An interview with Andy Toms & Darren Kilby, Gristwood & Toms Ltd

by | May 11, 2015 | Features, People

Andy Toms and Darren Kilby of Gristwood and Toms, the UK’s largest arb company, told Pro Arb about the growth, structure, procedures and future of the company

What are your roles in the company?
Andy Toms: I’m the managing director and my responsibility is ensuring we win enough work to keep everybody going and employing staff who are capable of helping me build the best arboricultural company in the country.
Darren Kilby: I’m the head of sales and marketing, which is a relatively new role for the company. I manage all the bids and tenders and make sure the company has opportunities in the pipeline. The other side of the role is raising the profile of the company and engaging with our stakeholders. Gristwood and Toms hasn’t really shouted about what it does over the years, but despite that it’s still grown to be the biggest arb company in the country.


How long have you been in the industry?
AT: I trained to be a teacher and worked as a groundsman for about two years while I was at college. Dave Gristwood and I started this company about two months before I took my finals! That was in 1974.
DK: I’ve had about 15 years in the industry in total. I originally worked in grounds maintenance before moving into arb.

Andy, why did you decide to start your own company?
AT: Dave and I were working for a local company and I got sacked! Dave decided to follow me and that day we decided to start our own company. We did some gardening work for about two months before we got our first bit of tree work from someone we used to work for, and the rest is history. We now have around 230 staff, but the number is growing all the time.
DK: Everyone is directly employed by Gristwood and Toms too – the majority of our customers certainly prefer this to a subcontracting model.

What’s the structure of the team?
AT: Dave and I used to be a partnership but we formed a limited company in 1990. Supporting us is a team of area managers, contract managers, consultants and also managers of support departments such as the workshop, recycling, health and safety and training. There is a lot of interaction, it’s just as likely that anyone from any of the teams will wander in to my office with a query about something and it will be addressed.
DK: It’s a fairly flat structure on the whole, without too many layers of management. Andy, you’ve effectively come up off the tools anyway haven’t you.
AT: The thing is, you understand what’s going on because you’ve done it yourself. Dave and I had worked together as a tree team for probably 13 years before doing the admin role so you already know what the problems people will encounter are and you can explain how to get over them. Up until about 10 years ago there was nothing that our team could bring to us that Dave and I wouldn’t be able to do ourselves.


How fast has the company grown?
AT: There are about 80 teams from all over the country and growth has been slow and steady. Our first year’s turnover was £7,000 and last year’s was over £13m. There was a huge jump in 1987 – that’s when the company really took off. We had always invested back into the company. Up until 1990 Dave and I were never the highest paid people in the company. Our turnover went from £100,000 to £900,000 in one year, and six to 26 employees overnight pretty much because of the great storm of 1987. When Compulsory Competitive Tendering (CCT) came in, we were in a great position and for the first year, we won everything.

So how do you go about winning your work now?
DK: The strategy is to seek out and react to the opportunities that we see here and now. About 90% of our work is with local authorities and that’s been the bread and butter of the company for 40 years. But recently, we’ve been attracting more and more customers from the private sector and infrastructure companies. There has been significant interest in what a company like Gristwood and Toms can offer. Due to our size, resources and national scale, we can provide a level of service at a price not many other companies can compete with.
AT: We hardly do any domestic work at all apart from a few old customers, but it’s an area of work that we are deciding to go back into. It’s a shame that we haven’t done much because we feel like we should be doing it. It’s just trying to compete with people that haven’t got the same overheads and conditions as us. It’s difficult to be competitive in that market.
DK: It’s also a case of having so much work for local authorities and not wanting to dilute the quality of what we offer by expanding beyond our capabilities. Over the past six months though, we have invested heavily in business systems, some really great IT, and we have the staff and resources in place so we can look into these other markets.


Is there a lot of red tape in the local authority market?
AT: I don’t think it’s any worse in our industry than it is in any other – a lot of it is necessary. There are a lot of things we have to do where you think it’s not really relevant though. For example, we have to do a flood policy for our depot and we are 1500 feet above sea level! There are a lot of hoops we have to go through to get those boxes ticked.

Is that how it’s always been?
DK: I think it’s got a lot worse. The amount of paperwork we have to fill out is increasing all the time. There has been a lot of talk of simplifying the process but it never seems to happen. And there are a lot of standards out there such as Constructionline, EXOR, Achilles and CHAS, which all cost money and should automatically qualify you to pass that health and safety requirement for that council; but you still have to fill in the questionnaire. We have passed the most rigorous health and safety audits in the country but still have to fill out their questionnaires. Local authorities could simplify that considerably and then companies could cut their overheads.
AT: On the ground, our work is grouped in with utilities work and that in itself is a problem. We have to do permits if we plant a tree, grind a tree stump or if we work on any highways site. Three days in advance you have to say you are going to be working on this site on that day but because of the nature of our work we will get 15 trees we have to do and you might find that 10 of them are inaccessible. It’s not like collecting bins where you know you are going to be able to collect a bin on a certain day. A lot of authorities have seen sense, but there are some where we have to go through that rigmarole. The New Road and Street Work Act isn’t really cut out for our work, people are trying to make it fit and in a lot of cases it doesn’t.
DK: A lot of it is essential but we’ve been doing it for a long time so know how to answer the questions, backed by evidence. We work in the busiest boroughs in London so have experienced all the challenges and are prepared to work with customers to find a way to make it work efficiently for everyone.

