At the central hub of Lovania Nurseries on the outskirts of Preston, the small drive leading to the offices is routinely clogged with large lorries. The reason, according to Lovania's Charmay Ball, is that trade has been brisk. "At the end of May, we had more than 100 lorries being loaded in one week," she says.
In many ways, Lovania is a typical family business. Founded by Len Ball, it employs his son Keith and Keith's wife Celanie. The latest recruit is their daughter, Charmay. But what makes the firm notable is its major shift in direction - with much success. In addition to the bedding plants it previously produced, it has diversified into alpines. This has boosted sales and helped the firm break into new markets, and this year earned it the title of Ornamentals Grower of the Year.
The move came about when a major customer of one of one of Lovania's sister companies went into administration. Lovania realised that the firm - an alpine producer - could be profitable. "We researched the market and felt we could make a go of it," says Charmay Ball. The administrators refused to accept the firm's offer, but Lovania decided to go into alpines independently.
The first step was to locate a large growing area - an existing salad glasshouse. Lovania took on staff from the old producer and recruited specialist grower Matt Catterall along with two top salesmen. Ball was put in charge of integrating alpines into the existing business.
The firm had to win garden centres' trust quickly. "We were promising them products and some had never heard of Lovania," says Ball. "But we were just selling from a catalogue. We were taking orders at a time when we didn't have any plants on the ground." Lovania invested rapidly and heavily "to create a very efficient production line".
This was a major shift for the business. It was not just selling new kinds of plants, but selling to different customers. Previously, the company had been selling bedding plants directly to retailers and DIY centres. Now it would be selling primarily to garden centres.
"Nobody was offering national merchandising services," says Ball. "We have special shelving and point-of-sale material. We have uniformed members of our team who go into centres and put out plants, remove any that are not up to standard and organise the displays. It's a unique service."
Alpines were a particularly good choice for this sort of treatment. Traditionally, they have been seen as a small-ticket item, costing as little as a couple of pounds, and the market has been relatively steady. "Our biggest sellers are the one-litre pots, which retail for about £3.99, and the 9cm pots, which cost as little as £1.99," says Ball.
Generally, the plants are perceived as good value because alpines flower every year and there are serious gardeners who specialise in growing and collecting them. Ball says alpines are also attractive to younger gardeners wanting something cheap, interesting and easy to grow. "Alpines are okay for the half-hearted gardener," she explains. "We create an attractive display that draws people in."
Lovania has some extremely large customers, including the Garden Centre Group and Dobbies. It currently supplies to more than 400 garden centres. Sales have been brisk. In 2010, after the first year of trading, alpine sales were at £2.17m. In 2011, they made £3.3m. This year, despite the dreadful weather and adverse trading conditions, sales are expected to rise by a further four per cent.
Most importantly, the new trade in alpines has not affected Lovania's existing business. "Bedding is still profitable," says Ball. She adds that the two sides of the business are run together because the firm "wanted to run it all under the same umbrella".
Catterall, as Lovania's chief alpine grower, notes that growing conditions in the region are ideal. "We're near the sea, it's very flat and there's a good micro-climate," he says, adding that the nursery has benefited from heavy investment. "We've got very modern production lines. Three production belts allow us to do grading and potting."
Lovania has also bought a wide spacer-mat - a special forklift truck that can pick up large quantities of pots - and a Javo machine that can transplant 7,000 pots an hour. The plants are predominantly grown in peat, but the firm is experimenting with different mixes because of increasing pressure from retailers.
Alpine production fits in well with the bedding plants. The bedding glasshouses would normally be largely empty in winter but alpines have to be overwintered under glass. As a result, Catterall explains, the alpines can help use up the surplus capacity of the glasshouses. The alpines are also relatively cheap to heat. Most of the items can be allowed to fall below freezing point. However, the glasshouses require small heating systems because some of the varieties have to be kept frost-free.
The term "alpines" covers a wide variety. In addition to proper alpines, Lovania will also produce some small herbs. The best seller is aubretia, of which the firm expects to sell around 250,000 a year. "We currently have more than 800 varieties of plants," says Catterall. "Alpines are relatively easy to produce. Most can be grown within 12 weeks, although some will need to grow for 18 months before they can fill a one-litre pot."
Lovania is concentrating on better ways of selling the plants. Some sparser varieties are being decorated with a stone mulch to make the pots more attractive. There are also new containers, including slate pots and concrete patio pots.
For the future, it hopes to make use of social networking. It has started Facebook and Twitter accounts and has put QR codes on its labels. "We'd like to build up relations with end users, because we want them to know about us," says Ball. She believes there is still scope for expansion, although one of the biggest difficulties is getting the land - the business is currently spread out across 11 sites and Ball admits it is not easy finding extra.
However, Lovania is determined to grow, slowly but steadily. It is investing in water technology to harvest rain off the glasshouse roofs, solar panels and a wind turbine. "We're very happy with the way that the business is developing," Ball concludes. "Most of the money is going straight back into the business. We love running a family business and we want to make it as successful as possible."