Scaling to need

Bacchus Marsh Nursery 1975-2000.jpg

BY KERRY ANDERSON

Small businesses are extremely versatile. They can be scaled up and down according to the times and needs.  And there is no better example than the Bacchus Marsh Florist & Nursery currently under the third generation of ownership in the one family.

In 1966, only three months after unexpectedly becoming a widow, Josephine Jennings was cajoled by her daughter to have a look at a small plant nursery advertised for sale in the rural Victorian town of Bacchus Marsh.

While her husband had worked long-term for the State Rivers Authority involving a move from Maffra in Gippsland to Halls Gap in the Grampians, Josie’s duties had previously revolved around the State Rivers owned home and raising five now grown up children.  Suddenly, left without a home and a husband to care for, it made perfect sense for her to move closer to where her married daughter Yvonne Marsden lived with her family in Bacchus Marsh.

“She wasn’t very keen on the idea of buying a business,” says Yvonne, “but I knew she was gardening mad and the shop had a residence at the back for her to live in.  By the time we had walked through the shop she had bought it!”

Housed in a small cottage facing the main street, Josie’s nursery was relatively simple consisting of small plants, seeds, fertilisers, and pots. For some time the adjacent shop, also part of the freehold, was rented to a hairdresser.

‘Mum did ok with the business,’ recalls Yvonne who helped out by driving a ute and trailer to buy new stock from Melbourne when the shop was closed every Monday.

After remarrying, Josie’s new husband, Bert Layton, helped out for some time until they got the travel bug in 1971 which is when Yvonne and husband Lyle took over the business from her mother.

‘Lyle thought it would give me something to do now that our three boys were all at school,’ Yvonne recalls with a wry smile, or maybe it was a grimace? They started by leasing then purchased the property.  For the first six years Lyle continued working elsewhere to help pay the nursery off until he also joined Yvonne in the business full time.

Yvonne says that the best eleven years of her life were when the whole family moved into the tiny residence at the back of the shop so the kids didn’t have to go home to an empty house after school.

Within a year the profits had been tripled. ‘I bought product in much bigger quantities and more lines,’ Yvonne explains. ‘We also started selling sand, soil and pine bark from the back of the shop and really got into horticulture in a bigger way.’

Perhaps the biggest change to the business was the introduction of a floristry. ‘This ended up as being as good as the nursery in terms of revenue,’ says Yvonne who taught herself the art of arranging flowers.  Land at the rear of the shop was purchased to build their new home and the residence was given over to the business.

The ‘big drought’ that first reared its ugly head in the 1980’s and re-emerged in the 1990’s effectively shut down many wholesale nurseries as water restrictions impacted on sales and prompted change.

Yvonne and Lyle downscaled the business to its original size and built shops to rent out which has effectively become their superannuation.  Lyle was then able to give more time to his passion for farming and training race horses while Yvonne continued with the floristry and nursery on a smaller scale.

2007 heralded another change when their youngest son, Brian and his wife Kerryn, bought the business. 

The value of intellectual property and knowledge of customers and processes should never be underestimated. The transition was a very easy one given that Kerryn had worked with Yvonne in the business for 15 years prior.

‘It was a great business to go into. We just kept it moving slowly but surely. While some new business owners like to promote that it is under new management, it was business as usual for us,’ explains Kerryn who admits to simply telling customers that Yvonne wasn’t in today when asked. ‘I didn’t want to embarrass them that they didn’t know.’

Brian is quick to clarify that there were no family favours given in the purchase of the business. ‘Mum and dad have worked hard all their life and deserve a good retirement.’  The couple also knew it was a good solid business that has stood the test of time.

But times do change and so do customer expectations and trends.  For a start, Brian and Kerryn introduced seven day a week trading about eleven years ago.

‘Rain, hail or shine, we are open,’ says Brian.  While they employ between four and six staff members at any given time, he and Kerryn work Sundays and public holidays to cut down on penalty rates.

‘When we get busy we get really busy,’ adds Kerryn. ‘We cater for a lot more weddings these days. People know that we are always open which is important.’

While the couple have only ‘made a few cosmetic changes to the shop’ and introduced a few different lines including a lot more indoor plants, there is always plenty to do especially with regard to the floristry component of the business.  ‘Flowers are always evolving,’ explains Kerryn. ‘There are lots of different ideas and trends to keep up with.’

Their daughters, Jamie and Keely - great-grand daughters of Josephine - also work in the business so there is the potential that one day there may be a fourth generation added to this family dynasty of small business owners.

Whether scaling up or scaling down, or simply doing what it always does best, the Bacchus Marsh Florist & Nursery is a great example of how small business families can live and work where they love over many generations.

VISIT THEIR WEBSITE

ABOVE:  Josephine Jennings just prior to purchasing the Bacchus Marsh Nursery and her daughter Yvonne who later took over ownership.

The Marsden Family’s top business tips:

  • YVONNE: Work it yourself.  You have to have staff but it pays to always be around.
  • LYLE: Own your own property.
  • BRIAN: Don’t spend more than what you earn (impressed on him by his mum!). 
  • KERRYN: Understand that you can’t please everyone.

KERRY ANDERSON: Author of ‘Entrepreneurship: It’s Everybody’s Business’ and grand-daughter of Josephine Jennings. Kerry works with small businesses and rural communities to help them embrace new opportunities. READ MORE