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At The Core Of A.C Goatham & Sons In Kent

29th April 2014 Paul Andrews

The family firm that is the largest producers of apples and pears in the UK

Founded in 1947 by Arthur Conference Goatham, A.C Goatham & Son Limited is now run by his son Clive and grandson Ross.  In the last 25 years the business has gone from two farms to currently farming 1,750 prime Kent acres of top fruit to become the largest producers of apples and pears in the UK. Paul Andrews met them to find out more about the values that continue to drive this award-winning family firm forward.

Clive Goatham is the Senior Partner at Goathams and has seen incredible change in the family business that was created back in 1947 by his father, an enterprise that was essentially based around agricultural contracting.  The business continued in this manner until 1980 when the first opportunity arose to purchase their own farm and they became growers in their own right.  Clive remembers the transition period well. “At the time I was 30 years of age and working with my parents having opted out of agricultural college at the age of 18.  I left the course because I already knew what I wanted to do – to work in the family business – and was learning more at work than I was at college.  If I am honest, I knew what I wanted to do from the age of about five years old.”

Clive continues, “I have always known my own mind and was adamant about not going to university and I knew that I could learn more from my parents.”

Nearly thirty years later with a thriving family firm and the next generation already involved, that is clearly the case.

Clive recognises that he is fortunate to have been given the opportunity in the family firm too.  “It was not always easy and in the early days was hard work but there is something special about working with your Mum and Dad.”

Family firms are more often than not the source of favourable memories of childhood and Clive fondly remembers his first involvement with apples.  “When I was about five we lived in a house where there was a large doorstep from the lounge to the kitchen which was just the right size to place a box of apples on a tilt so my ‘fun time’ was spent packing apples in a box.  I played around with different apple varieties and would pack and repack the box until I got it right and Mum or Dad were happy with the result!”  

At the age of seven Clive remembers living on a farm with old, traditional orchards and a packing shed that was essentially a tarpaulin strung between the apple trees where as a family they packed the apples as they were picked and then sent them off to market.  “It was tough for a seven year old who wanted to play with his mates so I used to pick the right time to ask Mum if I could go and play but always got the same response from her; “I don’t know about that – you’d better ask your father”.  This I would do, timidly, and was pleased that he would say yes, albeit tinged with a sting in the tail as I was given 20 minutes and then it was back to work.”

Moving forward to the present day, Clive is remarkable in the outlook that he has on work.  “I am the luckiest person in the world and can honestly say that I have never had that Monday morning feeling about having to get up and go to work.  I am self-motivated and lucky to be doing a job that I love, I can honestly say that I have enjoyed every working day I have been in the business.”

Apples are at the core of what A.C Goatham & Son do, although the business also produces pears and cherries and has a farm shop, animal and bird collection and also a venue for corporate events and weddings, all nestled between the orchards at Gore Farm.  Despite his love of the fruit and everything that goes into growing them, Clive rarely eats apples, preferring pears.  “I love orchards and each and every day I spend in the orchards is a revelation, from the blossom in spring to harvest and I guess it is not really work for me – it really is a passion.”

Like many next generations in the family firm, Ross is also passionate about the business and just like his father joined the firm after leaving agriculture college to learn ‘hands-on’ from his father and grandfather.  History has certainly repeated itself for the Goatham family but Ross is philosophical about his journey too and relishes working as the business continues to grow.  The only difference is that he does sometimes have that ‘Monday Morning’ feeling as his father is known to wander around the business making a list of all the things that he feels need to be addressed – from weeds in the orchard to paint needed on a barn!

“Dad will often call on a Sunday to remind us of a few things that need doing so when the phone goes on a Sunday afternoon you are never sure what the outcome will be.  But that is just Dad being Dad and wanting everything to be perfect; we hold strong values in delivering quality in the way that we work and the way that the orchards are run.  To us, that is crucial in delivering a quality product and being a top grower and when it is your name above the door it means even more” adds Ross.

Ross was only two years old when the business began its evolution in 1980 and like his father has fond memories of packing apples at an early age, as well as driving the tractor in the back garden.

