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Commercial Horticulture Business a Positive Family Learning Curve

November 2017

If a family that plays together stays together, a family that goes into business together gains a deeper and wider understanding of each other.

Geoff Morgan is managing director of well- known Marlborough commercial builder, T&D Construction. When local horticulture operation,  Hedgerows Hydroponics,

came on the market in early 2016, Geoff saw an opportunity for his family, wife Annette, son Clayton and Clayton’s partner, Hannah Thomas, to take an interesting new direction.

Clayton takes up the story.

“Dad pitched the idea to us that we buy the business. Mum, Hannah and I all have different backgrounds. This opportunity came up out of the blue. We were looking for something to do together and, the more we looked at it, the more Hedgerows Hydroponics seemed to fit,” he said.

Clayton and Hannah had recently graduated from university, Clayton studying photography and Hannah geology. Annette’s background, meanwhile, was in interior design.

Hedgerows Hydroponics grows strawberries, selling them via an onsite retail outlet, while also sending to supermarkets out of town.

Joe Blakiston and Ken McLeod of PGG Wrightson Real Estate, Blenheim marketed the property. Joe said Hedgerows Hydroponics’ strawberries are widely known.

“While it was initially a market garden, it had evolved into a local landmark that everyone in Marlborough recognises. From that perspective, it was an easy property to market. It sits in a prime location, with plenty of opportunity for future development as a subdivision, so was also attractive as a land bank investment.

“We offered it as a deadline sale, which attracted strong interest. While the property didn’t sell through that process, the Morgans were among the interested parties and made an offer soon after. It was certainly gratifying to see a young couple with plenty of fresh ideas come along and give this well-established local icon a new twist, and the strawberries taste awesome,” says Joe.

After the Morgans bought the business, taking over in March last year, it was full on from day one, explains Hannah.

“Learning something new, which was so urgent, and putting it into practice right away, was the biggest challenge. Hydroponics is science in a really practical way. There were things we had to learn in a hurry and then apply them that day or the next day. That was the most daunting aspect of stepping into the new business. It was a steep learning curve and not one thing at a time. We were learning food production, staff management and retail all at once. It was hectic, though we rose to the challenge.

“Although Clayton and I were both used to studying at university, doing research and working out the answers to problems, this was like doing a masters in something we had never studied before,” she says.

As they learnt more about hydroponics, they realised this wasn’t an enterprise that followed the conventional rules.

“Because the previous owner had built the systems himself, it works, though it didn’t follow the text book. We have added to it, which has worked out well. That has forced us to learn a lot, which we didn’t expect when we bought it. We didn’t think it would be such a crazy laboratory-like experience. We had to take every challenge as it came,” says Hannah.

Clayton was able to convert the understanding of chemistry he had gained from photography and film work into the chemistry required for hydroponics. “He’s really good at measurement,” says Hannah.

She and Annette are both keen gardeners, good with plants and have attempted to grow all sorts of things in the past, which was an obvious bonus.

Less obvious, though just as useful to their new business, was the visual sense Annette and Clayton’s backgrounds gave them.

“While we knew we had a good product, and everyone around Blenheim knew Hedgerows Hydroponics, we were the fourth family to have the property and we wanted to put our own mark on it. We revamped the image, developing a fresher brand, making it more approachable and family-friendly, a place people would come and hang out, staying a bit longer. That included a new design and fit-out for the shop. For most people, that would be a stressful process. For us, it was something we looked forward to and really enjoyed,” says Clayton.

Social media helped give the business a new focus under the Morgan family.

“Social media has been really beneficial. It is how people live their lives now, and we decided to take advantage of that. We decided to put up a little something of ourselves as often as possible. With Clayton’s photography, we were able to add that visual aspect of selling our product. We found people enjoy that aspect of primary production, and respond to it really well,” says Hannah.

Geoff remains on hand to give moral support.

“He had plenty of useful business advice, though not so much time. At weekends, he has been our market man. He can sell anything, though strawberries are easy to sell,” says Hannah.

PGG Wrightson business, FruitFed Supplies, with horticulture technician, Nick Kininmonth, was also a crucial partner, undertaking all the chemical business and providing advice to ensure the Morgans kept the operational side of Hedgerows Hydroponics on track.