Peter Brittonin Keynote Interview

Dave Saltman qualified as a Landscape Gardener and Designer at Merrist Wood College in Guildford at the age of twenty-one. During his time there, he built two Chelsea Flower Show gardens, which won silver and silver gilt medals.

Award winning garden at the Chelsea Flower Show

In his sandwich year in 1987, he set up a landscaping business with a friend, Jason Wood, called Garden Innovations; it specialised in concept design and build.

Garden Innovations was invited, by another company, to do some turfing, which turned out to be replacing the old Astro pitch at Queens Park Rangers' Loftus Road stadium. It was a cell system pitch from southern Europe. Once completed, Dave was asked by the contractor if he'd like to maintain the QPR pitch.

The company was also maintaining other sports venues, as well as building tennis courts, football pitches and other sports surfaces. Dave had to 'learn on the hoof' as he calls it, but found there were only a handful of industry books available to learn from. The industry magazines at the time didn't offer anything, perhaps one feature article, which was often just advertorial. Exhibitions, events and talking to peers seemed to be the only way he was going to improve his knowledge base.

When the recession hit in 1990, landscaping and building died a death. Every builder turned their hand to patios and fencing (badly, he notes) but sports ground work was non-stop, so Dave dissolved the landscaping business and went to work for the sportsground contractor.

Dave comments: "By 1991, we had picked up Tottenham Hotspur, Millwall and West Ham and then had to address Barnet FC's slope to comply with their new Football League status."

The late Sir Jack Hayward presents Dave Saltman with the 1996 Groundsman of the Year award. His right hand man Terry Carver is on the left, now sadly deceased too

"In 1994, the new Sixfields Stadium at Northampton was added to the portfolio and, within six weeks, we had also added Wolverhampton Wanderers' Molineux and Derby County's infamous Baseball Ground - one half of the pitch was home to seagulls it was that wet!"

"I remember the then CEO telling me they had a friendly against PSV Eindhoven the following week and I had to explain to him that there was no chance of that with the pitch in its current state. However, with some serious commitment and a Pattison Spiker, I was able to get the pitch into some sort of reasonable condition and saw real improvements towards the end of that season."

So, Dave was now maintaining Northampton Town, Derby County and Wolverhampton Wanderers - what he calls the 'Midlands triangle'. "I was living out of a hotel at the time, getting up early to be at Sixfields by 7.00am, finishing there and heading up to the Baseball Ground and then over to Molineux late afternoon, early evening!"

"At the time, I was also lecturing for the FA on winter sports maintenance. I'd have fifteen to twenty guys at each session who, during coffee breaks and lunch, would be queuing up to ask me questions such was their thirst for information. So much so that I often had to forgo coffee and lunch myself!"

"The association and industry magazines were still not really providing any meaningful content and it was clear to me that something had to change."

So, is that when the idea for Pitchcare hatched? "In June 2000, I was sat in the stands at Molineux, looking out over the pitch we were mowing following its renovation, when a young work placement lad who had just completed his sports science degree, Simon Britton, turned to me and asked; 'how do you make money out of the internet?'"

This was at a time when fledgling companies such as Amazon and eBay were struggling with dial-up internet connection and Google was taking its first tentative steps towards world domination. Wikipedia and Facebook were still some way off, and 'tweeting' was something the birds did in the trees!

"I was intrigued by his question, but it got me wondering if, indeed, the internet could be used as a vehicle to bring our fragmented industry together, to provide a knowledge base and to allow individuals to talk to each other across the ether."

""I had a good friend who ran his own internet backbone provider IT company and he'd set me up with a dial-up connection and hand-me-down computers, upgrading me from 386s to 486s to Pentiums every time he upgraded his staff's equipment. So, I was already using a fledgling internet and could see its potential immediately."

"By the time I had finished talking to Simon, I had the idea for Pitchcare running around in my head. So I went to see the Wolves Club Secretary Richard Skirrow to bounce the idea off him. 'What are you going to write about after the first year?' was his reply and, for the next year, he continued to play devil's advocate, whilst I continued to maintain the Midlands pitches and training grounds."

"But, all the while, I was formulating a business plan, with help from the local Chamber of Commerce, whilst Richard continued to offer his advice."

"I was allowed to make a presentation to the club and some of the players even invested in my idea. I'd valued the concept at £1 million pounds and was offering shares at 1%."

At this point, I detect a chuckle in Dave's voice and it is clear that not even he was convinced of his valuation for a start-up business.

"I was doing all this immediately after the Dot.com crash when most observers were saying that the internet had no future. The majority of companies in our industry didn't even have a website. I'd speak to them at shows and demo days and they'd just say 'our business is fine thanks, we don't need the internet'!"

A Times article from 2004 championing natural turf over artificial surfaces

"But I ploughed on. I travelled all over the country meeting up with my peers and the majority of them agreed to become shareholders. They all wanted a knowledge base that they could tap into and get involved in. I won't mention names, but they were some of the top groundsmen and greenkeepers in the field of football, rugby, cricket, golf, racing and tennis. You will know who they are and I was very humbled by their commitment."