The journey for the family firm really began in 1980 when they had one farm with 45 acres of orchards and now they have 14 farms totalling 1,750 acres but they believe there is likely to be more consolidation in the sector going forward as many of the other growers have issues of succession to deal with.  

Clive recognises the challenges being faced across the industry, “many of which are the result of the period of decline in the 1980’s and 1990’s, caused by a number of factors, not least competition from EU member states but now there is a resurgence, partly driven by the large supermarkets in response to a growing demand for local produce, better sustainability of production and a consumer demand for provenance too.  Better growing practices are also helping ensure these demands are met.”

The third partner in the business is Steve, a cousin who has also been instrumental in the growth of the business, having joined back in 1971.  He shares the same, strong work ethic and values that permeate everything about this family business.  

Clive remembers one of the early harvests with Steve fondly.  “It was during harvest time and Steve and I had been working flat-out for days harvesting the crop.  We were both knackered and one sunny afternoon took a moment to rest and actually we both fell asleep on the back of the lorry and woke up hours later sunburnt.”  True to their work ethic though the harvest had to continue so they got on with it despite being very sore! 

Values are important to many family firms and never moreso than at Goathams.  As Clive explains, “I am, and always have been, known for my honesty and integrity and it is probably our old fashioned values that make us who we are today.  I have passed these values on to Ross, just like my father passed them on to me.  If you shake on a deal, then that is it as far as I am concerned.  I appreciate that in the world we now live in there is a need for legal agreements and advice to be sought but integrity, honesty and proper ethics are still incredibly important, especially in the food industry today where provenance, trust and food safety are paramount.”

The scale of the operations is immense and Goathams, as part of a direct supply partnership now supply over 50% of all the British apples and pears supplied to Sainsburys.  Again, the relationship is one borne out of trust and as Ross explains, “We have always been honest with them, even if we are telling them something that they don’t particularly want to hear.  It is who we are and in actual fact it has strengthened our relationship with them too.”  

Ross is the next generation and the plans for the future are being developed – further orchard expansion, new varieties and plans to give something back too in the shape of an educational venture to share knowledge about food production and sustainability with children across schools in the surrounding areas.  

For Ross, the future is AC Goatham and Son.  “It is in my blood, just like it is in my fathers and was in my grandfathers before that.  The Goatham family is all about apples and pears and as the leading producers of apples in the UK we need to keep ahead.  Dad and I work well together and with two young boys of my own who already love the orchards, who knows what the future holds for our family business.”

Looking back to 2007 when Gore Farm was acquired, Clive had a vision for the next stage in the Goathams journey and they are now in a position to build on that vision.  His vision was to create a ‘food place of excellence linked to a fruit farm of excellence that showcases their produce to customers and industry alike’, the fact that they are now winning awards is tantamount to their success in achieving these goals.

The vision is becoming reality and for Clive, his proudest achievement is “my son following me willingly into the business that his grandfather started and hopefully the next generation will do the same.  Nothing we have achieved is driven by financial aspects either – of course it helps that we make money, but for me that is secondary to the love of what we do.  I worked hard when Ross was growing up and that was probably the busiest time for the business and my only sadness is that I was not around for Ross as a father when he grew up.”

Ross however recognises the commitment made by his father and adds, “Although Dad was busy with work it did mean that I got to spend a lot of time learning from my grandfather, something that will always be with me and I will cherish.  Dad has created a great platform and his values are incredibly important to us as a family and a business so Dad working when I was growing up was simply the norm, what needed to be done, and as a family we have become stronger through the business.  Personally, I do make time to spend with my kids and make sure that I am around but like me, and probably Dad and my grandfather too, the boys love it down on the farm and being in the orchards so I guess you could say that the business really is at our core, the values we believe in and it is the very essence of who we are too.”

Going forward, Goathams will be at the fore of a sector that is changing rapidly, innovating with new varieties and new growing techniques, working with their customers to develop even greater sustainability, provenance and food security but one thing is abundantly clear – the love of what they do drives this family onwards and their strong values and ability to evolve the business will clearly stand them in good stead for the challenges that lie ahead.



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