Carol paris, a well-known face from the HTA, has helped to launch a new garden centre group. She tells us how it all began.

Tell me a little about yourself. What did you aspire to be growing up?
I was always mad on horses and always intended to have a career within the equestrian industry. I was born in the East end of London where the only horse belonged to the rag and bone man! My mother used to walk with me the two miles to where the horse was kept.

How and when did you enter the industry?
​I originally worked with horses as a professional rider. I did show jumping, eventing, point-to-point racing and qualified as a riding instructor. I had a riding accident and was unable to ride for a year so needed to do something else. I applied for a job at Harrods as they needed someone in their equestrian department to visit customers for saddle fitting etc. In those days we held the Royal Warrant for Prince Charles’ polo ponies so it also involved going to polo which was not a hardship! I discovered I loved retail and gained a place on the Harrods graduate training scheme, which involved attending the College for the Distributive Trades in Leicester Square and working in departments throughout the store. I left Harrods to relocate to Wales and joined Edinburgh Woollen Mill as a Store Manager, then Area Manager and New Sores Manager. I was given the role of putting EWM stores as concesssions into garden centres. I subsequently got a call from The Garden & Leisure Group to join them as Retail Director. I knew nothing of horticulture and thought they had called the wrong person! I was with Garden & Leisure for 16 years as Retail Director then Operations & Buying Director until we sold to Wyevale in 2013. I became CEO of the HTA until 2017. During that time I also sat on the board and policy board of the British Retail Consortium, I also sat on the boards of HDC, The Trade Association partnership and the Horticultural Innovation Partnership.

Tell me a little about your career to date.
Since 2017 I have worked as a consultant and am currently a non-exec for Briers, the supplier of garden boots and gloves. I am also a trustee of Greenfingers and chair Perennial’s trading arm.

What was the origin of the company?
The company newly formed in April of this year. It was set up in conjunction with Puma Investments, a London-based investment company.

Tell me about the goals and etho of Somerton?
The company will focus on excellent quality plants and food. There will be a foodhall focused on locally-sourced product and the restaurants will be superb quality table service using only the best ingredients. There will also be a quality gift offering, garden furniture, garden sundries and Christmas will be a real focus. We hope to attract customers who appreciate a really good garden centre with knowledgeable staff giving good service. The food offering will be central to the offer.

Can you tell me about any success stories that have given you inspiration?
Somerton will be franchising from Rosebourne, who opened their first centre in Leyhill two and a half years ago. Rosebourne has been exceptionally succesful so this will be the model we use.

What products/events are you excited about?
​I think the garden centre industry is in a very good position for growth. Garden centres have the opportunity to offer an experience to customers that they cannot get on the high street or online.

Do you offer any support services to customers?
The key area where customers need support is with which plants to purchase for their needs. Many are looking for low maintenance plants and knowledgeable staff can help them to plan their perfect garden

Have you had to make changes to respond to changing demands?
The model is based on giving people a reason to visit. Garden centres do not sell anything that people have to buy so the product has to be interesting and different and something they really want. The food offer ensures that people have a good dining experience and day out. With some of the groups becoming quite formulaic, the opportunity is to differentiate is quite clear. ​With the uncertainty of Brexit impacting on cost prices, getting the right product at the right price is imperative.