Ever Growing – Kate Williams
When I hear the words ‘family business’, it conjures up a spectrum of meanings and structures. Sometimes a child has inherited a company from a parent, frequently we see a father-son, mother-daughter – or similar configurations – as the leaders of a business. Rarely, we see a whole ensemble of family members all pulling together and creating an institution out of a once-relatively small business idea. The rare option is what forms the ever growing Tony Benger Landscaping…
It is unlikely that I am the only person to have wondered if Tony Benger was born with a spade in his hand. Gardening is in his blood.
Inherited from his mother, Mary, who has created and runs popular East Devon visitor attraction Burrow Farm Gardens, his love of landscaping is deep-rooted.
When he was a child, growing up on the then-named Burrow Farm, Tony already had green fingers, helping his mother develop some of the unsuitable farmland Burrow Farm occupied.
His parents moved to Burrow Farm in 1959 where his father, Jon, worked a dairy herd; this meant that most of the land was invaluable for feeding the cows, but Mary – with the help of Tony and his three siblings – began clearing brambles on a Roman clay pit, unsuitable for farming. The cows stayed until 1983 and, today, Burrow Farm Gardens is a beautiful 13-acre garden, created from scratch.
With that as a backdrop to his life, it is unsurprising that Tony took to landscaping as a young man and that this strong family business is the success it is today as it celebrates the opening of its new premises and office building.
After a travelling spree, a young Tony returned home and began working for his mother. It was a short-lived job but this was the beginning of the start for Tony Benger Landscaping.
“In 1985, I came back from travelling. I had been farming for 10 years and wanted a change. My mother said she was busy planting other people’s gardens and why didn’t I come and work with her? That lasted two weeks – working for your mum never works. I started up landscaping on my own and subcontracted to my mother, whilst she subcontracted to me. Tony Benger Landscaping was born.”
And that worked well for many years.
“In 1989, I was dropping business cards in Honiton and called into a showhouse for Costain Homes. They asked me to maintain the showhouse. Then do a showhouse. Then do another showhouse in Exminster. Costain Homes was bought by Redrow Homes in 1999 and I have been working for Redrow Homes ever since. I was the only subcontractor to survive the changeover to Redrow. My father, in the early years, was very frustrated with my commitment to work. He said I had a great opportunity and couldn’t understand why I wasn’t working seven days a week, 24 hours a day. ‘You need to get your priorities right,’ he said. I said it is all about priorities. I was getting my priorities right with parties and girlfriends – the most important things! In 1991, I married my wife, Fiona. With a mortgage, my priorities had to change and the business really started to grow faster with her help.”
It was not just Tony’s wife and mother who were involved in the business – his sister, two daughters and his nephew are all part of this team making it a true family affair.
“Around 2002, my sister, Penny, decided that as her children were at secondary school, she had a little bit of time. As an artist and a plantswoman, she was perfect to come on board and then take over where our mother left off when she decided to spend more time on her own garden at Burrow Farm.”
Penny’s one or two days a week soon became five. Tony says much of the company’s success is owed to his mother and sister.
As the business expanded, Tony Benger Landscaping had three generations involved, including his own daughters, Olivia, in the commercial team, and Sophie, in the nursery.
“My nephew runs the maintenance department, his wife, Charlotte, is in the commercial management team. We are truly a family firm of which I am very proud of. I have every confidence that they will continue Tony Benger Landscaping to go from strength-to-strength along with my staff, who are the people to thank for all their hard work and attention to detail to bring the company to where it is today.”
The company, which also has bases at Okehampton and Ringwood, carries out the design, construction and maintenance of landscapes large and small and employs over 80 local staff.
As a substantial enterprise, there is an abundance of red tape as every SME knows but the success of the smooth running of the business is to keep it simple, according to Tony.
“When I founded the company over 30 years ago, my strapline was that ‘all we needed to do, was a good job’ and that remains my view today. For the customer, that means we will be professional and responsive from the moment of the first enquiry through to the completion of the job. Communication from management initially and then from on-site staff will enable customers to feel in control. As Investors In People, we empower and equip our staff in the field. We will be proactive in helping customers overcome issues and, above all, we will be reliable, turning up when we say we will. Our health and safety record is also extremely good.”
“For us, this means a profitable company that has enabled reinvestment in the business to grow it and to have the capacity to carry out challenging work. This provides opportunities for our staff with increased job satisfaction. Hence, we have the security and skills to carry out a wide range of projects. From creative design to the completion of the project, Tony Benger Landscaping aims to be an “efficient, problem-solving landscaping one-stop shop, offering excellency and value for money for our customers.”
The nurseries are another aspect to the business supplying a wide range of trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants and other landscaping materials to trade customers.
Operations undertaken by the firm range from a weekly lawn mow to landscaping the engineering works on Lyme Regis cliffs at a contract value just below £1million, proving the growth of the original one-man-and-his-barrow sole trader.
People are important to Tony. Not only customers but his team, too – relatives or not. As part of Investors in People accreditation, the firm takes on several apprentices every year, many of whom have gone on to hold team leader roles within the company.
“We regularly seek staff input with focus groups meeting to discuss topics such as health and safety, machinery, ‘change champions’ and the operation of each department. We have two dedicated trainers in place giving support to all staff and ensuring quality and best practice is maintained.”
Last month, Tony Benger Landscaping took a huge leap into its future as it opened its brand new purpose-built facilities at Dalwood Hill Nursery, which was enabled by an EU grant.
The firm received one of the last EU grants for rural development from the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development, a project under the Rural Development Programme for England Growth Programme managed and administered by the Rural Payments Agency on behalf of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
“In January 2017, I discovered that Dalwood Hill Poultry Farm was coming up for sale. So, in April 2017, it was ours, with 20,000 barn laying hens and 800 cockerels and a sitting tenant until September. We got planning permission for change of use, a yard, nursery and an office. Our old site was just too restrictive for the safe and efficient operation of a growing business. This new base will allow continued growth for the next generation.’’
The move will allow more efficient and environmentally-friendly operations allowing continued growth of the company for years to come, investing in the next generation. Tony has aims for the future which are not solely figure-driven.
“In terms of sales, we are aiming to achieve £5.5m by 2023. Yet, we also have a lot of other goals in terms of our service offer such as growing our newest satellite in highly competitive Ringwood area, undertaking more commercial fencing work and making our electronic systems more integrated, these, along with our continued objectives of being ‘regional landscaping contractor of choice’ and a ‘great place to work’, are the key priorities for the future of Tony Benger Landscaping.”
Despite keeping himself busy during downtime within the local community as a parish councillor and as one of the key organisers for the charitable Axe Vale Show, as well as a spot of skiing during the winter, Tony still keeps his family close and would recommend working with relatives to other businesses.
“I can always rely on them, even in the worst situations, the family members can also be very frank to me and tell me that I made the wrong decision.”
With a current turn over target for 2019 at £ 3.8million and plans in place to keep that growing year-on-year, Tony has his feet rooted firmly where it all began.
“My main inspiration was from John and Mary Benger, my parents, who bought Burrow Farm in 1959. Mary started building the garden around the farm which is now open to the public and extends over 13 acres.”
And that solid family ethic is why his parents were asked to cut the ribbon on the new Tony Benger Landscaping premises.
Written by Kate Williams
Photos supplied by Kate Williams