Apta Pottery

A Message from Lord Pickles and Lord Blunkett, followed by Apta Pottery's best practice article

The ability to listen and learn from one another has always been vital in parliament, in business and in most aspects of daily life. But at this particular moment in time, as national and global events continue to reiterate, it is uncommonly crucial that we forge new channels of communication and reinforce existing ones. The following article from Apta Pottery is an attempt to do just that. We would welcome your thoughts on this or any other Parliamentary Review article.

Blunkett signature Rt Hon The Lord David Blunkett
Pickles signature Rt Hon The Lord Eric Pickles


Paul Sykes, managing director
Laura Ashley
Pelham Planter
Apta is the country’s leading supplier of garden pots and
accessories to the garden trade. Set up 38 years ago in
Kent, it distributes flowerpots and pot accessories to 2,000
garden trade customers throughout the UK. Alongside its own
brand, Apta, it supplies its partner brands – the Royal Horticultural
Society, Laura Ashley and the Royal British Legion. Apta is now a
highly profitable company with a turnover of £14million. Between
2006 and 2009, however, following its sale to a larger business
which lacked the company’s original focus, revenue declined
from £10 million and little profit to a profitless £6 million. In
2009, Paul Sykes bought a major stake in Apta. He confesses
that he knew very little about gardening at the time, and
describes how he set about restoring the company’sfortunes.
Gardening magazines and especially TV programmes, such as the BBC’s
gave millions of viewers realistic and achievable ideas for their own gardens.
Sales soared, especially for then-new items, such as glazed terracotta plant pots.
In the yeas that followed, however, suppliers rested on their laurels and failed to
innovate, often relying on factory-sourced products. The market became saturated
with the same offers and sales fell off sharply.
When it came to my involvement, before commencing any negotiations with the
previous owners, I visited dozens of the company’s customers. What I found was
far removed from the impression given by the financial accounts. Apta had retained
excellent relationships with its customers and its basic operation was extremely
sound. I also learnt that Apta had, and still has, the most talented and committed
staff I have ever encountered.
»Managing director: Paul Sykes
»Established in 1980
»Based in Ashford, Kent
»Services: Supply of garden
»No. of employees: 70
»Brands: Apta, Royal
Horticultural Society, Laura
Ashley and Royal British Legion
Apta Pottery Ltd
Highlighting best practice
The accounts just didn’t tell
the whole picture
These are tremendous assets, but,
of course, neither was evident from
the balance sheet. And that’s the
point – much of the most important
information concerning small companies
isn’t in the balance sheet. Swift decisive
action was also critical to turning the
business around, since time was very
much of the essence. And although
this meant that some fine tuning was
necessary later, this was relatively easy
to achieve because we had a positive
‘can-do’ environment willing to embrace
challenges. Looking back this was
the most exhilarating time, especially
because it was my own money at risk.
Nothing quite beats having “skin in the
game” to focus themind.
Be an important supplier or you
won’t be a supplier for long
I learnt two important early lessons:
opportunity cost and critical mass.
Early on we embarked on product
diversification into Christmas decorations
and accessories when a major customer
offered us an opportunity after another
supplier let them down.
Although at face value the diversification
was successful (and boosted our
confidence), the opportunity cost
of diverting resource from the core
business outweighed the short-term
gains. It also left us exposed in both
sectors because retailers were seeking
to rationalise suppliers, and so smaller
non-essential suppliers were (and still
are) extremely vulnerable to losing out.
From this point, we have focused
resources on establishing Apta as the
must-stock supplier of garden pots in
the UK by differentiating our products
from our competitors and by adding
more value to our retail customers’
businesses. Here having experience of
different consumer markets prior to
Apta proved useful.
Innovate or be prepared to
dine on gruel
Our strategy is to provide customers
with innovative designs and
distinctive brands. Achieving this
objective required control of product
development, and so I established an
in-house design and development team
with technical expertise inpottery.
Many retailers are quite capable of
purchasing products direct from
factories almost anywhere in the
world, and so why would they choose
Apta, or any of its competitors for that
matter, if we offered no significant
product difference?
Brands are carved from excellent original
design, and since we had established
a design capability I speculated that
gardeners would like to see great
products aligned to great brands. We
identified several brands with particularly
high appeal to gardeners and selected
the Royal Horticultural Society (the
world’s most respected horticultural
authority), Laura Ashley (synonymous
with excellent design and style) and,
more recently, the Royal British Legion.
Apta is now the exclusive licence holder
for planters for each of these brands.
Offering solutions to our
We talked at length to customers
about the challenges facing them
and developed solutions accordingly.
Apta merchandising
Royal Horticultural
Society, by Apta
Nothing quite
beats having
“skin in the
game” to
focus the
Firstly, we introduced a “Pick & Mix”
service where Apta makes up bespoke
pallets of mixed items according to a
customers’ requirements. This reduces
customers stock-holding and improves
their cash-flow.
The second key service was the
introduction of a nationwide
merchandising service. Manoeuvring
a pallet of heavy pots into place and
merchandising stock is physically
challenging work, and garden centres
have limited staff equipped to do this.
Our nationwide service means that
customers can confidently delegate
the whole process to Apta, leaving
them free to offer advice and serve
customers. Especially for Apta pots!
Inevitably growth has put areas of
the business under pressure, and one
of the most challenging for Apta has
been space. We are now developing a
new seven-acre site on the periphery
of Ashford which will support our
plans for further expansion and ensure
that we remain in the borough for
years to come.
External factors have also assisted us in
achieving growth, such as demographic
changes towards more and smaller
homes, and evolving consumer habits.
The evolution of the UK
garden trade
The garden trade remains fragmented
compared with many other sectors (a
good thing as a supplier) and is worth
an estimated £5 billion a year, with
annual growth of around 3 per cent
(excluding all landscaping, corporate
and amenity gardening).
We are witnessing a reconnection
between people and their
environments, and horticulture is
extremely well placed to benefit from
this trend. In addition, the health
benefits of gardening are gaining
traction, both in terms of physical well-
being, and in mental health.
Consumers are increasingly interested
in local produce. It seems that various
factors are combining to encourage
this trend, especially awareness of
environmental issues, such as “food
miles”, and the premium which
Brexit appears to have placed on
British originated products (although
currency has undoubtedly also played a
Appetite for British design, and our
iconic brands, is also buoyant. Apta
is starting to export our RHS branded
products to both the US and Japan,
and has further plans for 2019 and
beyond. This experience is mirrored by
many other British gardeningsuppliers.
But perhaps the most important
question for the whole of the garden
trade is how to ensure that young
people become the gardeners of the
future. The garden trade has a big
part to play here, and we’re focusing
on making gardening more accessible
to everyone by encouraging trial and
error, and by hands-on initiatives such
as Cultivation Street, which supports
community gardening projects
throughout the UK. Once a gardener,
always a gardener, and the benefits to
mind and body are immeasurable.
Appetite for
British design,
and our iconic
brands, is
Pick & Mix, a commitment
to exceptional service


