How an Oldham firm's glasshouses are proving a hit in the US
PUBLISHED: 00:00 06 September 2017
Eric Roth photography
But not just any glasshouses. These are the biggest and the best and the Americans love them. What's more, they are made in Lancashire. Roger Borrell reports
It’s well known in the business world that anything stamped with the words ‘Made in England’ has a head start among consumers in the United States.
But they have been largely ignorant of the delights of that horticultural favourite of ours, the greenhouse. Until now, that is. And the stunningly beautiful structures that have captured the imagination of gardeners across the Atlantic are not only Made in England but, more specifically, Made in Lancashire.
Hartley Botanic is based in Greenfield near Oldham and has quite a track record for innovation as well as excellence. It was established by brothers Vincent and Norman Hartley almost 80 years ago and they were the first to design a totally aluminium greenhouse.
They used their small factory to manufacture various inventions, such as a special cowling for lorry headlights so goods, people and weaponry could still be transported during the Blitz. At one stage during the war it was also used for making shell cases.
‘The place has a magical history,’ said company chairman Martin Toogood. ‘I met the daughter of one of the founders at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show and it has been a real joy of discovery learning the history of the business.’
Hartley remained a family firm until the 1990s when it was acquired by an entrepreneur. It recently changed hands again when Martin and his business partner, Tom Barry, working with Rockpool, a private equity company, purchased the business.
The company had a foothold in the US market but this has been turned into what is now a multi-million pound export business with Martin recently travelling to Boston to talk to the Massachusetts Horticultural Society.
‘I see American gardens and there’s decking, barbecues, lawns, basketball hoops but you never see greenhouses,’ he said.
To change all that they’ve just boosted their sales team in the US and have appointed a chief operating officer to oversee growth. ‘I spoke to one of our people out there and he said he was delighted to be working with us because he could put his hand on his heart and tell people that we are the best,’ said Martin.
‘Within the next two years we expect America to be the driving force behind sales, but that won’t alter the fact we make the products here in Saddleworth and ship to the States.
‘That might take a little longer in these days of instant gratification but it’s the way we intend to do it. You can always be tempted to take the economic way out and make them elsewhere but we are determined to stay here. We never want to manufacture outside the UK. There is a cachet to being made in Britain and it would be commercial suicide to do it any other way.’
Hartley’s workforce has increased by a dozen since the start of the year, taking it to well over 70 and they have been busy reconfiguring part of the premises to provide more manufacturing space.
Their smallest standard greenhouse will cost £4,000 but the biggest, which are really a substantial work of art, will cost £50,000. That would be 13ft high and 37ft long, the sort of structure you would see in Kew Gardens.
They have been building a massive glasshouse at Hyde Hall for the RHS but more and more domestic customers want bespoke designs that will fit into their garden spaces.
Hartley’s entire product range has now been endorsed by the Royal Horticultural Society – the only business to have this coveted accolade.
It comes after a battery of awards at RHS events for maintaining handmade quality that means they can last a lifetime. There are still many examples in use from the 1950s.
Ironically, Martin is a former chief executive for B&Q and Tom was the commercial director. They were both involved in selling greenhouses with a significantly smaller price tag.
‘At first, when we were approached by Rockpool, we were unsure,’ said Martin. ‘But as we walked into the factory there was something about the handmade quality and English design that really bowled us over.
‘The fact that it is English helps us considerably in the US. The heritage of the company is very important. Even the aluminium comes from within a 30 to 40 mile radius.
‘The joys of being here in Saddleworth are the work ethic, the people and, of course, it’s a great part of the world.’
For more information go to hartley-botanic.co.uk