, and you need to be both organised and good at dealing with the public.

Youll need a fair wedge of cash to put in too. Typically this is £15,000 for the franchise fee, training and software. Youll also need another £10-15,000 working/start-up capital for leasing vehicles and equipment.

Why pay out all this money when you could set up a landscaping company in a redundant barn tomorrow at minimal cost? The answer involves likely success rate. While standalone businesses have a relatively high chance of failing within five years, the British Franchise Association claims that 94% of franchises are still in business after the same period of time. Even if you downgrade that figure to account for hype, its still a striking difference.

Specific back-up from Scenic Blue is considerable. You dont need to have any formal landscaping or gardening skills – though you should actually like gardening! Full training is given in all aspects of the business, including new developments like decking.


&#8226 Ten franchises across the UK

&#8226 Potential turnovers start at £90,000 in year 1, assuming two full-time staff.

&#8226 Firm plans to expand to 300 franchises

&#8226 Future rather more rosy than it is for farming!

&#8226 Ideal for farmers looking to diversify

&#8226 Participants must be happy dealing with the public

&#8226 More details: 0800-783 3428 or

Left: Scenic Blues managing director Judy Behl with Andrew Machin, who decided at Christmas to sell the family pig farm in Notts. He has kept the buildings and considering on a Scenic Blue franchise.

Below: This type of garden (seen at the Chelsea Show) is prompting people to have their own gardens redesigned.

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