Business is blooming for Cheshire MD

The MD of Glazebrook-based Bents Garden & Home – one of the UK’s largest independent garden centres – is on course to accelerate his company’s turnover to £11.5 million with help from Vistage International, the chief executives’ organisation.

Matthew Bent took over the family firm, founded by his grandparents Alfred and Margaret, in 2006. Since then, the 34-year-old MD has powered the business to 300 staff, record sales and a glittering array of business and industry awards – including the Institute of Directors’ prestigious Young Cheshire Director of Year title.

Mr Bent joined Vistage International with a view to improving his leadership skills and using his fellow members, who are all from non-competing sectors, as a confidential sounding board. Vistage, which has 15,000 members globally, brings together groups of business leaders who meet for intensive and challenging monthly development sessions where they act as one another’s non-executive directors,

With support and advice from his fellow members, the MD has succeeded in increasing the company’s competitive advantage during the current economic turbulence, by focusing upon the quality of Bents’ products and services.

Mr Bent has also expanded the company’s target market, invested heavily in staff development, overhauled the company’s recruitment processes and drawn up a long-term business plan.

The MD said: “Our customers are voting with their feet. We aren’t the cheapest garden centre around, but customers tell us that for quality and top-notch service, we are unparalleled. In a downturn, that customer experience becomes more important than ever.

“My Vistage group has hosted a number of excellent business speakers, who have inspired me to improve the “Bents experience” even further. With their assistance I have been able to challenge my team to think differently. Our meetings all end with positive outcomes, and I have made personal presentations to team members to get the positive messages out there. As a result our customers see happy, smiley faces – in an economic climate such as this one, a happy, buzzing atmosphere can make all the difference.

“Garden centre trade peaks in April and May, so we are endeavoring to appeal to customers who wouldn’t usually visit garden centres. We have already introduced several innovative features – such as our Open Skies glasshouse, which has a retractable glass roof and allows customers to shop for plants all year round – and a change of name to Bents Garden & Home. We now offer outdoor living solutions and interior furniture and home-style ideas. Our award-winning restaurant, with a team of chefs who prepare fresh food on the premises, is open until 9 pm in the evenings. My fellow Vistage group members have toured the site and have provided me with plenty of great ideas to continue expanding our appeal.”

Commented Vistage chair Edward Clifford, who facilitates the monthly meetings and conducts one-to-one sessions with members: “In a volatile business environment, the market can shrink and become elusive – not to mention fiercely competitive. To outsmart other companies in your sector, you must learn what it is that customers value about doing business with you and your rivals.

Today’s chief executives and MDs like Matthew are required to be more sophisticated and capable, demonstrating higher levels of business acumen while seeking to attract, retain and motivate the best people.

“Vistage develops business leaders who are seeking to outperform, make better decisions and achieve better results. In the current economic climate, the advantages of Vistage membership are more evident than ever.”

Recent awards collected by Bents Garden & Home include Visit Chester’s Tourism Retail Award 2008 and Britain’s Best Garden Retailer 2007. Earlier this year the company was named “Garden Centre of the Year 2009” by the Garden Centre Association.