Douglas Blane meets an enterprising group of primary children who have set up their own gardening business
You won't find Garden Angels in the business pages of the newspapers or quoted on the London Stock Exchange - not yet that is. But it could be just a matter of time now, because this new firm of landscape designers, which operates out of Carmunnock Primary School in Glasgow, is an extremely impressive outfit.
The company has a workforce of 20, which is organised into four departments: sales, design, landscape gardening and accounts. "Our motto is 'We never promise anything we can't deliver'," explains 11-year-old managing director David Foster.
In some respects this is a high-risk approach. It would have been safer for the teacher to take control of the company while the children simply toiled in the fields and gardens. But that would reduce the rewards as well as the risks, and in any case, Sharon Hunter's Primary 67 class are not exactly neophytes to the world of work.
"It all began three years ago when I read an article about the Skene Awards for young entrepreneurs," says Ms Hunter. "The class and I did a bit of brainstorming and came up with lots of ideas. That first year we made and sold clay birds, and the following year we won the award for Scottish primary schools with a company that made hand-made sweets. We had to get over a lot of red tape because at first the environmental health people thought children making sweets was a bad idea. But eventually we got the go-ahead and had a production line with bakers producing the chocolates and a packaging department putting them into beautiful boxes. At the end of the year we were able to buy a computer for the school, and the kids got a day out with their share of the profits. Then last year we ran a company which painted designs on glass bottles.
"At the beginning of this year the children said they'd like to design people's gardens, so I drew up a set of job descriptions and they took them away and studied them. I taught them how to write letters of application and prepare CVs. Then the class talked about the post of managing director and assistant MD and they made their choice by voting. I then handed the selection process over to the two of them."
Managing director David Foster picks up the story from there: "Lynne Barclay and I studied the application forms, and carried out job interviews with everyone in the class. It all went very well and we sorted the class out into four departments."
But this was real life not fantasy, so there were disappointments as well as successes. "I got a letter back," says Fiona McDermid, "which said 'I am sorry to inform you that you were unsuccessful in your application for the position of head accountant. However, we would like you to consider the alternative position of assistant head, which we feel you would be ideally suited for.' When I read that, I thought assistant sounded just as good and I accepted."
"After we put in our applications, we had to wait for two heart-stopping days," says Gordon Brown, "before we were told whether we'd got the job. I was given the post of head designer and that sure made my day."
So the company now had a purpose, an organisation and a workforce. The next step was to forge links with industry. So David Foster got in touch with Land Engineering Ltd, a landscaping company based in Fenwick, Ayrshire, with 350 employees and an annual turnover of pound;16 million. "David Foster told us about their company and asked if we could provide training," says Land Engineering's commercial director, Charles Barrett. "So our financial director, one of our contract managers and I went up to Carmunnock and explained to the children, using slides and handouts, what was involved in running the business. Then we arranged for them to come down here on a bus, and several of our landscape workers and foremen gave them a quick course on planting shrubs, trees, bulbs, etc. By the end of it the children seemed to have a good grasp of what was involved. They were very enthusiastic."
Since then, Garden Angels has completed half a dozen projects. One local resident, Mrs Jean Carratt, says: "We moved into a new house last year, so the garden needed a lot of work. We had a spot just waiting for a rockery, but hadn't got around to making it ourselves. So when I received a letter from the Angels, I thought it sounded ideal. The children came and measured up the garden, gave me an idea of what they thought, how many rocks we'd need, how many plants. Then they went away and sent me a quotation, which I accepted. On the day they put in the rocks, the plants and the soil, I watched them and made cups of tea. They did a lovely job."
"So far the company has made pound;324," says head of accounts Scott McCrindle, "and we're expecting another cheque for pound;100. But that's not all profit. We had to invest pound;117.39 on tools at the beginning of the year. We haven't decided yet what we'll do with the money but we'll probably have a day out with some of it."
Profits are important for the company, but for the teacher they are a secondary concern. "The project covers all aspects of language," says Ms Hunter. "Every week the children have a company meeting which involves talking, listening and writing. They do letter-writing for real, which is important - it's not just a letter to a friend. They write reports; there are presentation skills; there's a lot of work on the computer with word-processing and spreadsheets.
"Each year the focus changes and our enterprise is related to different aspects of the curriculum. Last year it was expressive arts. This year it's science and technology. So we've done a lot of biology: photosynthesis, how a plant works, which animals are good and bad for the soil, experiments to see how plants take up food and water, and so on.
"With a project like this you have to put a lot of time into the preparation and you also need to think on your feet. But it's worthwhile because it really motivates the children's learning and they gain so much confidence. I sometimes don't realise how much, until I overhear them talking to other people. They think nothing these days of picking up the phone and speaking to a company director or a newspaper editor."
Each year there are separate Skene Awards for primary and secondary schools. Contact Helen Fitzpatrick, Skene Young Entrepreneurs' Awards, 23 Rubislaw Den North, Aberdeen AB15 4AL. Tel: 01224 326221
GARDEN ANGELS: COMPANY ORGANISATION
Garden Angels has a business plan, a handbook, a mission statement and a logo. There is a sales ledger, a purchase ledger, a cash book and a business account at the bank. Each month a cashflow projection is prepared. There are procedures for dealing with irate customers (still untested) and handling late payment of bills (used once). HM inspectors have been to the school on several occasions to study the activities of the Angels and have selected them as an example of good practice in forming links with industry.
"Usually our enterprise is something different each year, so that we keep extending the children," says Ms Hunter. "But we're going to run this one for a second year. I did think about issuing shares in the company right at the start, but decided we should get it up and running first. We will probably try to float Garden Angels in the autumn."
GARDEN ANGELS: MANAGEMENT TEAM
Managing Director David Foster
Assistant MD Lynne Barclay
Sales amp; Marketing
Head of department Jennifer McKay Assistant David Simpson
Maggie Banford, Kerry Milligan, Mark Simpson
Design amp; Technology
Head of department Gordon Brown
Assistant Zo Crooks
Kirsty MacLennan, Nicola Thomson, Anna Martin
Head of department Lorna Sangster
Assistant Kimberley Allan
Robert Jackson, Andrew Muirhead, Peter McDonald
Head of department Scott McCrindle
Assistant Fiona McDermid
Estimator Siobhan Lawless