"This was all in the first year, and I now had some finance behind me; around £100,000. I used £25k of that to have a West Midlands IT company build a website - they charged what they wanted back then - and that was the best of five quotes!"

"At the same time, I had approached the IOG to see if they would like to become partners in the project, but they saw it as a threat to their organisation. In fact, I'd go as far to say that they actively campaigned to stop me. I'll say no more!"

"I'd secured managed office space at Wolverhampton Science Park, but I really needed help as I was spending evenings and weekends writing articles, sourcing a rudimentary range of products and generally trying to keep on top of everything, including my day jobs!"

"It was Richard Skirrow who suggested I speak to John Richards, who had retired as the managing director of Wolves about six months previously. According to Richard, he was 'just writing a few column inches for the local rag, opening hospital wards and playing golf'. So I put my idea to John over a cup of tea and a biscuit in his back garden and he came on board the following day. Pitchcare was launched in July 2001, roughly one year after the idea had come into my head, and was officially launched to the industry at that year's Windsor show."

The 2001 Windsor show was the first time I met Dave and his enthusiasm for his project was clear for all to see. Always in the background was John with his 'sensible' head on. It is a partnership that has endured, even though the two of them didn't always see eye to eye.

"It was the same at Wolves," says Dave. "John would occasionally insist that a game went ahead when I clearly thought the opposite! But that was our strength as a partnership."

"John and I were on a peppercorn salary and, whilst we were haemorrhaging money, I was determined to win. We were getting great feedback from the members, with the message board being particularly popular. For the first time, groundsmen and greenkeepers had somewhere they were able to talk to each other."

"Some detractors even labelled us 'Bitchcare' because of the various and occasionally heated discussions that were taking place on the message board. Needless to say, the comments and discussions back then were nothing like the vitriol that now exists on social media, but I guess public criticism stings!"

"Whilst we had an online shop, we were only selling a mixed bag of around seven or eight products. Yet, slowly but surely, we were gaining in popularity as more members joined us and word started to spread. We started to attract a few advertisers and, with the aid of a £50,000 loan from the Department for Trade and Industry (through NatWest), and £20,000 from the Black Country Chamber of Commerce, we were able to keep going. And I'd maxed all of my eight credit cards into the bargain, all of which had £15-20k limits."

"It took us three years to realise a paper profit, but we were still paying off loans and credit cards. It would be another five years - around the time of the financial crisis of 2008 - that we entered the black; enough to buy John and I a pint, at least! Back then, it was a real financial rollercoaster, but I was driven to succeed for the industry. The members loved the website."

"We celebrated every milestone - 500 members, 1,000 members, 5,000 members - but now we needed to offer them more."

"By this time, we had employed a web developer, Alastair Battrick (in 2002), who set about redesigning the website functionality to make it more user friendly for all concerned, followed by an accountant, Sharon Taylor, and then Julie Robinson in an admin role."

"With membership now close to 10,000, it was clear that we needed more hands to the pump. The 'irrepressible' Laurence Gale was brought in as editor and he went about gathering content in his now infamous scattergun manner. In 2005, we took on Dan Hughes, fresh out of university, to get a grip of our shop and the marketing, and also Peter Britton to up the advertising revenue. With his background in graphic design, it was he who suggested the hard copy magazine you are reading today. In truth, John and I weren't so keen on the idea at first, but it has become a valuable resource for the industry, whilst also giving Pitchcare the feel of being a 'real' company. The internet was still regarded, in some quarters, with suspicion."

"All of a sudden, we had advertising content for both the website and the magazine and could now offer a total package of marketing for manufacturers and suppliers. Something we are still able to do."

"And our decision not to carry PR or advertorial was seen by readers and, to be fair, by most manufacturers, as a breath of fresh air. The feedback we got after publishing the first issue was phenomenal. 'At last the industry has a proper magazine' was the general reaction."

"Alongside this, Dan, and what was now a small but growing team, were building our product offering."

By 2008, Pitchcare were agents to around 150 companies of varying sizes and Dave and John realised that having no control over stock or distribution was a big drain on the company's still limited resources.

"And we had a big problem with a few companies 'after-marketing' to our customers. They were basically letting us find the customers and then stealing them from us, so we had limited repeat business."

The two companies that supplied the West Midlands at that time were Breakwells and ALS but, with the former's owner Len Breakwell retiring, the company closed leaving a big gap in supply.

The Pitchcare/ALS team in June 2012 at the company's open day

Dave and John approached the board of ALS with an offer to buy them out on a cash and shares scheme basis but, as the financial crisis was gathering pace, no banks were prepared to support the venture, even though both companies were profitable and the business plan was sound.

"We had been sat on the buyout for twelve months, all the while worrying whether another company might come in for ALS or set themselves up in Birmingham, when we learned that the Co-op Bank were changing their business model and were looking to invest in blue chip companies. So, in 2009, we bought ALS, which immediately gave us stock, warehousing and distribution."

"But it wasn't without its teething problems, not least trying to merge a vibrant young business with the more traditional methods of ALS. And we acquired their contracts division and reps as well!"

