Through seven generations, W Crowder & Sons Ltd had its ups and downs, changing tactics and focus over the years in a bid to survive.
Then, Rob Crowder was thrown into the family business at the early age of 21 after his father unexpectedly died. On a steep learning curve, he took the horticulture company and grew it into the 21st century.
Starting off growing forestry trees, which were heavily subsidised at the time, and a retail nursery, the business is now flourishing with its own garden centre. The company can also boast that they beautified the capital in time for the 2012 Olympics as well as Wimbledon and the Channel Tunnel.
In 1977, Rob was all set to jet off to Canada to gain real world experience after completing his horticulture training in preparation to take over the family business. He was looking forward to the challenge of a new culture whilst skiing down the Canadian slopes. It came as a huge shock when he was given the news that his father had passed away and that he was now in charge of the family business, which had been founded in 1798.
“The benefit of being that young when you take on a huge responsibility like this is the confidence of youth. You think you know everything but realise you know nothing,” said Rob. “It was that that really got me through. Plus the support of those people who had been really loyal employees to my father and really wanted to help me in the situation to which I found myself in. Somehow, we muddled through.”
Rob always planned to enter the family business, but only once he had gained experience in other companies and cultures so that he would be able to bring back new ideas to help the business grow. But when he was “thrown into the deep end”, he put his heart and soul into the business to keep it alive.
A big crash
The company was expanding fast in the late 70s and early 80s as new towns like Peterborough and Milton Keynes started growing at an exponential rate. W Crowder & Sons Ltd supplied the towns with the foliage that had been drawn into the development plans. Business was blooming.
“I wanted to grow the business and I was lucky in many respects because there was this rapidly increasing demand in the late 70s and early 80s. It was relatively easy to expand the business. We expanded rapidly between 77 and 87. The business grew two or three times in that period.
“In 1988 there was a real economic boom and I used to go down to London for meetings. After the meeting, in the afternoon, people were piling into champagne bars in the middle of the week and it was nuts. Of course it couldn’t last,” said Rob.
The country saw a crash, the first that Rob was to experience. “Up until then it had been relatively easy. We had a double whammy because not only were we supplying plants to the consumer market, but we were also supplying plants to local authorities and development corporations and we also had a forest nursery, growing forest trees.”
Up until this point, there had been huge tax breaks for investing in forestry and it provided the company with a lot of work which took three years to prepare.
“We were shipping two million forest trees a year up to Scotland for investment forestry. But in the budget of that year, the then-Chancellor stopped that benefit of investing in forestry and the market just collapsed.
“We had three years worth of production in the fields to supply that market and suddenly it stopped overnight. We had a massive shock from that.”
It wasn’t just forestry that took a hit either. When the general recession hit, people stopped buying houses, which had a knock-on effect as they also stopped buying plants to go in their new gardens. Rob had to do what he could to save the legacy of the business.
“We had to lay off a lot of people, contract the business and restructure it. That was probably the most difficult time we’ve faced and I learned an awful lot from that. We then went through another period of boom and bust in the late 90s and the dotcom bubble in the early 2000s and another recession.”
Rob succeeded in growing the business to new levels but it wasn’t long before there was more trouble ahead, and the company lost a third of its business in one year.
“I have found that the recession in 2008 has been the hardest and the longest. Our business changed over time, we were no longer growing forestries for the commercial woodland market, so we decided to grow broadleaf trees for motorway planting.
“What we didn’t realise at the time was that it was going to take so long for business to come back. It is only now getting back to where it was in 2007. That’s a long time.”
Rob worked hard to bid for big contracts in order to see them through, waiting for the light at the end of the tunnel. He placed a bid online to supply plants for the 2012 Olympics and after a lengthy process, the company won of a contract worth between £750,000 and £1 million.
“We supplied a lot to the Olympic Park. Right up until the last minute they were wanting extra plants to make this and that look pretty. But also a lot of the surrounding boroughs were being smartened up. So we found a lot of business on the back of it.
“We did a lot in the Athlete Village and that kept us going through 2010 and 2011. Since then things have been gradually picking up.”
Through knowing the right people and pure persistence, W Crowder & Sons Ltd has successfully supplied the trees and shrubs for the redevelopment of number one court at Wimbledon and over one million plants for the Channel Tunnel.
Now the company is finally back to its pre-recession turnover of £6.5 million, Rob is looking to continue the growth with new contracts across the country. “We are now looking at HS2, which is the next big infrastructure project. That’s going to be huge and we are already in discussions with HS2 to see where that takes us.
“This year we are noticing it’s much better. The north east is suddenly waking up, Yorkshire’s waking up, the Midlands are waking up, so it’s opening up across the country again.”
Preparing the 8th generation
With three sons, Rob is hoping that the legacy will continue on after his reign. Already in discussion with one of his sons, he would love to keep the business in the family.
“What I really wanted is for them to stand on their own two feet, do something completely different and bring experiences from other businesses back into the family business in Lincolnshire.
“As young people, they want to be in London, it’s where the excitement and the life is. They are all in different kinds of businesses in various fields. I think that’s really good because when you come back into a family business you need to add value to it, not just take over.
“The fact that the business is still here today is an achievement in its own right. To keep the family business going through thick and thin hasn’t been easy. In the nursery growing business, where you are growing plants with the productions lifecycle of a minimum of 18 months and up to five or even eight years, it’s long term forward planning. If you plan for a certain level of business and suddenly the market drops by a third over night – you’re in trouble. It’s been an exciting ride.”
This feature interview was first published in issue 57 of the Lincolnshire Business weekly magazine.