This article was sponsored by Apta Pottery. The Parliamentary Review is wholly funded by the representatives who write for it. The publication in which this article originally appeared contained the following foreword from Rt Hon Kwasi Kwarteng.

Rt Hon Kwasi Kwarteng's Foreword For The Parliamentary Review

By Rt Hon Kwasi Kwarteng

This year’s Parliamentary Review reflects on a tumultuous and extraordinary year, globally and nationally. As well as being an MP, I am a keen student of history, and I am conscious that 2020 would mark the end of an era. It will be remembered as the year in which we concluded Brexit negotiations and finally left the European Union. Above all, it will be remembered as the year of Covid-19.

In our fight against the pandemic, I am delighted that our vaccination programme is beginning to turn the tide – and I pay tribute to the British businesses, scientists and all those who have helped us to achieve this. But the virus has dealt enormous damage, and we now have a duty to rebuild our economy.

We must ensure that businesses are protected. We have made more than £350 billion available to that end, with grants, business rates relief and our furlough scheme supporting more than 11 million people and jobs in every corner of the country, maintaining livelihoods while easing the pressure on employers. The next step is to work with business to build back better and greener, putting the net zero carbon challenge at the heart of our recovery. This is a complex undertaking, but one which I hope will be recognised as a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Through the prime minister’s ten point plan for a green industrial revolution, we can level up every region of the UK, supporting 250,000 green jobs while we accelerate our progress towards net zero carbon emissions.

With our commitment to raise R&D spending to 2.4% of GDP and the creation of the Advanced Research & Invention Agency, we are empowering our fantastic researchers to take on groundbreaking research, delivering funding with flexibility and speed. With this approach, innovators will be able to work with our traditional industrial heartlands to explore new technologies, and design and manufacture the products on which the future will be built – ready for export around the globe.

And I believe trade will flourish. We are a leading nation in the fight against climate change. As the host of COP26 this year, we have an incredible opportunity to market our low-carbon products and expertise. Our departure from the EU gives us the chance to be a champion of truly global free trade; we have already signed trade deals with more than 60 countries around the world.

As we turn the page and leave 2020 behind, I am excited about the new chapter which Britain is now writing for itself, and for the opportunities which lie ahead of us.
Rt Hon Kwasi Kwarteng
Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy