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.
This feature interview was first published in issue 57 of the Lincolnshire Business weekly magazine, now available to read at www.lincsbusiness.co. Subscribe to the email newsletter to receive the latest edition in your inbox this Friday.
“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.”
The full cover interview with Rob Crowder is available to read in full here. For the latest dispatch of business news from across Lincolnshire delivered in your inbox every Friday, subscribe to the Lincolnshire Business magazine.