An executive who started his own career as an apprentice has received a national award for his work with young people who are following in his footsteps.

Neil Cain is operations director for the grounds maintenance firm John O’Conner, the Herts-based group which has contracts all over the country, operating as far north as Manchester and Lincolnshire and as far west as Somerset.

And he’s been named Apprenticeship Champion of the Year at the National Apprenticeship Awards in London.

Neil began his career as an apprentice with the local authority parks department in Sunderland back in 1980, and the national accolade is recognition of his outstanding contribution to apprenticeships over the course of his working life.

The 52-year-old from Kimpton said: “My apprenticeship has been the foundation for more than 30 successful years in the horticulture industry, providing personal and professional fulfilment.

“My progression from apprentice to operations director is a testament to the potential of apprenticeships and my biggest achievement.

“It’s evidence a university route is not the only option to exceptional careers, and that’s why I champion apprenticeships in addition to my job role within John O’Conner and externally.

“I’ve passionately encouraged John O’Conner to embrace apprenticeships into the culture, value and business strategy since joining.

“I believe my story of progressing from an apprentice to operations director enables me to offer strong experience and advice to apprentices.

“I always have an open door for anyone, not just new young apprentices but existing staff. Apprenticeships are for everyone.”

The O’Conner operation has grown hugely since the man whose name is still above the door moved to Stevenage as a newly-married man in 1961 and started doing gardening jobs in his spare time.

The privately-owned firm specialises in managing local authority parks and open spaces contracts, many of which are in their second or third term.

It takes pride in a down-to-earth entrepreneurial spirit with directors both getting their hands dirty and attending monthly meetings with clients.

You can find out more about the firm, and how to join the team, at