Leighton Buzzard Garden Centre blossoming again a year after its rescue

Julia McCarthy, Se-Se and Ken Chen, Debbie Tipton and Ben Foskett
Julia McCarthy, Se-Se and Ken Chen, Debbie Tipton and Ben Foskett

The businessman who rescued Leighton Buzzard Garden Centre almost a year ago has completed the first phase of a multi-thousand pound facelift programme, beefed up his management team and staffing complement, and sourced many of his goods and services from local suppliers to help boost the economy in the area.

Milton Keynes-based Ken Chen took over the popular Hockliffe Road-based garden centre last May after then operators, the Home & Garden Group called in administrators. He pledged to invest to “improve the experience of customers” and ensure garden centre facility remained a focal point for the local community.

“We’ve fulfilled those objectives and promises and more” said 39-year-old Mr Chen, adding: “A year ago, we had to trade with what was already in the supply pipeline. But we and our team have learned a lot, secured new premium quality suppliers located as close as possible to Leighton Buzzard and strengthened our management team and service staff. We have also launched our own VIP discount card to reward loyal customers.”

The Leighton facility is now managed by the experienced Debbie Tipton who was previously assistant manager at Mr Chen’s Willington site which he also rescued from the Home & Garden group; Assistant manager is Ben Foskett who previously worked at an Eaton Bray nursery, while the popular in-house Blossom Café is now managed by Julia McCarthy.

“In addition, we’ve taken on six additional staff, with the Leighton garden centre now employing 25 people. We’ve made substantial investments on resurfacing the outdoor display areas, providing poly-tunnel protection for customers and plants, and improved horticultural display areas,” said Ken, adding: “We’ve achieved a great deal in 12 months, remaining very competitive with price and quality our focus as we further develop our loyal customer base in an ever-expanding local economy.”

Mr Chen, who is spearheading the Leighton venture with wife SeSe is one of Britain’s largest suppliers of glazed terracotta pots in all colours, shapes and sizes, having launched his Newbridge Premium Pots company in 2009. He now supplies garden centres and other retail outlets around the UK.

Added Mr Chen, father of two young daughters: “There is a natural synergy between our pot-supply business successfully developed over the past decade, and garden centres, which we have supplied for many years.

“We took over the Leighton Buzzzard Garden Centre because we are confident it can be developed into a premier facility, which, during our stewardship, will focus on quality and value.

“We are in this for the long term and already have plans to further improve the Leighton experience, with the next phase focusing on the Blossom Café, which has proved to be very popular, and the service counter facilities.”

Based at Bradwell Abbey in Milton Keynes, Chinese-speaking Mr Chen, who was brought up in Ireland, has other business interests, including Willington Garden Centre near Bedford and dealership in prestige motor vehicles.

Site owners Martin and Stuart Hammond acquired the near-derelict three-acre Hockliffe Road site in 1994, developing a successful garden centre before deciding to retire three years ago.

It was subsequently leased to the Home & Garden Group, but after trading there for almost two years, the company, based at Upper Caldecote, near Biggleswade went into administration at the end of March 2018.

Mr Chen subsequently acquired the remaining 13-year lease on the premises.

Nine other businesses occupying rented facilities on the multi-use retail site include an acquatics centre, beauticians, dog groomers, a pet shop, car wash, crafts centre, hot tub and pool suppliers and installers, a conservatory company and a children’s nursery, jointly employing more than 40 people.