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‘We’ve got a lot of money in the ground’ - Arboretum’s Fergal and Barry Doyle

Brothers have just opened a €4.5m expansion of their Wicklow destination garden centre

On a bright and warm spring morning, Fergal Doyle – chief commercial officer of the Co Carlow-anchored gardening centre and lifestyle brand Arboretum – is sitting in a cafe above a bookshop in Dublin’s north city centre, flanked and backdropped by a canopy of lush green plants. The location is the oasis-like Urban Green, a new concept for the brand, catering to city gardeners, which opened almost 12 months ago above Chapters Bookstore on Parnell Street in Dublin 1.

At the same time, his brother Barry Doyle – co-owner and chief executive of the family-run business – is ensconced in Kilquade, Co Wicklow, putting the final touches on an expansion plot hatched by the brothers more than five years ago.

Frantic is the only adjective to describe the pace at which the Doyle brothers have been operating of late.

“We’re wrecked,” a tired but apparently contented Fergal says, ordering what looks to be a much-needed coffee from the Urban Green cafe.


“It’s been a huge push,” confirms Barry, joining the conversation. “A mammoth effort by all the team here and the contractors and everyone, getting everything under our feet. We stuck into merchandising over the last two weeks and it’s a credit to all the team. They really pulled all the stops out.”

That effort has seen Arboretum officially cut the ribbon this week on a significant redevelopment and expansion of its existing garden centre in Kilquade. The 2,390sq m (25,726sq ft) facility, where they broke ground last July, spans six acres, incorporating a food hall, a fashion section and an expanded health and wellness department at the National Garden Exhibition Centre.

For the first time, the Wicklow site also stocks Arboretum’s range of indoor plants, something made possible by the technology in which the brothers have invested over the past nine months.

“This is a bit geeky,” Fergal explains. “There’s a 250mm thermal gutter bridging our unheated space, which is our plant area, and our heated – indoor plant – area.”

It catches water run-off and built-up rainwater, feeding back into the facility’s rainwater harvesting system. There are also solar panels to help fuel the heating system for Arboretum’s indoor plant space. “That allows us to get that building up to maybe a B or a B1 Ber (Building Energy Rating),” explains Fergal. “We’ve got a lot of money in the ground, buried in the ground with water harvesting tanks, solar panels. But we have gone with a high-spec building.”

“We’ve never had house plants here before,” says Barry. “So, it’s great to have those new categories coming into the facility here. It’s an exciting time for all of us.”

This investment in sustainable processes was a key consideration for the brothers when mapping out their plans for the site, which they bought in 2015. “There were legacy issues from the previous owner,” recalls Fergal.

“We had to kind of smooth that over and convince Wicklow County Council that we weren’t here to mess around.” They engaged extensively with the local authority and community, submitting several options for the scheme, eventually receiving the green light in 2019.

All in, the new facility – designed by German garden centre specialist Rabensteiner – cost Arboretum about €4.5 million, split roughly 50:50 between capital expenditure and debt provided by AIB. There are now 64 people on site in Kilquade, says Barry, an increase of about 25 since the project got under way last summer, bringing to 200 Arboretum’s total headcount across its three locations: Kilquade; the original shop and headquarters in Leighlinbridge, Co Carlow; and Urban Green in Parnell Street Dublin 1.

It was a priority for the brothers that the Kilquade shop remained open in some capacity during the nine-month redevelopment process. To that end, the team had been operating from a marquee on the site. “That was difficult,” says Barry, “trading in a marquee with a 40-seater cafe and a little garden shop with a plant area.” Arboretum Kilquade just about broke even over that period, they say, but it was worth it to maintain its presence and keep people employed.

Among the team, the sense of relief that the site is now fully up-and-running is palpable. “As soon as they got the green light from Barry to start stripping shelves and move across to this new, modern building, they didn’t need to be asked twice,” Fergal, says. “They were a bit like: Let’s get out of this marquee. We’re sick of it.”

Kilquade is the latest phase of an expansion plan the two brothers have spearheaded since taking over the running of the business from their mother, Rachel Doyle, over the past decade or so. Founded by Rachel, Arboretum has grown into a proper brand over its lifetime, generating €14 million in annual revenues across its three locations.

Fergal and Barry’s mother is also well known within the industry. A horticulturalist by training, she set up the original garden centre with her husband Frank Doyle in Carlow Town before moving and expanding into a 10-acre site in Leighlinbridge, where she opened the pioneering Arboretum Home & Garden Heaven in 1977. She serves as chairwoman of the horticultural division of Bord Bia and is a former president of the International Garden Centre Association. Rachel also remains very much involved in Arboretum as executive chairwoman and brand ambassador.

“I don’t believe she’s going to leave the business any time soon,” Fergal says. “She’s very much there every day, as is my dad, even though he’s retired. He’s still in the business, asking questions and giving feedback. You can’t pay for that kind of experience.”

Both brothers credit their mother with inspiring them to get into business, even if their paths to where they are now diverged somewhat.

