Problems can also be opportunities. This is proving true for Sperrin Foliage and Landscapes and its proprietor Sean O’Neill, operating from the Sperrin village of Feeny and making the best of a bad recession.
During the construction and property boom, Sean was doing very well working direct for builders and landscaping new properties to suit the needs of buyers of new homes. He would design new gardens, plant them and complete the job to the client’s requirements.
In today’s more severe economic climate, however, homeowners are less likely to be looking to move up the property ladder or buy new homes. Instead they are keener to improve existing homes – including by making their gardens look better and have them professionally laid-out.
Sean started trading as Sperrin Foliage and Landscapes almost 10 years ago. He had worked in the trade before and had just completed his Higher National Diploma in Horticulture at Greenmount agricultural college in Antrim, where he had earlier completed the National Diploma in Horticulture.
“I had always had the notion of going out on my own,” recalls Sean. While at Greenmount, he spent two weeks with a producer of forestry goods based in Tralee, in County Kerry. This placement not only helped to provide him with specialist knowledge about the foliage trade, but also introduced him to exporting – the Kerry producer sold much of his foliage to the Netherlands and other parts of mainland Europe.
When he started his own firm, Sean also began exporting Rhododendron and Birch foliage to the Netherlands. “I have now planted four acres of foliage crops – mainly Eucalyptus – and have plans for more”, says O’Neill.
The foliage and landscape businesses naturally dovetail, giving Sperrin Foliage and Landscapes a spread of work across the year. “Cut foliage is off season, then as landscaping winds-down, foliage kicks in, and when foliage winds-down, landscaping kicks-in,” says Sean. “I see scope to expand the foliage industry and we are lucky to have a sought after brand in that Irish foliage is fashionable.”
But even in the recession, landscaping remains the main part of Sean’s operations. “The downturn has meant for us we can concentrate on private gardens,” he explains. “So we can put a wee bit more effort into the jobs. Everyone is looking for more value today. Before, there were ten places you had to be the next day. This (reduced demand) gives us a bit more leisure while we are working, hence more job satisfaction – which is always a plus.
“We prefer to market ourselves on the basis of our quality standards. Offering value for money has always been more important than pounds and pence for me. We have an approach of measure everything twice and cut once – that’s what th