Industry entrepreneur: One seed at a time

James Kimmings in People

Simon Hutton's route into the golf world was written in the stars. He tells us why and how to develop and succeed in the turfcare industry. Simon discussed the origin of his story, the birth of Fineturf and the development of Tillers Turf.

Simon rolled back the clock for us to discuss where his passion for the industry came from: “My dad had always wanted to run his own golf course. I remember being about eight years old when he purchased his first bit of land to develop into a course. I grew my first field turf when I was fifteen; an acre, 4000 square metres on a little plot of land that we had next door to the golf course. From that moment on, I was involved within the industry.”

“When I left school, I went to work on the golf course which was now known as Sudbrook Moor Golf Club. I did greenkeeping for about a year with my dad and learnt a lot about what is needed to manage a course. I had been asked to do a few contracting jobs while working for dad, and Grimsby Town Football Club was one of the first that I tried. In those days, I was earning £55 a week with Dad. I went and did that job at Grimsby for £350 and I thought, hold on a minute, there's probably a business to be had here.”

When asked about his first big break, Simon said: “There weren't contractors like there are now, so the opportunities were there, and we grabbed hold of them. At twenty years old, Lord's outfield was the first major job that I undertook. Then, a year later, we went and returfed Old Trafford. I think building those relationships early on in my career was hugely important.”

“The evolution of those small contract jobs in those days grew very slowly; I was doing the odd day of contracting and then the rest of the time I was greenkeeping close to home. Over the course of a couple of years, it turned into full-time contracting and I employed a couple of people - then, it really just expanded very gradually. I was very impatient at the time, thinking there's all these big jobs going on and we're just doing small projects. But, with hindsight, the small and gradual growth was definitely the healthy growth.”

An opportunity to expand meant it was time for Tillers Turf: he said: “Fourteen years ago, the opportunity to buy Tillers became available. It was 400 acres and had a very good reputation for all grades of golf turf."

The development of Tillers

“I believe that my path was set out for me - it's evolved and is still evolving by the introduction of new products at Tillers. We're listening to what customers are asking for and evolving the old products, whilst also looking to tailor to the end user's needs. I'm from a greenkeeping background and a lot of staff also have similiar or groundcare backgrounds. That is important because we have people who understand the products as an end user. We produce the turf as if it were in a stadium or on a golf course, which then makes the process easy for the customer.”

Building big projects while climbing high mountains

On the challenges of running a business, Simon said: “We are challenged every day and the weather is a huge factor which affects everyone in the turfcare industry - we are not exempt from that. Look at the recent storms which battered most the country; trying to grow a good product in those conditions is difficult. You need conditions to be favourable to produce a good surface and complete construction projects; especially with the number of years that it's played. If you construct in the wrong conditions, you end up with long-term problems.”

“In the last seven years, we have experienced two of the hottest and driest summers we've ever known, and we are currently experiencing some of the wettest and coldest winters. In fact, we've had over a third of our annual rainfall in the last couple of weeks. To try and create a high-spec turf product to meet the customer's expectations and our own standards is tricky. The fields are flooded and we're trying to remove water, however, just six weeks ago, we were irrigating. Like everyone, the weather is the key challenge for us”.

Pandemic problems

He told us about how the pandemic caused a new challenge for his business: “During COVID we experienced a lot of material shortages. Trying to deliver products with a lack of material, whilst trying to adapt to the environment and also meet the time scales proved difficult. When you're battling with suppliers for products, it brings its challenges. Communication with the customer was the most important thing during this time... after all, we all want the same end goal."Some A* advice about building a business in turfcare.

Simon has over forty years of experience within the industry and he said this about starting a business: “I think the individual has to have a real passion for the industry - without that, you will stumble at the first challenge. You need a fresh idea, which offers a different dynamic to products already on the market. Also, let the small ideas grow gradually - big growth isn't always healthy growth.”

“I like to see people expand and thrive and I love a success story, but it's about the graft and dedication that you need to be able to develop and grow a business. Good customer service, keeping an open ear, letting customers talk and tell you what they want is key - don't interrupt what could turn out to be a great idea or advice."

Success is an achievement for tomorrow

Despite the growth and development of both Fineturf and Tillers Turf, Simon believes that there is still work to be done before he can sit and reflect on success, he said; “In all honesty, I think when you rest on your laurels, that's when something comes to bite you. We are continually battling against different factors; the weather, budgets and meeting standards that have been set over the years - not to mention competition within the market.”

“It is never about putting your feet up; it's about looking to the next Sunday's harvest and the quality of product that we want to produce. There is never a dull day. We have to keep pushing and we're only as good as the last palette that has been sent, the last construction, or the last renovation job we completed.”

What does the future hold?

Simon sums it up simply, he wants to keep improving; “We don’t want to stand still; the continued betterment of turf products at Tillers is at the top of our list. Fungicide depletions and chemical depletions make turf growing more and more challenging. The end user wants that high standard of turf when they choose Tillers. So, ensuring top quality across the board is a priority. As I said earlier, we're keeping our ears open to what customers want and we will keep moving forward!”