For Barry, there was little ambiguity about what he wanted to do with his life. He followed his mother into horticulture, studying the subject in college and learning his trade at the National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin before becoming a landscaper himself.

“I remember being in school and being offered career guidance and I said: ‘I don’t need to go to that class, I know what I want to be’. It was just never a doubt for me. I grew up in the nursery, working with the plants, growing the plants, learning their names. Going to horticultural college then, I had a great head start. ”

He wound up rejoining the business shortly after his brother Fergal did in 2006. “I did the landscaping for a couple of years, and I really enjoyed myself,” Barry recalls. “I probably decided then, for the long term, that going back to the garden centre is really where I wanted to be.”

Fergal’s route back to Leighlinbridge was a bit more circuitous. After studying business in University College Cork, he worked in bars around the area for a while, but his real interest was music. “People who don’t know me, I guess a surprise might be that I was a DJ for years,” he says, with an almost guilty smile. “I still have all the gear, all the decks. I won’t get rid of any of it.”

He says the experience away from home and the business was invaluable. “It was a great thing to do, to go away to Cork, not just for the whole college thing. But then not to come back straight away and actually work in the pub business and in entertainment and stay with it.”

Eventually, though, like his brother, Fergal felt the pull to return to Carlow and the garden centre, working initially on the hard landscaping – think patios, decking and fencing, etc – and DIY side of the business before moving on to other categories.

“I think mom kind of saw our passion,” he says. “We became directors but with the caveat that we were going to do continuous learning. It was later on then – fast forward to 2016 or 2017 – that we started to think about succession and roles.”

The brothers are “very different people”, says Barry. “To look at us, you probably wouldn’t even think we’re brothers and it’s definitely the same with our personalities.” They are “chalk and cheese”, says Fergal. “I think we recognise though that we have different strengths and weaknesses.” With that in mind, they had to work out a division of labour that was best for them and for the business. As chief operating officer, Fergal is focused on the big commercial picture for Arboretum, as well as marketing, the company’s properties and its various systems. Barry, with his background in horticulture, focuses on the customer, Arboretum’s product ranges and also its people.

In recent times, the pair have been able to hire senior managers to take some of the day-to-day workload off their hands. That has given them more time to think about big, long-term projects such as the Kilquade expansion and Urban Green.

Despite their differences and the pressures of running a business together, the brothers are close and have been able to work out differences of opinion in typical Irish fashion. “I guess if something wasn’t going well,” Fergal says, “myself and Barry would probably go to our local pub in the village in Leighlinbridge for a pint and have a chat about it. That probably sums up the relationship.”

Kilquade, officially open on Friday, is the second big project the brothers have delivered over the past year after Urban Green. The latter was an opportunity that fell to them shortly after Chapters reopened under the stewardship of its new owners Mick Finucane and Kevin Neary in March 2022 following its sudden closure during the pandemic.

With the Kilquade project in the offing, the timing of was not ideal, says Fergal, but they felt it was a bet worth taking. “The opportunity came,” he says, “and, as mom says, the lifetime of the opportunity exists in the lifetime of the opportunity.” The result is one of the most surprising retail spaces and cafes in Dublin, an oasis of urban calm in the heart of the city centre.

Arboretum’s move into the 14,000sq ft space – where it sells plants, seeds, water features and even barbecues and accessories – was seen as something of a vote of confidence in a part of Dublin city that has struggled in recent times, not least in the wake of last November’s Parnell Street riot. But it’s a punt they do not regret taking, says Barry.

“We opened in the summer, which was not the ideal time. You are better off opening in the spring or around Christmas. The cafe was doing really well but we were still tweaking and changing.” Then came the violence last November and the uncertainty it caused for city traders in the crucial period running up to the end of December.

“We had 10 days there where, to be honest with you, I really questioned what we were doing,” Barry recalls. “It was a difficult period but to be fair, the people of Dublin rallied around the city centre in December, and we had a cracking good month. Christmas sales were really strong and so were gifting sales. That was a really good indicator for us of how the store was going to perform.”

Now that Kilquade is open and trading, the Doyles want to spend more time honing and perfecting their city offering. “Our social channels are really good,” says Fergal. “We’re doing a lot of engagement with young people in the city centre. There’s a lot of influencer stuff happening here around indoor plants. So it’s exactly what we expected it to be.”

But promoting the concept has been the biggest challenge. “When people come up to the top of the stairs, it’s kind of nice and equally frustrating that they say they didn’t notice until then that Urban Green was there. There’s only so much you can do to tell people. But you get people saying: ‘This is amazing!’ and it’s like, I know, yeah.”

Names: Fergal and Barry Doyle

Ages: 45 and 41

Family: Both married with kids

Live In: Leighlinbridge, Co Carlow

Hobbies: Fergal is a keen outdoor chef and Barry runs for fun

Something you might expect: They think their new Urban Green concept could be rolled out at other city locations

Something that might surprise: Fergal is a former DJ and Barry has run four marathons