The Alnwick Garden is going through yet another exciting phase of development. The smooth running of the unique development requires a steady hand – with a touch of flair. Alastair Gilmour meets the man who combines both.
SOME businessmen find success by constantly flying by the seat of their pants. Some, however, prefer to take a slower and more deliberate route; testing the ground, planting the seeds of their ambition and carefully nurturing their career. Although he worked with Richard Branson, one of the biggest pants-flyers of all time – and learned a lot from him – Mike Dukes decided to take the latter, more organic path. So it’s rather appropriate he should end up as managing director of The Alnwick Garden in Northumberland.
The young Dukes started off working life on a Marks & Spencer management trainee programme where apprenticeship and discipline are structured from day one. If pants-seat flying isn’t your thing, progress with confidence is virtually guaranteed. Since his Garden appointment in October last year, Mike has stamped his own ideas on what has become one of the North-East’s finest tourist attractions.
“I started with Marks & Spencer in 1985 in the South Shields store,” says Mike. “I worked in the Darlington store as well and was with them for about 15 years.
“It was a great background in process procedure – doing things the right way – a great training programme. I moved up through various stages and got to actual management opening a store in Workington. I started to discover that the best way forward is you just keep opening bigger and bigger stores.”
Mike then was invited to run an M&S store in Toulouse in south-west France. But, typical of the company, it sent him and his wife Fiona on an intensive language course first – French lessons every day for two weeks then regular lessons when they were in the country.
“After that, I ran the Greek franchise,” says Mike. The M&S language approach was the same as the French experience. “They were going through expansion there, taking it from six stores to nine.
“It was a fantastic experience working with the franchisee who had a somewhat different outlook to Marks & Spencer. Though franchises are the most profitable part of the business, my job was to protect the image and make sure things were done in the right way.
“Franchisees are entrepreneurs and the guy in Greece was from a family called Marinopoulos who owned the biggest supermarket chain in the country. There was lots of individual wealth in the company and they wanted to do things a lot quicker than we were used to. They were very, very clever people and it was great working with them.
“Then I came back to open a store in the Isle of Man – and it was at that regional job stage I started to get itchy feet.”
After a stint of regional stores management in West Yorkshire, Mike jumped at the opportunity to work for Virgin Cinemas in the early days of the multiplex centre.
“Richard Branson decided there was a gap in the market,” he says. “In those days in cinemas it was in the front door and out the back into an alley at the end of the show.”
Branson bought the Cannon and ABC businesses and turned them into a 35-chain Virgin Cinema business.
Mike says: “Cinemas then went into a consolidation period and Virgin sold out to UGC, a French company with more than 25 years’ experience in the business. Again, they were a fantastic group of people who knew cinema inside out. They went through an expansion programme but probably made the wrong decisions financially – they were into Spain in a big way – and ended up having to sell the best part of the business, which was the UK.
“They sold out to Cineworld Cinemas which was American-owned and 100% profit-driven. They were going in a different direction in business to the one I wanted to go in. Out of the blue, this opportunity (at The Alnwick Garden) came along and it was too good to turn down.
“I met the trustees – the business is a charity – and I met the Duchess and that was it, I was sold.
“So, I’ve gone from a background in retail to a service-based industry which has prepared me really well.”
The Alnwick Garden, the vision of the Duchess of Northumberland, is one of the most innovative contemporary gardens to be developed in the last century. The first phase opened in 2001 with the Grand Cascade, the Rose Garden and the Ornamental Garden as its main visitor attractions.
In 2005 – more than a million visitors later – there was the launch of a second phase which included The Treehouse, the Poison Garden and the Labyrinth and Serpent Garden. Last year it was the turn of The Pavilion and the Visitor Centre. It is anticipated that, when completed in 2008, The Alnwick Garden will give up to £150m back to the North-East over 10 years in economic benefits, in addition to multiple community benefits.
“There’s still so much to do,” says Mike. “There’s such a difference in going to work in a black box of a cinema into this. The businesses are exactly opposite – when I was in cinemas I used to pray for rain, rain was great, whereas now....
“A lot of people don’t know The Alnwick Garden is a charity – and a lot of people don’t associate charities with quality, it’s an Oxfam shop idea. But quality is a 60-foot cascade made of local stone.
“The Duchess has got fantastic vision and the principle is that we’ll only do something when we’ve got the money to do it properly. She’s amazing, but all my life I’ve been lucky to be able work with outstanding people, all delivering to high standards – Marcus Seiff at Marks & Spencer and Richard Branson at Virgin.
“Take the Treehouse; some people would say ‘let’s build one’ but not a lot of people would see a treehouse like this – it’s built to look higgledy-piggledy, to look like it’s something you’ve done yourself.
