A business philosophy based on honesty and integrity has helped Clive Goatham become one of the very best and largest growers in the UK. His expansion over the past 32 years or so means that he now handles 13.5-15 per cent of the country's top fruit.
"I hold dear what are now considered old-fashioned values," he declares. "For me, a handshake (to complete a deal) is more important than any legal document. My word is my bond and that's something I've passed on to my management team."
That is why AC Goatham & Son, of which he is senior partner, is held in great esteem by its peers and stands it in good stead in negotiations to obtain new business. The company is continuing to expand, in March adding another farm, of 57ha, to the 14 it owns or rents across Kent, totalling 486ha.
The rest of his "empire" is what he calls his grower base that he began to build up 15 years ago. It comprises 22 growers with around 809ha of orchards. They are responsible for producing and picking their crops and the Goathams do the rest including transport, storage, grading, packing and marketing.
Goatham's expansion is continuing apace. He is actively looking for more farms to take over and has a considerable investment programme in hand. He already has three packhouses and is spending some £7.5m on a storage and packhouse complex on Street Farm, Hoo.
Its 10,000 bins of controlled-atmosphere storage, built by ICA, will be ready for the 2012-13 season and the packhouse will be up and running for the 2013-14 season. In addition, ICA will be assembling 5,000 bins a year for him over the next five years.
The economies of scale achieved collectively by the farms he is involved with mean that many of them are surviving when individually they would probably be too small to be economically viable.
One significant benefit for members of his grower base is that they can concentrate on doing a first-class job of growing the fruit without the responsibility of what happens to it after it leaves the orchards.
All of his own farms have benefited from being replanted with more profitable, intensive, higher yielding and quality varieties. Most of the traditional varieties, notably Cox and Egremont Russet, have gone and Bramley's Seedling has become of questionable value, says Goatham.
"Over the next five years or so we will be trying to reduce our Cox acreage until we have none left," he adds. "We still have about 175 acres (70ha). Gala is our main variety and then Braeburn and we are looking to substantially increase Zari - a new variety exclusive to us - as fast as we can. We have about 50 acres of it and our grower base has 30. We've done quite a bit of research found that it stores very well in five and one at 1 degsC until April."
Goatham's superlative business and growing ability has been recognised by his recent Top Fruit Grower of the Year 2012 and East Kent Fruit Society's 2011 orchard of the year wins. The latter typifies his "out with the old and in with the new" approach.
The winning 4.5ha Mondial Gala orchard is on the 40ha Gore Farm in Upchurch purchased in 2007. He has since totally grubbed and replanted it with Gala, Braeburn and Rubens on a post, cane and wire trellis system that is standardised across his farms.
Goatham's interest in top fruit dates back to his school days in the 1950s and 1960s when he helped his parents. Apart from running an agricultural contracting business, they purchased fruit on the tree, picked and packed it and sold it in the London wholesale markets. The packing was done in the orchard in the picking season and what was not sold then was barn stored for later marketing.
His ambition in his formative years was always to follow in his parents' footsteps but on a much larger scale. His career breakthrough came in 1980 when he became the major shareholder in a partnership that purchased Street Farm. It has 27.5ha of Gala, Cox and Bramley's Seedling orchards and is where Goatham has established his headquarters.
However, it was not until 1995 when the sale of land for development provided sufficient funds that he began the current substantial ongoing investment programme. "Our team is as keen to invest now as at any point in the past," he states, "and we are nowhere near the end of the road."
In 1995 he established Weald Marketing with Tony Smith, mainly because he wanted to control his own marketing. At the time, he was still convinced that the future for fruit sales lay in the wholesale markets, but it became apparent that the supermarket route was the best one to follow. Last year he wound up Weald and now sells substantially to Sainsbury's through OrchardWorld and direct to Morrisons and Asda.
Goatham pays a glowing tribute to his management team comprising his son Ross, production manager Dave Riccini and technical manager Nigel Stewart. Goatham says that Stewart, who joined four years ago, likens its recent development "to an express train thundering across Kent - he never appreciated how fast it was going".
Agrii fruit consultant Neil Franklin has also made a significant contribution to Goatham's success. "My relationship with Neil goes back 25 years and his dedication and knowledge have helped us a good deal," he maintains.