Published: 00:00, 25 February 2015
| Updated: 08:35, 25 February 2015
In the heart of the Kent countryside where people enjoy pheasant shooting and quad biking, an odd-looking thatched structure stands with some garden furniture underneath.
This is a lapa, a large South African gazebo-style structure, which has made its way to these shores thanks to entrepreneur and Great Britain triathlete Craig Ormiston.
His Borough Green-based business the Lapa Company celebrates its 10th anniversary this year in far better shape than it was when he started the company with a computer and a phone in his infant daughter’s bedroom in Kings Hill.
In its first month, the company made £123 from selling two wooden poles it imported from South Africa to build its lapas. Today, it is a near £2 million turnover a year business, building a range of outdoor living structures.
“They are stunning,” said Mr Ormiston, who was inspired to set up the company by his South African wife Vanessa.
“They are very simple. There is nothing in the UK like the traditional lapa, which is made out of hard wood with a thatched roof.
“No one uses traditional techniques from South Africa to construct the products.”
Part of the lapas’ success has been down to the long time it takes to make them. Each takes four to five weeks to construct, which limits the amount the firm’s 12 staff can build each year. It also makes the product more exclusive.
Typically the business makes eight to 10 lapas every 12 months, selling for up to £30,000.
“The last 10 years has had its ups and downs but we have been quite robust because we are at the top of the market,” said Mr Ormiston, 47.
“The top of the market doesn’t seem to have been as affected as the rest. People who buy our expensive lapas have still bought them through the recession.”
However Mr Ormiston, a former sales director at Brands Hatch and commercial director at Red Letter Days, knew his company could not survive on just its namesake.
He said: “We started trying to promote that product but when you start a business from scratch you quickly realise you have to find what sells. Not everyone can afford to spend £20,000 on a lapa so if you can sell them a gazebo for £3,000 then you have people buying into the company.”
"People who buy our expensive lapas have still bought them through the recession...” - Founder Craig Ormiston
The company diversified, with one side of the business selling, marketing and designing thatched structures, such as their gazebos. Another side focuses on commercial projects, which has included building two African-themed restaurants at Port Lympne Reserve.
Another part of the business distributes US barbecue brand Fire Magic throughout Europe.
“Often our structures are paired up with cooking in some way so there was a natural link with outdoor kitchens,” said Mr Ormiston, who has a daughter, 10, and a son, eight. “What we’re really about now is premium outdoor living products.”
Mr Ormiston’s success has come with determination, fitting in 14 hours of training a week alongside installing 200 gazebos a year across the country.
He represented Great Britain in the World Age Group Triathlon Championships in Edmonton, Canada, last year, finishing in 38th spot. He hopes to qualify again next year and is set to complete his next triathlon in the spring.