Although the largest part of the Cameron Landscapes business is its grounds maintenance, tree surgery and landscaping operation, its garden centre on the Belfast to Lisburn road has a special significance in the family business.
Both the landscaping and garden centre businesses were started in 1968 by husband and wife Ronnie and Pat Cameron, with Ronnie running the landscaping side and Pat in charge of the garden centre. Today the businesses are still in the family’s hands, led by the son Geoff Cameron and daughter Kathryn Wilson, along with their spouses.
A substantial investment – significantly above a quarter of a million pounds – has gone into the transformation of the garden centre. ”It had a few changes over the years, but it really needed to be revamped,” explains Kathryn.
A big opportunity arose in 2003, when the garden centre had the chance to expand through the purchase of neighbouring land that enabled it to open a coffee shop. “We never had car parking because it was also the family home,” says Kathryn. “It was a very small garden centre.”
But even after that land acquisition, the business was constrained and unable to maximise its trade, not least because it continued to operate out of an attractive, but old, stable building.
“We really needed to do something and we had plans drawn up,” continues Kathryn. “People want to have a day out when they go to a garden centre – it is more than just being about the plants. Now we have a new coffee shop, a new plant display area and a gift shop.
“It was quite a substantial project, but we wanted to keep the old stone work of the stable building and keep the character. We wanted to keep the essence of it being a family home and the character and the warmth. We didn’t want it to become just a big car park with signs.”
As part of making the garden centre a leisure destination, it has increased its range of attractions and product sales. “We have diversified into the deli and food side and extended the gift ware, with local craft,” explains Kathryn. Suppliers include local food producers and stallholders at Belfast’s St George’s Market.”
In addition to the normal opening hours, the centre has a monthly ‘gourmet night’, which has a regular clientele. Kathryn says that it enables their highly regarded chef to expand his usual menu.
“I think dad would turn in his grave,” suggests Kathryn. “But we had to compete with so many others opening [rival garden centres] and others who were diversifying and extending. So we had to say, what do we want for the next generation, for our kids?
“The result has been great and the feedback has been great. We never closed. We managed to work through the [construction] work, much of which was done through the winter and much of which was done by the family business.”
Regular customers were “very patient” and loyal, continuing to use the garden centre and cafe during the refurbishment, says Kathryn. “We didn’t have the same number of customers, but we did keep our loyal customers and we kept our staff on.”
Following the expansion of the garden centre, an extra ten employees have been recruited, taking staff numbers at the garden centre to 15 and in the whole family business to over 50. Most of the employment is in the landscape side of the business, which is itself a significant operation – it did the landscaping and tree planting for several prominent projects, including the Odyssey, Newcastle Promenade and Custom House Square.
Both sides of the business are now well positioned for the future.