Norman Hambrook and his team marked 50 years in business on 1st April 2020. The reality, of course, was that it didn’t feel appropriate to celebrate at the time. Therefore, as Hambrooks looks forward to it’s 52nd anniversary this year, we speak to Norman about how it all began, and what the next 50 years might hold.
In the photo: left, one of our RHS Hampton Court show medal winning gardens; right, Norman photographed recently and; inset, Norman’s original 1970s work van.
Inspired by his Mum and Gran’s love of plants, Norman Hambrook got his first job at 13, working part-time in a local nursery in Sarisbury, Southampton. “On my first day, the boss said he was going to give me the most important job in the nursery: watering the plants. I was so disappointed! But he told me ‘once you know how much water plants need, that’s when you’ll become a skilled gardener’. Of course, now I know he was right.”
The Nursery manager at the time was Horace Allgate and Norman remembers him fondly. “He was a lovely man and a brilliant gardener.” When the Nursery was sold, Mr Allgate and his wife, Olive, it on as a commercial business. Norman stayed and started doing a few odd gardening jobs in his spare time.
Eventually, Mr Allgate decided to retire and put the Nursery up for sale. He encouraged the now 24-year-old Norman to make his ‘odd jobs’ a proper enterprise. Norman started putting business cards in the windows of newsagents. It was spring 1970 and Hambrooks as a business was born. “Mr Allgate was a tower of strength; he knew so many people and recommended me, I was able to take on my first employee within the year”.
Norman remembers those early years nostalgically. He can still remember many of his first customers by name. “I remember Mrs King; her husband was a busy man and so she was left to take care of a big house and large garden. She had seen my advert in the Warsash paper shop and asked if I would come round to cut the grass. I told her that I didn’t like cutting grass but I’d happily take care of the edges if perhaps Mr King would enjoy getting ride-on mower to do that himself? She agreed!”
Norman’s early business was thriving because his skills were in demand. His horticultural experience meant he knew when to prune and how to do it, for example. There didn’t seem to be many people around who would know how to tackle a bed full of shrubs.
In 1976, Norman had the opportunity to purchase what is now Hambrooks’ Titchfield Garden Design Centre. A retired Naval officer, Commander Norris, had a smallholding where he grew lots of lettuce and tomatoes. When he decided to sell, Norman bought it and began developing the site.
In 1983, Norman bought his second site. The six acres in Curdridge that is now Hambrooks’ Yard belonged to a customer and Norman saw the potential. The site had been run as a flower Nursery, which Norman continued for some time until the margins in commercial growing became unsustainable.
As the garden maintenance business became established, customers started asking for more than just plant-related jobs. Could Norman lay them a patio or put up a fence? “By now, I was a workaholic and loved the physicality of the job,” Norman explains. His construction skills and experience grew rapidly, and the landscaping really took off when Norman was joined in the early 1990s by a talented garden designer.
There have been some real highlights over the last 52 years, as well as some challenges. Hambrooks were Silver and Silver Gilt medal winners at the RHS Hampton Court Show in 2010 and 2014, for example. (Norman is still miffed that the Silver Gilt wasn’t a Gold, which he largely puts down to a mix-up with the water feature supplier!) Norman personally served for ten years on the Horticultural Trades Association (HTA) board and was a founder member of the Association of Professional Landscapers (APL). In 2009, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from Horticulture Week, the leading industry journal (who clearly didn’t anticipate how long Norman intended to keep going!).
And talking of challenges, “In 2020, we should have been celebrating our golden anniversary, but Covid largely put pay to that,” Norman says. “Although much of our business is outdoors, people were reluctant to even let us into their gardens, so it was a tough time. Staff morale suffered and it felt a bit like we were fighting for survival.”
Never one to walk away, Norman compares the experience to getting through the energy crisis in the 1970s or the financial crash of 2008; he always believed that Hambrooks would survive. “We had to take the tough decision to let some staff go so Hambrooks today is a little more streamlined than it was pre-Covid. But, rather like pruning a plant, that seems to have paid off and, in 2021, we bounced-back.”
Looking to the future, Norman wishes that he could go on for another 50 years but realises that is unlikely. “I still have the same passion but even more knowledge! I feel very proud to think that I have built a brand that people tell me they trust, and I’d like to think that will survive for many years to come.”
Although Norman still visits many clients personally, he is also looking to secure that future by building a strong team around him, from his reliable Management team to the new batch of Apprentices Hambrooks are now recruiting. Norman would also love to find an investor who feels as passionately about plants as he does. “You should always try to recruit people who are better or more enthusiastic than you – but that’s not always easy!” he adds.