In 21 years, George Davies Turf has grown from a one-man band into a multi-million pound business. Its founder talks to Business MK about the journey.
Fourth generation farmer George Davies intended to work on the family farm when he returned from university with an agricultural degree in 2000. But he knew he needed to supplement his salary with other incomes. Initially he looked into growing alternative high-value crops, like lavender, sage, peppermint and chamomile.
“But I soon realised that growing alternative crops involved a lot of investment, and it was high risk too. So I thought ‘What have we got here?’ Well, we have Milton Keynes on our doorstep and we are right in the middle of Bedford, Northampton and Wellingborough.
“I thought ‘What do these guys want?’ They are going to want trees, shrubs, plants and turf. Can we grow turf?”
He discovered the answer was ‘No’, due to the soil type and unsuitable irrigation on the farm. But there was no reason why he could not buy it from other parts of the UK and distribute it from the farm.
Thus George Davies Turf was formed. It sold 18,000 rolls in the first year and in those early days, when he was out on the road all the time, a wooden honesty box stood at the entrance to the farmyard at Olney for customers who preferred to collect. He estimates that in the ten years it took for him to stop driving and concentrate on developing the business, a total of £1 million was placed in this box.
Today George Davies Turf is a far slicker operation, employing 19 people. Since coming off the road, George and his team have taken it to the next level. At the time of writing the company has already sold 850,000 rolls of turf this year. It has also expanded into other related products, such as top soil, bark, compost – 8,100 bulk bags sold this year so far – decking and artificial grass.
“People say not to diversify too much from your core product but in a way our core product is our service,” says George. “And as long as that service remains at the forefront of what we are doing, it does not matter whether it is topsoil, turf or decking.”
By his own admission, George is a control freak. The business had been operating for ten years before he recruited its first lorry driver.
“I was doing everything myself and was still heavily involved in the family farm. I thought I would kill myself or somebody else because I was doing stupid hours.
“I was petrified that I would never find anyone who could do the job as well as me and be as good with customers. I was not prepared to hand over the customer service to someone. And I needed someone to look after the lorry as well as I did. It was my pride and joy and looked fantastic. I did not want to hand it over, but I knew I had to.”
Photos: Made in Blue
It turned out to be one of the best decisions he was to make, freeing up time to concentrate on other areas of the business.
Today George employs eight drivers and believes them to be great ambassadors for the company in their compliance, high levels of customer service and the way in which they look after the trucks. “Our drivers are up there with the best in the country.”
Head office is on the 350-acre Davies family farm but the turf it sells comes from sandy soil ground in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire. The company supplies to 3,000 customers, some who place an order once a year; others who require a daily delivery. But they all want the turf delivered on time, invariably at 8am.
“Because turf is the last piece of the project, timing is critical,” says George. “If you have lads sitting around on site and you are paying them good money and they have to sit there for six or seven hours until the turf turns up then they will lose a lot of money.
“What if it does not turn up until 4pm? It might take four hours to lay it so do they pay them overtime or do they send them home and hope the turf will still be okay the following morning? We try our hardest to meet our customers’ needs but when you are doing up to 300 timed deliveries a week within a two-hour slot, it can be a logistical nightmare.”
The turf’s very short shelf life does not help. Unless it goes into the company’s purpose-built chiller, which keeps it fresh for a few days, turf ideally needs to be laid within 36 hours of being cut.
“It is the same when you cut your grass and you leave the cuttings in the lawnmower. They get smelly and black very quickly,” says George. “A pallet of turf is basically a load of grass clippings with soil around it.”
Rebrand reflects a new digital industry
George Davies Turf has just undergone an extensive rebrand. “The trucks are red, the website was green and we had blue uniforms so we were a bit of a mismatch,” says George. “We decided to keep the lorries red, as everyone recognises them, while the website and uniforms are now red and grey.”
More than just a fresh look and feel, the rebrand also reflects a desire to adapt to digital changes in the industry.
“We want to adopt more efficient online processes, to be the first turf provider in the country to launch an innovative new app to speed up purchasing and customer service and to make sure we become the trusted turf supplier for aspiring and upcoming landscape gardeners.”
The two 22-plate Scanias also feature a revised livery, which includes the phrase Proud of our History, Excited about the Future.
“I think the new livery looks great,” says George. “It is fresh, modern and suits our message as a forward-thinking business.
“We are on an exciting trajectory of growth as a company and our rebrand and eye-catching fleet pulls everything together to showcase where we are going.”