Johnsons of Whixley is the business that keeps on blooming as it marks 100 years

Johnsons of Whixley has been going for 100 years and despite challenges along the way, it is already sowing the seeds for the next generation, writes Ismail Mulla.

Green landscape: Graham Rochardson says the business has a unique perspective on climate change.

Growing plants requires a great deal of patience and expertise so it’s probably a good thing that Johnsons of Whixley has a century of experience in doing so.

The plant nursery in North Yorkshire has anywhere between five and six million plants on the ground with 26,000 different stock variants.

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Johnson of Whixley is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year and moves are already afoot to safeguard the business for a whole other generation.

Growing on: Graham Richardson says future generations of the family are ready to step up.

The original founder of the business was Eric Johnson. He set up Johnson of Whixley after returning in 1921 after the First World War.

“He fought right up to the Armistice and stayed behind in Europe to help during the big humanitarian crisis that resulted from the war that smashed central Europe to bits,” says Graham Richardson, managing director of Johnsons of Whixley.

“He was there to help with refugees, rebuilding etc.”

On his return to Yorkshire, Mr Johnson took some land and started growing and selling garden plants.

Mr Richardson said: “He was selling garden plants in the inter-war years through regional markets at market towns such as Knaresborough, Otley, Ilkley etc. and also to local landowners and estates.”

In 1964, Mr Johnson was ready to retire and that is when John Richardson, Graham’s father, acquired the business.

It’s fair to say Johnsons of Whixley has changed massively since those early days. The Richardson family has put its own stamp on it and trends such as growing pots changed the horticultural industry.

But out of respect to Mr Johnson and the fact that the business already had a very good reputation prior to their custodianship, they have kept the Johnsons’ name.

Mr Richardson said: “Out of respect we have always retained the Johnsons’ name and as far as I am concerned always will do.”

John Richardson decided to ditch the retail operation in favour of a commercial operation that sells to local authorities, landscape contractors etc. It also rolled out a trade counter-style plant centre.

Graham Richardson joined the business in the early 1980s but like his brothers he went away to gain experience working elsewhere before returning in 1983.

He said: “That’s the danger in a family business that you can become a little bit insular and blinkered. You only know what you know. Your world is a very small place. Introducing external elements and forcing yourself to see the wider world helps you get things into perspective and brings new opportunities as a result.”

The process of Mr Richardson and his brothers taking over the running of the business happened organically. By the mid 1990s they were directors of Johnsons.

Johnsons of Whixley has faced a number of challenges in recent years.

“It lost a lot of money on a scheme when a subcontractor was forced out of business. It then had to weather the recession.

“As everybody did at the time, our business contracted by about 20 per cent,” says Mr Richardson. “That put a big strain on us.”

There have been harsh winters that have caused damage to its stock and then there was the Brexit vote.

“Our business is totally wedded to dealing in Europe,” says the managing director of Johnsons. Holland and Belgium are the horticultural centres of Europe and Johnsons supplements materials it grows on site with plants sourced from these countries.

“We grow about half of what we can sell and supplement it from external trusted suppliers in Holland and Belgium,” Mr Richardson said.

The business has had to hire extra staff to manage the administrative burden as a result of the Brexit vote. It is costing the business an additional £20,000 to £25,000 a month.

To top all of this off the pandemic left the business in uncharted territory and “terrified us”, says Mr Richardson.

However, it was not long before garden centres were open again and now the outlook is looking a whole lot rosier for Johnsons of Whixley. The switch to home working and people spending more time in their gardens has led to “massive pent-up demand” for plants.

Mr Richardson said: “The pandemic has brought a massive change. Our industry is suggesting there are three million new gardeners since the start of the pandemic. We’ve seen that reflected in the number of customers that we are enrolling on an ongoing basis.”

There are very few industries that have a better view of climate change in action than horticulture.

“It makes the science of growing more tricky because everything becomes more variable,” says Mr Richardson.

The plant nursery has to contend with extreme wet spells as well as periods of drought. It can also reduce uptake if a landscaper is unwilling to pay the additional cost of watering pot-planting.

He added: “What it does mean is that our produce is more in the public eye than it has ever been because ultimately anything that we grow, will have a noticeable, cumulative impact on the Government’s ambitious targets to be carbon neutral.

“It’s an exciting time and perhaps it will go on to be an opportunity for us.”

Family fortunes

Whatever the future holds for Johnsons of Whixley, one thing remains in no doubt and that is its custodianship will remain in the hands of the Richardson family.

The next generation is already playing an active role. Eleanor Richardson, Graham’s daughter, has “revolutionised” the firm’s marketing while there are 11 members of the family currently working at the business out of 125 permanent staff.

“Their responsibility is increasing and there will be a gradual transition to the next generation who will bring new ideas,” Mr Richardson says.

His advice to the next generation is “by and large stick to what you know and what you are good at and recognise that the customer is increasingly wanting convenience”.

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