Interview - Steve Ashworth, managing director, Wyevale Nurseries

Steve Ashworth has a challenge on his hands.

Steve Ashworth of Wyevale Nurseries Image: HW
Steve Ashworth of Wyevale Nurseries Image: HW

The new managing director at Wyevale Nurseries takes the group's reins this month at a time of unprecedented economic uncertainty.

A host of threats encircles the wider economy, from Government cuts to a strengthening pound, house price uncertainty and creeping inflation. But the former Wyevale Transplants director is not without experience - his 23 years with the company have brought consistent growth - and he takes on the task with quiet enthusiasm.

"I like the people here and I like the plants," he explains. "I think between the various sections they grow a wonderful range of crops and have a wide range of production - there are not many nurseries that match that and given the need for someone to pull it together I would love the challenge."

He equates the role to that of a conductor, waving a "lightweight baton to create an orderly tune in the hope of producing some harmony". Ashworth says he will become more outwardly focused, looking at customers, suppliers and competitors to help "conduct Wyevale in a fashion that is profitable and valuable to the outside world".

He recently began a series of stints at each of the company outposts, meeting employees and finding out the issues. While owner Peter Williamson recently confirmed the company was looking for new partnerships to increase its offering, Ashworth said he will not focus on that, at least initially.

"I think I will be looking to make the things we have work as sweetly as possible first," he says. "We are doing a customer survey at the moment, which will hopefully yield the results to tell us where we should be tweaking our range of products. Results will be back and analysed in September and that is a very important marker for us. We really need to make a methodical analysis of what it is telling us."

Ashworth is a staunch advocate of the environment, proud of the no peat, heat or poly approach he applied to the transplants business. He is keen to bring similar thinking to the wider group and says he will be watchful of where such opportunities might arise.

He explains: "There is big pressure for peat replacement, which we ought to be in the lead on. Just to stay stable involves a lot of change. There is a lot of peat use in our production so that is one aspect.

"We have to go with the general acceptance and sustainability of it but I don't think wholesale horticulture has got the answer yet. I haven't been involved in this type of production for so long so I'm not going to come in and tell them how to do it. But it is something I would like to move the firm towards."

Though keen to take on the challenge of a new role, Ashworth says he will miss the transplants division, where he has served "23 happy years". And walking the fields of the Herefordshire site, it is easy to believe - his enthusiasm is infectious. But while he says he finds transplants "mesmerising," Williamson's call was something he had a "strong feeling to respond to".

Ashworth's number two in transplants, Ray Jenkins, has stepped in to replace him after serving a 21-year apprenticeship, leaving the new group director confident his baby is in good hands. He extends the praise to Wyevale's other divisions.

As chair of the HTA tree and hedging committee - a position he holds until 2013 - Ashworth is a willing participant in industry debate. He is not afraid to air his views about various issues and says that part of the new role will be to represent the company in the wider industry conversations.

"I'm looking forward to being out there, to listening and looking, to representing our needs and our products," he explains. "We need to talk up the importance of our industry and that is starting from the uniqueness of Britishness.

Our industry is vital to the uniqueness of Britain. I feel that it's a land of gardens and landscapes, of forests, wetlands and hedges - they are our characteristics.

"But it's a crowded little country with a lot of pressures on people in general and the landscaping of Britain is of premium importance. You could say crowded Britain needs the inspiration and space supplied by a high-quality landscape. We ought to keep shouting about our place in the country.

"It's not just about plants for consumption. There is a need to keep Britain green and everyone has the urge to do their bit. People have a real desire to see a blackbird in the hedgerow."

One issue that was clearly close to Ashworth's heart while head of transplants was that of seed provenance, and he is critical of a tendency for pedantry. "I do think the chasing of limited provenances is a profligate waste of government money and I view the more pedantic interpretation of provenance as an issue. It's more important to plant it well and worry about the quality of what you are planting. People often can't afford to protect their plants because they have spent so much sourcing ones with exactly the right provenance."

1977-80: Diploma, RBG Kew
1980-81: Scholarship for Msc, University of Wisconsin
1982-83: Tree grower, J Frank Schmidt, Portland, Oregon, USA
1983-84: Heggidorn Nursery, Switzerland
1984-87: Assistant manager, tree production unit, Hillier Nurseries
1987-2010: Director, Wyevale Transplants
2010 to date: Managing director, Wyevale Nurseries

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