Strategy that is behind the huge success of Singleton’s

Alan Cleaver talks to Keith Singleton of Singleton’s Nurseries in Nethertown about the firm’s success

WHEN Keith Singleton was in the army he learnt one valuable lesson: No matter what the enemy, you have to outflank it. And that’s a lesson that has helped him turn a nursery in Nethertown into an international business employing 20 people.

He spent nine years in the army but he then faced a choice: following his boss to a placement at the Pentagon in America or leaving the army for ‘Civvy Street’. He chose the latter and, not having the financial resources to buy a farm, decided upon starting Keith Singleton Horticultural Products.

They started by making compost and now make 125 tons a week. “That sounds a lot, but larger firms will make that every 15 minutes,” says Keith. But his unique selling point is the quality of his products. He insists on purity, not allowing, for example, recycled garden or kitchen waste into the compost. Why not? Well some items such as fruit can be acidic, changing the nature of the compost. The quality of their goods means that the likes of The Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh and other scientific institutions use their compost, as they know they don’t have any pathogens in them. Singleton’s is also famed for making specific composts for leeks, onions or other plants. The chairman of the National Chrysanthemum Society once phoned him saying that southern members were bemoaning the fact they could never win, as they didn’t have access to Singleton’s compost! There is, however, a more level playing field for chrysanthemum growers now, as Singleton’s offer online sales.

The lesson of quality extends to magnesium sulphate (Epsom salts) that they sell. Keith said: “We were asked if the magnesium we sold as fertilizer was OK to bathe in. Of course it isn’t, so we found a source of naturally, produced pure bathing and food grade from a supplier in Germany. Quality so good that we now supply the Royal Ballet and several football clubs. We are now sending supplies of this to pharmaceutical companies and exporting outside the EU.”

As the business has grown over the last 47 years it has had to innovate, because the demise over the years of several other businesses in Nethertown has meant reduced passing traffic. So the logical option was to trade more on-line, selling a wide range of products, many of which are produced here and others imported from China, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

Keith added: “We have survived by innovating,” It’s the ‘outflanking the enemy’ strategy that he learnt in the army.
A café/restaurant/conference facility was built several years ago, to encourage customers to make it an interesting day out.

And they have introduced a biomass boiler, numerous green and recycling ideas, and countless more forward-thinking business ideas over the years. On the day I was interviewing Keith, he was having a visit by St Bees WI – visits by local clubs with talks and demonstrations is just another idea out of the Singleton’s brain-storming sessions, which has ensured the business stays on top of its game.

And recognising there’s an international dimension – even to a relatively small business tucked away on the West Cumbrian coast – has also helped the firm succeed. Buying supplies from Pakistan led to them buying very unusual salt lamps, unknown in this country. They have sold over a thousand of the salt lamps in the last nine months. These are hand carved lamps, primarily used for their health attributes, and are bought direct from source in the Himalayas. They are almost unknown in the UK and usually only available in limited outlets.

They have also made links with China, where they have established firm links with a firm tin Tianjin. Keith said: “We have made good links with a lady there who is very good to us. We emailed her after the explosion at Tianjin in 2015 to check on her and her family. The explosion killed 173 and injured 797. She was so touched that we should be concerned that she really looks after us now.”

It seems Singleton’s are exporting Cumbrian goodwill at the same time as importing products from around the world!

As we walk round the nursery, Keith reels off countless other innovative products and an unbeaten range of plants. “We now sell mesh that covers the ground and is put in with staples. The grass grows through this but it means you can drive cars onto the land and not churn up the ground. It is being used at golf ranges, for example.”

Singleton’s now has 20 staff – employed all year round – in three separate departments. There is a chef manager, Abi. In charge of the nursery is Keith’s daughter, Louise Walker, and Kelly Archer. His son Greg and Liam Schwartzer look after the compost and online orders.

Keith said: “We started online sales 10 years ago but started taking it more seriously three years ago and on Monday mornings we can have 180 orders ready to go out. Online sales have doubled every year.”

But it is of course in the nurseries that most people will spend many happy hours looking at the range of plants. It’s a range and quality simply not found at other generic nurseries in the county.

Singleton’s is proof that with the right business strategy, plenty of innovation and an ambition to punch above your weight, even a family firm tucked away in Nethertown can be a player on the
international market.

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The huge expanse that is Singleton’s Nursery in Nethertown

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A shopping wagon displays gifts for sale in the cafe