What are the biggest issues that you are facing this year as a business?
AT: Cuts. Councils are expecting the same work for less money. At the moment, price is much more important as a factor than it used to be.


When you put in a tender, are you most often the cheapest?
AT: We aren’t always the cheapest at all. It depends on the client. Some do look beyond price to make sure you can do the job.
DK: We don’t tender for everything. We are selective because we want to work with like-minded clients.
AT: We are trying to avoid framework contracts in particular at the moment.
DK: We want to work in places where we can do a good job and commit a level of resources to the customer. We want to be able to invest in the staff on a contract and you do that through the revenues of long term contracts. With a framework contract, it feels like a race to the bottom sometimes.

Are you involved in the Arb Association?
AT: We are approved contractors and used to hold seminars on their behalf. I personally don’t have anything to do with them at all, for no other reason than I don’t have time. To be honest, in my opinion the Arb Association is more geared towards the smaller contractors.
DK: It’s a bit like BALI in the landscaping industry. BALI came under criticism for not catering to the bigger contractors before the collaboration with the NCF. The thing is there aren’t many big arb companies.

Do you think that the market is healthy at the moment?
AT: There’s plenty of work to be won. As Darren said, it does seem to be that the prices are going in the wrong direction, which I don’t think is healthy. We preferred it when there was a recession! You may laugh but we had loads of work and there were lots of people that didn’t, so it was easier to recruit staff. Now, everybody is busy, you have a lot of two-man bands running round and it’s harder to offer a long-term career. Short term, they can earn considerably more just going out with a Ford Transit and a saw.
DK: That’s the downside. It’s easy to set yourself up as a tree team and go out to do domestic work or do work for some of the bigger companies who prefer the subcontractor model. But then the quality and safety isn’t always as good. That’s where the industry is dangerous and I think that the Arb Association could play a greater role.
AT: To meet Arb Association approval, when you have your assessment you don’t need to use your own staff. To me that is ridiculous. Their view is you must show you have people available to do work of a certain standard, but that just seems strange. They should be employed by you as a bare minimum.


How do you recruit staff?
DK: It’s always been by word of mouth and because we’ve been in the industry for a long time, we know a lot of people. But as Andy touched on it’s getting more difficult. There isn’t the volume of good, commercial climbers out there now. We use some of the arb forums and recruitment sites such as Horticulture Careers. We take adverts in the trade press and in Pro Arb but it is getting tougher to get good quality climbers.

How can we make arboriculture a career choice?
DK: Arboriculture has a lot more to offer than people realise. Whatever it is to do with a tree, Gristwood and Toms can handle it. That could be consultancy or the contracting side – it’s every aspect of the tree’s health. We offer a paid six week work experience programme and a lot of people come from colleges for that.
AT: We took on a few last year from the work experience programme. We have one lad who joined us as a groundsman at 17 and he’s still with us now, with a degree and he’s about to become an arb association approved consultant. The path is there but we are one of the very few companies that can offer that. We’ve had people come in from Sparsholt College just to see what’s here. It seems to be either work as a team or go down the local authority tree officer route, which seems to be all you can do at the moment.
DK: We have a few ex-forces people who work for us too. It’s an exciting industry to be involved in; there is quite a lot of potential danger in the work as well which is what attracts ex-servicemen and women. College courses can only do so much and you only really start learning on the job – it’s tough work and we can very quickly identify those who have what it takes. We have a career progression plan that we set in place for all of our staff and they can follow that through from being an apprentice groundsman right up to becoming a lead climber or team leader, then moving into contract management or consultancy. There is a training programme and an investment into that member of staff for them to go as far as they want.
AT: We carry out appraisals so it is clear what the expectations are. They can see clear opportunities within our own company. Obviously not everyone is going to be a climber. We’ve got a groundsman here and he’s probably one of our highest paid blokes because he has been here 27 years and he will be the first person chosen for a team because of his experience. He’s got his aerial rescue ticket but he’s never going to be a climber – he has a role within the company’s values. There are well respected routes you can go down without being a climber.

What’s next for Gristwood and Toms?
AT: Dave Gristwood and I are both 62 this year and we won’t be working here for another 40 years. For some time we’ve been working hard to assemble a strong management team that can continue to move the company forward. Darren’s role is to raise the company profile, establish new markets and promote the wide range of arboricultural services we offer.

What do you like to do outside of work?
DK: I’m the chair of my school PTA and we raise upwards of £10,000 a year. I spend as much time as I can with my family, I have a seven-year-old and a four-year-old.
AT: Fortunately, all bar one of my four children have gone so I love golf. I went to the Masters in April in Augusta which was great. I’m an avid Watford FC supporter and have been a season ticket holder since 1961.