Andy Fraser founded County Turf back in 1995. In the last 25 years, the Scunthorpe-based business has provided turf to some of the world's most prestigious sporting venues, including the London 2012 Olympic Stadium, Croke Park, Wembley and Manchester City's Etihad Stadium to name just a few.
In our latest #KnapChat instalment, we spoke to Andy about his fascinating career so far, and why he believes County Turf has excelled to such great success.
KW: What made you set up a turf business? Is this an industry you have always been interested in?
Andy: Well, I have always wanted to be my own boss so setting up a turf company was just something that was a route to achieve this.
In terms of an interest in grass: not really, only when I was younger smoking it. Joking!
But seriously, I have always wanted to be challenged in everything I do, so after leaving University and getting a bit of experience working for someone else in the turf industry, I decided I could do this on my own and so became my own boss.
KW: What drew you to the name County Turf?
Andy: We always knew we wanted to be a national business so the main thing was that we didn’t want to link it to Lincolnshire.
I had a brainstorming session with my wife Anna and our then-neighbours with lots of wine! We ended up choosing the name County Turf which we thought wouldn’t regionalise the company and would provide scope to become a national business in the future.
KW: County Turf is coming up to its 25th year of operation, how has the company changed over the years?
Andy: We started with 27 acres and just me. Today, we are growing approximately 2,000 acres with 40 employees. In terms of size, it has changed considerably, however, the philosophy of the business has never changed.
We started out to strive to produce the best product with first-class service and excellent customer care thereafter. So whilst we have grown, our philosophy is exactly the same as 25 years ago.
KW: Speaking of your philosophy... ‘Where the grass is always greener’ is your slogan, but what ensures the grass IS always greener at County Turf?
Andy: There is one very simple answer; it is making sure we have the correct inputs like fertilisers and sprays as well as the correct timings of their applications.
Attention to detail at all levels is also key, from management level down to the guys operating the machines.
KW: What has been your proudest moment?
Andy: Aside from my wedding day and the birth of my two daughters, I have been very lucky to have a lot of proud moments in the business’ career.
From our first Premiership football ground to the London Olympics to Lords Cricket Ground, there are too many for me to individually pick out one.
KW: As you've mentioned, County Turf was the turf supplier for the London Olympics in 2012. How did it feel to be supplying Scunthorpe turf to the world’s most prestigious sporting event?
Andy: It was amazing, but there was so much pressure and stress involved!
After the turf was laid and just before the Olympics commenced, we were invited down - alongside Yorkshire businesses and Olympians - by Welcome to Yorkshire. The trip involved meeting Seb Coe, who took us around the whole site, which was incredible.
On the train journey down to London, I sat next to Yorkshire diver, Jack Laugher, and his mum. His mum was telling me how she had saved all the money they could to put him through training, which was amazing to then see his historic gold medal at Rio 2016.
KW: What was the process of supplying the turf to 2012 like?
Andy: Hard work! It was 3 years in the planning and 2 years growing and manicuring the turf. The turf was specifically grown for the Olympics, with specific grass species. Although we are used to producing top-quality turf for top-quality venues, our biggest challenge was the logistics.
After the opening ceremony had finished, all the stage and set had to be taken out, to then prepare and relay the outfield in an allocated time slot of 12 hours, which in fact was also a new world record, along with Jess Ennis, of course!
This process involved 24 lorries scheduled in for every half-hour, which was an amazing challenge. If the turf had been in the roll for longer than 8 hours after harvesting we would have suffered from heat damage turning the turf black… not good for a global TV audience of 900 million people!
Thankfully, the hard work and attention to every detail paid off and was a huge success. All the lorries had to be checked North of the M25 by the army to check for explosives as the Olympic Park was live and on high-security lockdown at the time.
Would I do it again? No! But equally, I wouldn’t want anyone else to do it either!
KW: How did you get prestigious gigs such as Chelsea FC and Real Madrid? What was the first major sporting job you had? Did that have a snowball effect?
Andy: Our first major sporting job was Manchester United back in 1998, and this was purely by chance! We had been involved in sports and trying to strive to do sports pitches and we were supplying a landscaper in Holmes Chapel, Cheshire who was a really loyal customer and loved our turf.
One night he just happened to be in a pub and met Keith Kent, who was the head groundsman of Manchester United, now head groundsman at Twickenham.
Keith Kent was having big problems with his pitch at Manchester United in 1997 and was struggling to get a supply of good quality sports turf to relay the pitch at Old Trafford. This chance conversation led to Keith Kent coming over to Scunthorpe and having a look at our turf. We ended up laying the pitch in 1998 and again in 1999.
Due to the success of this job, I was invited to Barcelona on the Manchester United employees' trip to the Champions League Cup Final versus Bayern Munich in May 1999, which was absolutely incredible!
Most people will remember this game as Bayern Munich were leading 1-0 at full time so many fans left, however, in injury time United scored 2 goals; one by Teddy Sheringham and one by Ole Gunnar Solskjær. An amazing atmosphere and amazing experience.