“We’re going to have a play area from the Treehouse to the woodland – something tagged as ‘safely dangerous’ for kids of all abilities, but which will meet all the health and safety regulations. Kids don’t have enough danger. And, there are a lot of very good opportunities for local businesses here. There are so many people with talent in this county, we want to give them a chance – but it’s crucial that the quality is there.”
Mike is particularly enthusiastic about the work in progress that should see the Garden realise its long dream next year. These will include The Garden for the Senses, The Water Tower, The Spiral Garden and The Cherry Orchard, Grotto and Pond.
“The ice pond is two-thirds built, it’s in its final phase and we’re trying to raise £42m to finish it,” he says. “It encapsulates everything we’re about and it’ll continue people’s jobs outside the traditional season, catering for more visitors.
“It’s not just a piece of frozen pond but will have a system that freezes it throughout the winter and is safe for the environment. Even wheelchairs will have skates on them so that 80-year-olds who haven’t skated since they were kids can relive the experience. It’s taking us to the next stage.
“On the hillside as a backdrop we’ve planted 350 taihaku double-blossom cherry trees with bulbs and wild flowers. The cherry blossom is pure white and it’ll be just like snow when it falls off. Like everything, though, it’s all down to funding, so we’ve got to get people involved.
“In the beginning, the consultants said we’d
see between 60,000 and 100,000 visitors a year. Even with the garden two-thirds built we saw 600,000.”
To cater for those numbers The Alnwick Garden employs 150 staff of all disciplines.
“They range in age from 14 to 74,” says Mike. “I think that says a lot. And I had no idea that gardeners have to have all these certificates at all different stages. Management is about people; the environment here is different, but it’s the people who run it. Marks & Spencer was very much procedure-driven with really good processes but sometimes slow to see change because it’s an organisation with a lot of hierarchy. At Virgin, it was the opposite; if you had a good idea, it happened.”
Mike Dukes’s steady M&S experience has obviously been topped off by a dash of entrepreneurship and a garnish of go-for-it. Perhaps he’s also combining the best elements from seat, pants and flying.
“Our plans are only limited by imagination,” he says.
Mike Dukes: the CV
Born: Feb 10, 1967.
Married: 1988 to Fiona. One daughter, Ella, 10 years old, a pupil at Dukes Middle School Alnwick
Family: Mother Rosemary and Father Ray live in Cramlington. Father retired after entire work history in RAF. One sister, Tracy married and also lives in Cramlington.
Main schooling: Cramlington High School, Northumberland for O-Levels
St George’s School, Hong Kong for A-Levels
Career: Marks & Spencer 1985-1999
Young trainee manager – South Shields, Darlington, Dundee
Assistant manager – Glasgow, Sauchiehall Street and Argyle Street.
Deputy manager – Carlisle
Manager – Workington, Toulouse
Country manager – Greece (nine stores)
Commercial manager – M&S Isle of Man Ltd
Regional stores manager – West Yorkshire
Virgin Cinemas regional manager UK & Ireland, 1999-2006. Virgin was subsequently bought by UGC then Cineworld
UGC Cinemas regional manager. During the period at UGC I opened a cinema in the centre of Glasgow which is in The Guinness Book of Records as the tallest cinema in the world. I also opened a 17-screen cinema in Dublin which has the highest admissions of any cinema across the UK and Ireland.
Cineworld regional manager
The Alnwick Garden, managing director, October 2006
What car do you drive?
What’s your favourite restaurant?
Evenings in the Treehouse at the Alnwick Garden.
Who or what makes you laugh?
My daughter Ella; best mate Chappas.
What’s your favourite book?
The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy by Tim Burton.
What was the last album you bought?
Our Earthly Pleasures by Maximo Park.
What’s your ideal job, other than the one you’ve got?
If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you would teach it to say?
“Parrot for sale”.
What’s your greatest fear?
What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received?
Never compromise on quality.
What’s the worst piece of business advice?
Tell your manager as little as possible.
What’s your poison?
Jack Daniels and ice.
What newspapers do you read, other than The Journal?
How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?
100HK$ for evening cover at a radio
How do you keep fit?
Taking Ella horseriding.
What’s your most irritating habit?
Not listening to my wife.
What’s your biggest extravagance?
A holiday home at Gleneagles.
Which historical or fictional character do you identify with/admire?
I admire the natural coolness of Jules Winnfield in Pulp Fiction.
Which four famous people would you most like to dine with?
Bon Scott – original lead singer in AC/DC; Quentin Tarantino; Oscar Wilde and Muhammad Ali
How would you like to be remembered?
For doing something rather than being someone.