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“Everything changes and nothing changes,” says Ken White on Frosts becoming employee owned

by | 21 Mar 24 | Commercial Landscaping, Long Reads

Ken White

Twelve years after taking on the role of managing director at Frosts Landscape Construction, Ken White is hanging up his boots – but not without leaving a lasting legacy. The commercial landscaping company will become an Employee Ownership Trust from next week (26 March), something which White has been working towards and was passionate about putting in place before handing over the reins.

Together with the management team, he bought out the Frosts family from the landscaping company six years ago, and “always had the ethos and mentality that if we do well, we want all the employees to do well,” he says.

“Back then, we were thinking of a cooperative model, because we didn’t really know much about EOTs. But as they have come more to the forefront, we thought that it was the right model. It removes a lot of uncertainty about the future of Frosts, because the Trust can last for 120 years. We felt that the best future owners for Frosts were the existing and future employees.”

Some of the team members have been with Frosts for longer than White, who first joined as operations manager in 2004. Two recently retired, one after serving more than 30 years and another after more than four decades with the company. There are others who are nearing the 30-year mark. “We have a lot of long-serving employees, and that says to me that we get things right and we put our employees first. I’m extremely proud of that, and extremely proud that we’ve integrated a lot of new people into the business too who will also hopefully be there for 30 or 40 years.”

As well as rewarding employees, putting 85% of Frosts into an EOT – with the remaining 15% being retained by company director Adrian Meeker as a “show of his ongoing commitment” to Frosts – also means that “everything changes and nothing changes,” says White. “It’s very much business as usual; whereas when a third party buys it, there’s a lot of upheaval. When we sold the grounds maintenance division to a third party, whilst they handled it very well, it was completely different having a whole new set of owners of the business.”

The Magic Garden

The Magic Garden at Hampton Court Palace, designed by Robert Myers Associates and built by Frosts Landscape Construction in 2016

White will continue as a trustee for a while and will stay with Frosts until the end of June to support new managing director Alistair Bayford, who will assume the position from 29 April. “I’m absolutely convinced he’s the right choice for the business going forward,” says White. “I believe he can take the business to where it wants to go and get us back to perhaps some of our former glory, which has slipped a little of late. We’ve dropped off the radar in places, and Alistair will do a great job of bringing that back. He’s highly respected inside the industry, very good at business development, and he understands employee ownership; there was absolutely no point in moving into an employee ownership structure with somebody who doesn’t have the ethos and fully understand what we’re looking to achieve.”

The biggest challenge might be to “not grow too fast,” admits White. More than 10 years ago, it underwent a “transitional moment” when it took part in the landscaping for the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Starting with £1m worth of work on the project, it left the site five years later having completed £34m worth, which White says was “transformative” for the business. “It has probably been one of my greatest pleasures to be involved in delivering the Olympic Park. It set a whole new standard in horticulture and in business processes.”

When the management team bought Frosts six years ago, the focus switched to profit over growth. “One of our primary aims was to do less business and instead do business with people who got us and we got them, and we felt that we could be more profitable in doing that. We have gone from record year after record year since we carried out the MBO. So, the strategy of doing less but for clients that we really wanted to work with and projects that we really want to work on has paid off.”

As a result, White says Frosts – which is celebrating 65 years since it completed its first project this year – has not experienced many of the challenges that others have in the commercial landscaping sector and is instead having to turn down work. “We’re set to have yet another excellent year and the opportunities look great; the future is bright.”

White might be gradually stepping away from Frosts, but he’s still passionate about its success and its potential. The plan is for Frosts to eventually become 100% employee owned and perhaps transition to becoming a B Corp. “We’re about being a business that is not only good for our employees, but good for society as a whole, and good for the environment, and this is just one step on that journey.”

He’s also going to continue as a mentor for smaller businesses and offer help to the landscaping industry where he can. On top of that, he’ll be focusing on driving forward his and his wife’s charity Supershoes, which provides unique, customised canvas shoes to children and young people who are receiving treatment or palliative care for cancer.

As one of Pro Landscaper’s Most Influential in 2022, past chairman of the Association of Professional Landscapers as well as  serving as a non executive director for the Horticultural Trade Association, White has undoubtedly left his mark on the sector and has set up Frosts to continue to prosper, with its employees at the helm.

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