Wyevale recruits TV’s Wilde to aid expansion

Pop singer turned television garden designer Kim Wilde has been recruited as the face of Wyevale Garden Centres for 2005. The £262million group, the UK’s biggest garden centre operator, is extending some of its 116 centres to make space for its faster-growing non-gardening ranges and restaurants.
Wilde will reopen these centres, appear in local newspaper advertising and write a gardening column for Wyevale’s weekly newsletter.
The firm’s decision follows its success at Christmas when the Eighties pop singer starred in Wyevale’s advertising campaign. Strong sales of decorations and gifts drove sales up.
“We had an excellent Christmas, very few retailers bettered this performance and we were up there with the best of them”, said chief executive Robert Hewitt yesterday.
But the strong performance came at the end of a challenging year for garden centres, with poor weather in early spring and a short gardening season. Sales of bedding plants, house plants and shrubs fell but underlying group sales edged up 0.3 per cent, helped by strong demand for pets, bird tables and gifts, and other non-horticultural categories.
Pre-tax profits fell to £15.1 million from £20.5 million after a £4.5 million loss on the sale of centres. Shares fell 2½p to 469½p.
Wyevale said a recovery in the second half of last year had continues in 2005. Underlying sales were up 9.5 per cent, bolstered by business at extended sites.
Former Threshers boss David Williams joined the firm as non-executive chairman at the start of March. As part of a review, he will instruct surveyors to examine Wyevale’s property portfolio to work out whether some centres would be more valuable to others, such as housebuilders.
Laxey Partners, the aggressive value investor, has built up a 14 per cent stake in the group and analysts speculated yesterday this was spurring rapid change at Wyevale and the reassessment of its real estate.
Wyevale spent nearly £9 million last year enlarging six centres. Eleven others will have been redeveloped by the end of this month and it is seeking planning permission for a further 20.