"Yet, just two years later, we had doubled the turnover from four to eight million pounds and also increased the size of the workforce to around seventy."

"Wrekin Farmers were our landlords, who had been selling off their assets in a tax efficient manner. Their final asset was the twelve acre site we rented at Allscott just outside Telford. So, when it was offered to us for £1.5 million in 2014, we knew it was exactly what we needed. But we needed to have 40% equity to get a mortgage - around £600,000 - and we simply weren't that cash rich, so I emailed all the staff and asked if they'd like to get involved. The response was fantastic, to the point we were oversubscribed! In the end, we had twenty-three staff members involved via a pension scheme that purchased the whole site."

Some of the Maxwell team celebrate the purchase of the Allscott site in 2014 - any excuse for a drink!

"So we were now owners of seven huge warehouses along with modern offices; a far cry from the small office in Wolverhampton Science Park thirteen years previously."

As the business continued to grow, a holding company, Maxwell Amenity, was created to oversee the two brands - Pitchcare and ALS - with own brand Maxwell products introduced to market.

"I remain eternally grateful to the excellent team I had working for me. Whilst there were the inevitable casualties, the turnover of staff has been extremely low. I guess they like our business methods."

"Our industry is very much feast and famine - it's weather and season dependent - so we expanded the business with other lines, such as salt, grit and planting products to help see us through the winter, whilst our contracts division would be out gritting and snow ploughing as well."

"Any profits we made were always put back into the business to help it to grow and our turnover and success was an obvious attraction to other companies. A few came sniffing about, but it was Agrovista UK that finally put forward a strong and attractive proposal. They already had Sherriff Amenity as one of their divisions - a similar sized outfit to ours. By merging Sherriff and Maxwell into Agrovista Amenity, we immediately became one of the largest amenity suppliers in the industry, and that is where we are at now."

Pitchcare celebrated its tenth anniversary at its Allscott headquarters in June 2012 with an open day of training, seminars and fun activities

Was Dave sad to see his company taken over? "No, not at all," was his immediate response. "Sherriff's modus operandi was very similar to Maxwell's, built on ethical trading. It was a good fit."

During his 'Pitchcare days' Dave continued working as a groundsman; Aston Villa in 2001 at the invitation of Graham Taylor, followed by two years at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff - initially at the invitation of Inturf - whilst the new Wembley Stadium was being built.

"The moveable pitch at the Millennium was a steep learning curve, especially as the previous grounds team had been dismissed, so I had no experience to call on. During my time there, we hosted three FA Cup finals, WRU Six Nations matches, concerts, speedway; all manner of events. It was never ending, but I absolutely loved the experience."

Dave returned to Wolves as a consultant groundsman between 2005-11 whilst, in 2009, he was invited out to FC Gabala in Azerbaijan to discuss their poor natural turf pitches, which Turkish agronomists had always suggested would never be good in the country's climate. Dave was convinced that, as the country was on the same latitude as Madrid, it would not be a problem, and so it proved. World class natural pitches are now more commonplace in the country and Dave is rightly proud of that legacy. He also undertook training and education for the local groundsmen on behalf of the Azerbaijan FA.

Left: The "impossible to grow" natural turf pitch at FC Gabala in Azerbaijan. Right: Training has always played an important role in Dave's career; here at a local school

In recent years, Dave and the ALS Contracts team have been involved at Wigan Athletic, Oldham Athletic and Shrewsbury Town.

I have one final question - and observation - for Dave: "Over the years, you have involved yourself in various 'industry campaigns'. How do you reflect on those and do you think this is why you are sometimes considered the industry's 'Marmite'?"

"Knowledgeable people understood that here was a voice that challenged the establishment. Someone who had a public opinion on the concerns for the wider industry."

"My run-ins with the IOG are well known but, over the years, it was always them that blocked any discussions and developments. It was me who asked them to get involved with the online business from the outset. It was me who asked them to get involved with our Lantra accredited training courses. It was me who suggested a coming together of BIGGA and the IOG for the sake of the industry. It was me who suggested the 'One Show' at the NEC. And what have they done? Ploughed their own furrow for a line of finance as a commercial enterprise. I even suggested, back in 2001, that they should consider changing their name to the Grounds Managers Association and get rid of the 'blazers' and 'old farts'. It was all completely rubbished, but look where we are now."

"I've highlighted the illegal use of agricultural products in our industry, championed natural turf over artificial and railed against the commercialisation of various institutions. And I don't regret any of it."

"Pitchcare has come a long way without any support from any of the sports governing bodies - ever. Whilst it possibly would have been financially beneficial to be involved, it allowed me to take them to task if I felt they were stepping out of line - without the fear of losing any support that might have been offered."

"I'm not bothered if people like me or not, Pitchcare has helped more people in this industry, for free, than anything else, both here in the UK and abroad. There isn't a bigger industry resource on the planet and I'm mighty proud of that, as I'm proud of everybody who has been part of it."

Left to right: Dave Saltman and John Richards with Agrovista's Duncan Brown and Chris Clayton