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Market Report: Garden & Grounds Care

Shifting ground

Following changes at the largest grounds care equipment hirers, other companies are expanding their operations. Alan Guthrie reports.

Operating large-scale grounds care equipment hire on a national basis poses challenges. Typical customers include local authorities and larger contracting organisations seeking substantial fleets of items like ride-on mowers, together with fast service backup. Much of the work is seasonal, such as grass-cutting, creating demand peaks and troughs, and if long-term contracts are not renewed, the hirer may have a major fleet surplus. Nevertheless, once large-scale operators like councils have switched from outright purchase to hire, they seldom change back.

As we reported in our April issue, a new company SGM (UK) acquired the assets of the SGM Group, the grounds care equipment business that went into administration in December 2006, having expanded prodigiously in the previous two years. “We have retained the vast majority of the old company’s existing hire contracts and expect to do 90-95% of the business undertaken last year,” contends Managing Director Steven McInroy, who adds that the former Group’s equipment sales and distribution business in Scotland has been substantially reduced to concentrate on nationwide hire.

Cost-effective procurement

“We have retained our 12 depots throughout Britain and are initially targeting long-term contract hire to local authorities, which increasingly see hire as the cost-effective method of fleet procurement. We have customers throughout the country, including the local authorities of East Lothian, Perth & Kinross, Dumfries & Galloway, Stockport, Tameside, Rhondda and Hounslow, as well as service management companies like Enterprise that looks after some of the Royal Parks. Indeed, more councils are contracting-out services in bundles that include, say, refuse collection and street cleaning, and they seek tenders from companies like ours for supplying the grass-cutting equipment.”

Steven McInroy states that the hire fleet totals more than 6,000 machines and that SGM (UK) (www.sgm-uk.co.uk) has national supply agreements in place with manufacturers like Hayter and Countax. “This year will be one of consolidation, but our future growth plans could include developing spot hire business, establishing fleets of smaller equipment like brushcutters and turf cutters at each depot, which would become more than just service workshops.”

Another specialist grounds care hirer with a national focus, Swan Plant, was at the beginning of 2006 in a similar position to SGM (UK), having undergone a change of ownership in January of that year. The business sees an expanding market. “We are receiving more and more requests from local authorities, including some that have hitherto purchased equipment,” states Managing Director Ian Hogg. “They also reduce costs by outsourcing maintenance to us, removing the need for workshops and the resultant overheads.”

Swan (www.swan-services.co.uk) recently relocated its head office from Knutsford to Warrington, to a facility with greater warehouse space and closer to the M6/M56 interchange. Other depots are at Sunderland and Hinckley, with another in the south-east of England to be relocated shortly. “The business has traditionally been strong in the north of England, representing about 60% of contracts, with 20% each in the Midlands and the south,” states Ian Hogg. “We would certainly consider opening additional depots if demand dictated it.” Recent fleet additions include more John Deere and Great Dane mowers, and the company has increased its offering of tractors and attachments, such as top-dressers, seeders, aerators and stone buriers for sports turf renovation. Such equipment is used only seasonally and for short periods, lending itself to hire. The company is also to add Bobcat mini excavators to its fleet, targeted at landscape contractors and turf care professionals.

A-Plant (www.aplant.com) retains a specialist Groundcare presence in three locations, at Ford in Sussex, Manchester and Kilmarnock, offering specialist equipment like gang mowers, tractors and woodchippers to complement the smaller items offered at its Tool Hire depots. “We obviously focus on our core plant, tools and equipment business, but we can supply grounds care equipment as part of a package to local authorities, utilities and contractors,” states Marketing Director Asif Latief. “This is a growing market, with cross-selling opportunities throughout our customer base. We invested more than £300,000 in our Groundcare fleet last year, and that is being increased in 2007.”

Regional hirers report growth

Regional hirers specialising in this market report strong growth over the last 12 months, perhaps partly due to the changes and uncertainty that at one time surrounded Swan and, in turn, SGM. “We have certainly experienced more demand than ever from local authorities and larger contractors seeking long-term hire contracts,” states Andy Lathwell, Hire Manager with Leighton Buzzard-based Browns Groundcare Hire (www.browns.gb.com), which serves an area extending from Berkshire up to Leicestershire and across to Essex. “We have continued to expand our fleet, adding more Kubota tractors and Hayter ride-on mowers, for example. Demand from sports grounds and golf courses also remains very strong for shorter hire periods.

“We are flexible enough to cope with the unexpected, such as the unseasonal weather affecting the country recently. Turf managers will book maintenance equipment such as aerators from us, to use in dry weather after mowing, but if it is wet, they will obviously need to reschedule. This results in everyone wanting to hire it at the same time. You have to have the logistical capabilities to manage this, as well as fleet availability.

“There is also huge potential in the recycling market. Local authorities must meet their legal obligations and will look to form partnerships with hirers for the necessary equipment. As with other council services, they are outsourcing the supply and maintenance of items like this. They will need woodchippers for the large-scale processing of green waste, and shredding equipment to reduce bulk quantities of plastic bottles, pallets and other rubbish.” Browns continues to expand its fleet of Timberwolf chippers and shredders, and reports increasing demand for Manitou telehandlers for moving materials at work sites and waste processing stations.

The Wokingham-based Golf & Turf Equipment (www.golfandturf.co.uk) machinery dealership, which has a dedicated hire operation under the Turfleet name, has seen “expansion beyond all our expectations,” according to Operations Director Simon Reynolds. “We have doubled our grass-cutting fleet in the past two years, but can still scarcely satisfy demand. More enquiries are coming from local authorities and large contractors for long-term hire of grass-cutting equipment, in addition to existing short-term business for items like tractors plus attachments.”

Being linked to a major John Deere dealership, the manufacturer’s tractors and mowers form the backbone of the Turfleet offering. “There is more demand for larger tractors, and we have added an 80hp unit to the fleet to power a 2m-wide disc seeder and a 2m-wide Verti-Drain from Charterhouse Turf Machinery, to give the work-rate that councils and large contractors need.” Other high-demand machines include BLEC stone buriers, a Charterhouse Verti-Air synthetic turf cleaning machine, and a Turfmech T5 large-capacity vacuum that can also be fitted with a lawn scarifier head.

“Reflecting the growth in this market, our parent company, the Burdens Group based in Lincolnshire, has opened an additional Turfleet Hire business near Bourne, to cover the central and northern regions,” states Simon Reynolds. “Generally, we are fielding enquires from farther afield than ever before, but we cannot overstretch ourselves. We have to be sure that we can reach a customer’s site for servicing or repair work within 24 hours. But obviously, if a customer is desperate you will do whatever you can. We recently supplied a tractor and a scarifier to a client on the Isle of Wight. They came across on the ferry to collect it, used it, then brought it back again. They weren’t able to find any other hirer nearer them, which shows the demand that exists.”

Executive Hire NewsArchivesAugust 2007Market Report › Shifting ground

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