Johnsons of Whixley have been supplying the nation with millions of quality plants and trees for over 100 years from their nurseries in Yorkshire. Paul Andrews went to visit them to find out more.
Johnsons of Whixley is a three-generation family business located in North Yorkshire, equidistant between York and Harrogate, with over 100 years experience in growing and supplying trees, shrubs, and plants to UK-wide planting schemes.
12 members of the family have an active role within the business, from senior leadership positions and administration to more hands-on roles on the shop floor. The team is made up of 130 full-time staff, which can increase by up to 50% during peak seasons.
From those in the office, on the shop floor, or on the ground tending to the plants and trees, this is a family business that puts people first. They strive to nurture and develop all their staff and are proud to say that each staff member plays an important role in the growth of the business.
Spread over five production sites covering 200 acres across North Yorkshire, they are one of the longest-established and largest wholesale commercial nursery businesses in the UK, annually growing and supplying millions of plants, shrubs and trees to the UK trade for 100 years.
The journey for the current family owners dates back to 1964 when John Richardson had just got married, had their first child and then bought this small nursery.
But even prior to that there was a long family history in the sector, with hard work and entrepreneurial spirit at the heart of all that he did. Growing up, his mother’s family had been growers for generations with their main crops being rhubarb, vegetables and salads, and from the age of 12 he spent every spare minute helping out on the farm, being paid for the work he did. “My wage at this time (aged 15) was £3.20 for a 47 hour working week which was paid to my mother in return for all my food and clothing and I kept the money that was paid for any overtime that I did,” John explains.
“I then got a place at the local agricultural college, but was encouraged to do a two year course in Essex, which resulted in a big move down South. It was a thoroughly enjoyable time in my life as I was working hard and building up a good amount of capital too. I then moved back to the East Riding of Yorkshire with work with the Bean family in their horticultural business whilst at the same time earning extra money by doing gardening projects at weekends.”
Entrepreneurial spirit and a desire to be successful was evident from a young age. Balancing jobs with extra work in the community helped to build up savings and John was never shy of trying something new. Working for Secretts in Surrey provided more opportunity too as he was driving lorries to Covent Garden with produce from the farm and then stopping off on the way home at Buckingham Palace to collect horse manure on the return journey!
His career continued, and when he was considering his future, a role in Scotland as a commercial grower advisor arose, which he took, moved to Scotland, and it was here that he met his future wife. As a rep on the road life was busy but John loved it, clocking up about 25,000 miles a year back in the late 1950’s and he was happy.
It was whilst he was based in Scotland, away on a business trip to Aberdeen and staying in a hotel, that John received a call from his Uncle back in Whixley. A Mr Johnson, who was 67 years old had a nursery business that he wanted to sell, and his Uncle asked John if he was interested in taking it on. 17 trips between Scotland and Whixley and the deal was done, and the journey to begin the business that it is today, had begun.
For John, looking back today, he recognises the effort that has been put in to build the business and for him one of the proudest moments is the fact that it provided an opportunity for his three sons to join the business and to work together building it. “I worked with my kids and that was fantastic,” adds John, “but they had to work for the benefits and make a real contribution, which they did, and over time they took on more and more of the responsibility too,” adds John.
Graham, one of John’s sons adds that “I learnt a lot from my Dad and he led by example, as we do now, doing it the family way. There was no ‘big stick’ and there was no pressure to join the business, but it is in the blood and part of the ‘working the land mentality’ that we have as a family. We have never had a family fall-out, and every decision has always been made by consensus.”
As a family they grew up on the nursery, in the house that was previously owned by Mr Johnson. As John explains, “he built another home next door which my brother now lives in. When we took on the nursery and bought the business we took out a loan to help pay for it and at the time there was £2,000 left to pay with two years to go. Mr Johnson and his wife, both veterans of World War I, were so pleased with the way that we had taken on and run the business, feeling that it was in safe hands to such an extent that they wrote off the balance of the loan.”
The family business has grown from an 11 acre site with 11 staff and a turnover of around £30,500 to what it is today, 200 acres, multiple sites, turnover of around £17 million and a full time staff of 130 with a further 50/60 added to cope with seasonal pressures.
The business has grown under the Richardsons and there are now seven of the third generation actively involved in the business. As John explains, “My great satisfaction is that the family have become so engaged in the business and are taking it forward, something that gives me so much pleasure and pride, knowing that it is continuing into the next generation. Graham has developed the business elements of the company, whilst Andrew concentrated on sales and promotion, and Iain controlled physical expansion and production.”
As Graham adds, “It is fantastic for us to be working together, each and every day, coming together as a family, as one, and building on the legacy that has been created by our parents. It is a pleasure to be taking it forward and continuing to build something for the future with an engaged family, core values, and a great team of staff too.”
John is the first to admit that the business has changed a lot since he acquired it back in 1964. “So much has changed and yet so much remains the same. The way things are grown and the need for sustainability is high on the agenda but the passion that we have as a family to continue to invest in the business is still evident for all to see. We work together as one and continue to invest in the future of the business and I am truly proud of the business that we have created today, and delighted that it is passing safely into the hands of the next generation.”
Johnsons of Whixley continues to grow and develop new routes to market. As Graham concludes, “We are proud of the business and our family values that shape our growth. We are also proud of our low staff turnover and ability to identify, recruit and develop staff members who go on to give 20, 30 or even more than 40 years’ service, and endeavour to recognise and reward long service.”
This is a great family business, a great ambassador for Yorkshire and a business that is proud of its’ heritage, the plans for the future, and one that continues to successfully build on the entrepreneurial spirit of the generations that have gone before.
We look forward to seeing their continued growth and development in the years to come.