But I digress! After being recognised at Manchester United, we developed a reputation for being a very good stadium sports turf supplier. Following on from that we have ended up doing the likes of Chelsea FC, Real Madrid FC and Newcastle United. In fact, we have turfed all but 4 of the Premier League clubs that are there today!
KW: What are some of the key factors in laying turf for sport?
Andy: Making sure we have used the correct grass species best for hardwearing, winter sports as well as ensuring the playing surface is completely level, and the rolls are completely even so there is no ball bobble.
Making sure the tensile strength of the turf is sufficient is also key. We do all our in-house testing to make sure we are confident and happy the turf can go into a venue.
KW: When you supply turf abroad, how do you ensure the turf survives the long trip overseas?
Andy: Through lots of painstaking trials! When we started to ship turf to Ireland, Poland (for the Euro 2012s), Gdansk and Paris they were all during the summer months. This creates a major problem due to the turf deteriorating through ‘turf heating’ which is basically silaging of the grass.
Over a period of a month, we had 12 fridge lorries harvesting turf, setting various temperature parameters using thermal couples to record the temperature in the rolls to see how quickly we could get the temperature drop. Then dumping the turf, quite expensive R&D!
It involved a lot of work and research, whilst I would say today we still haven’t completely cracked it, we are 99% confident we are able to transport turf on long trips.
One of the trips was taking turf to the President of Ukraine’s brand-new golf course in Kiev. We sent 9000sqm of golf greens turf which spent 10 days in the fridge lorries. It was slightly concerning when they opened the fridge door and we were unsure if it would be green or brown!
KW: Recently we have had some very dry summers and very wet winters, how do these extreme weather conditions affect a live product company such as County Turf?
Andy: The famine or feast weather seems to occur more and more frequently, so we basically need to adapt. We have always increased budgets to make sure we have enough machinery such as irrigation, pumps and infrastructure, ensuring that we can cope in the dryest of summers.
After the summer of 2018, our investments, whilst expensive to our costs of production, have certainly stood us in good stead in terms of being able to supply a quality product and our stock levels have been maintained due to the fact we invested in what we do as a business.
KW: With the rise of artificial pitches being sometimes favourable, how are you adapting to the changes in what consumers want?
Andy: Artificial pitches have been available for quite a while but never as a hybrid instant play turfed option. We started trialling our hybrid system 12 years ago, which is where you have artificial grass accounting for 5% of the surface, mixed with 95% real grass, creating the best of both worlds.
We eventually went to market with two hybrid turf products five years ago, which have been a massive success. This is the direction top sports venues wanted to go: they want perfect surfaces that are stable, don’t kick out and look pristine through the whole winter period.
KW: Recently, Dylan Hartley stated that plastic pitches ruined his World Cup dream. What is your opinion on artificial turf?
Andy: Dylan Hartley is absolutely right! There is no place for artificial pitches in high-level rugby and football. All the players prefer to play on natural grass pitches.
It was no surprise last year when we did Gloucester Rugby Club, they put out a statement, before we even signed the contract, that they were getting a hybrid pitch as a number of their squad were looking to move elsewhere due to the rumours of Gloucester putting a fully artificial pitch in. Many players feel artificial shortens their career and takes them longer to recover after games.
Last year, Gloucester finished 3rd in the season, their highest-ever finish, and Steve Vaughan the CEO has openly told us and potential clients that part of their success is due to their new pitch.
However, you may be surprised to hear this, I am not anti-artificial! There is a place for artificial pitches. For example, hockey and 5-a-side football are certainly better played on artificial pitches, although I don’t believe they have a place at top-level sports.
KW: I think many people would be surprised to hear the correlation between Taylor Swift, U2, Ed Sheeran, Lady Gaga and County Turf…
Andy: It is a strange link for a Scunthorpe turf supplier to have those kinds of connections! It basically involves returfing after they have performed at stadiums such as Croke Park in Dublin.
The time schedules of these concerts are pretty quick: the promoters have to go in and set up the concert, then they have two days to de-rig after. For example, this happens at Croke Park three times a year when we send approximately 3,000sqm to returf a quarter of the pitch.
After the two days of de-rigging, the turf goes in the pitch and is ready for a sporting event such as Gaelic football or hurling three days later.
It is extremely fast-moving and we have to have products there for these quick changes in multi-use stadia. We are now growing turf in Ireland. Croke Park bought a turf farm and, in conjunction with us, are now producing the turf out in Ireland for them. This will be fantastic going forward.
This year was the first year we harvested turf from Ireland, which has been great as there was a lot of past history and controversy of bringing English turf onto Irish soil due to politics!
Maintaining strong core company values are the grassroots for businesses to thrive and grow. Developing a great reputation for consistent values and provision of a quality product is what Andy Fraser harnessed to grow County Turf.
Andy has proved how despite being a Scunthorpe turf grower opportunities still arise with the correct attitude and lots of hard work!