Why this 50-year-old family business pruned a branch to fund the nursery of the future

Flower Power

Flower Power Mark Sammut, chief financial officer, Michael Spiteri, chief executive John Sammut and Collin Sammut (left to right).

After 50 years of growing a nursery empire, the three brothers at the helm of Flower Power knew they need to cut a site loose to fund the construction of the garden centre of the future.

Despite running 10 nurseries, the family business had never built one from the ground up, growing instead through acquisitions.

But that’s not to say the new centre hasn’t been decades in the making.

Flower Power’s chief executive John Sammut tells SmartCompany his family has always wanted to revolutionise Australian nurseries, so they jumped at the opportunity when the property market swung in their favour.

The new garden centre builds on the legacy founder Nick Sammut left for his sons.

“The difference between Dad and the rest of the people in the industry was that he had a customer outlook, not a horticulturalist outlook,” Sammut says.

“I was really fortunate that my dad started a business I loved.”

Cutting off a limb

One of the first nurseries Nick Sammut opened was in Moorebank, and just down the road, was another Flower Power-owned block of land used for growing plants.

In January of this year, the Sammut brothers sold the Moorebank nursery, pocketing $30 million in the process.

The decision and timing were driven entirely by opportunity.

“We were just at the stage where the Moorebank site became available as a residential site, so the value of the price increased substantially,” Sammut explains.

“And it was old and needed a lot of renovating.”

The block of land was in even worse shape, with Sammut describing it as a “rubbish dump”. But this is where the brothers chose to build their vision from scratch.

“It was something we’ve wanted to do for years,” Sammut says.

The new tech on the block

Being from a “fairly typical ethnic family”, Sammut says he and his brothers were involved in the business since their school days.

This meant accompanying their dad to trade fairs in Holland and Germany, where they were exposed to industry-leading technology.

Fast forward a decade or so, and the brothers still “travel the world looking to see what’s happening for production and retailing,” Sammut says.

This “ is where we get most of our ideas and inspiration from,” he adds.

The brothers imported Italian capillary irrigation tables for their indoor plants, which Sammut says, combined with the recycled water filtration system they developed, are more sustainable and efficient.

They also lined their Dutch-imported roofs with solar panels, which has so far provided about 60% of the garden centre’s total energy.

They have also taken retractable roofs one step further than what they’ve seen anywhere in the world. The roofs are controlled by a computerised weather station — which takes into account humidity, wind strength and direction, and sunshine — to protect the plants and “maximise customer comfort”.

“One of the biggest issues with our market is that we’re very weather-affected, especially since we have such large outdoor areas,” Sammut says.

“If it rains, our sales are affected. If it gets too hot, our sales are affected.”

The trio has also been lobbying against the state government’s definition of a ‘garden centre’, selling pets, pools and fruits to boot.

And despite the sheer size of the site — 6,000 square metres — these innovations allow the garden centre to run with lower maintenance, saving the business some employee costs.

Customers at the heart of the business

Nick’s influence still runs strong through the business’ day-to-day strategy, with the trio placing a strong focus on customer experience.

“He was never old fashioned,” Sammut says.

“To the day he died, he was still thinking of better ways of doing things.”

At the time, Nick was dissatisfied with the overall look and feel of nurseries. He couldn’t understand why there were muddy paths down the middle of the garden centre and plants were in second-hand prune tins.

“There were no trolleys and no conveniences,” Sammut explains.

“He started doing what other retailers were doing in other businesses, and turned it on its ear.”

Following this cue, the brothers built the centre with what they learnt about their customers over the years.

“Most people who come into our store have absolutely no idea what they want,” John says.

“People want to garden but they don’t know how to garden.”

To launch more productive conversations, the new Flower Power site features digital signage for inspiration, which is something more often seen at homeware and tech stores than in nurseries.

The garden centre also has fully automatic shading and protection from wind, to make the outdoor section accessible year-round, and site-wide air-conditioning to encourage customers to shop in summer.

Since opening, Sammut says they’ve seen customers responding to these amenities more enthusiastically than the brothers had anticipated.

“It’s far from what they expect from a garden centre,” he says.

Before selling the Moorebank location, the brothers budgeted for a 60% higher turnover from the new Milperra store.

Having reached that milestone and surpassed it, they’re now looking to roll-out the tech in their other nine stores too.

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