Key Points:

From where former cricket international Graham Vivian stands, the grass on the other side of the fence isn't always greener: it could be red, blue, yellow or white.

Right now, however, it's looking decidedly green in Mexico, where Vivian's Auckland-based company, Tiger Turf, has won a multimillion-dollar contract to manufacture 13 soccer pitches for a local soccer complex; the company's biggest contract to date.

Things are looking pretty verdant in the United States too, where the turf-maker has just opened its third overseas factory in Texas to target the 1000-odd pitches laid annually in that country.

In fact, Tiger Turf is recognised as one of the top 10 turf-makers in the world but, like the company's Onehunga-based headquarters, Vivian is modest.

"It's rewarding. It's an exciting industry to be in."

Synthetic turf is a multibillion-dollar global industry and, driven by water shortages and low maintenance costs, it's growing by 15 per cent a year, Vivian estimates.

Tiger Turf's local factory weaves 950,000 sq m of synthetic turf a year for, among other things, tennis courts, multi-use courts, athletics tracks and bowling greens.

It helps that the international soccer body, FIFA, has now recognised synthetic turf as a registered playing surface after years of shunning it in favour of real grass, says Vivian.

The original product used sand as a base but players found it too abrasive when they fell.

Now, the synthetic turf for soccer pitches is sprayed with rubber granules to act as soft "in-fill" and water is sprayed on to hockey pitches to allow players to slide easily and the ball to play faster - changes that led a number of American and British clubs, which had ripped up their surfaces during the 1980s and replanted grass, to switch back again.

The company spends about 4 per cent of turnover on R&D, a focus which Vivian says is a key to its success.

The R&D unit is based in the England factory close to a number of top manufacturers in Europe.

Most R&D projects are joint ventures with yarn-makers or universities: Tiger Turf UK and Spain's University of Valencia are developing new golf surfaces that don't require too much water while, in Australia, the company and the University of Ballarat are developing surfaces for Aussie Rules football.

Water use is a huge issue, says Vivian; the average synthetic hockey pitch needs 100,000 litres of water sprayed on it per game. The company developed a hockey pitch that uses less water than the average surface, which North Harbour Hockey will install in November.

North Harbour Hockey chief executive Darrell Simpson says the new turf will save the club water and cut down on the cost of having to man the spray guns.

Synthetic turf also allows continuous use of the fields.

North Harbour Hockey has four synthetic pitches (two from Tiger Turf) but would need 30-35 grass fields to accommodate the games it plays in a week.

Vivian set up Tiger Turf in 1981, after seeing synthetic tennis courts in Australia. (The company was originally named Astrograss until several years ago when Vivian discovered a company of the same name in the US).

He approached an employee of carpet-maker Bremworth, Tony Timpson (who went on to found Cavalier Bremworth), who agreed to let Vivian use Bremworth's carpet weaving machines at its Onehunga plant.

Vivian focused on tennis courts, buying aerial photos of Auckland's well-heeled suburbs and identifying streets and houses where there was either a house with space for a tennis court or a potential convert from concrete.

After 18 months, the company outgrew its borrowed premises and Vivian bought a second-hand carpet weaver and set up shop in his own Onehunga factory.

Back in the 1980s, a tennis court was the next step up from a swimming pool. However, the concept of a synthetic tennis court was new and convincing people to convert from concrete was not easy. Selling the idea to grass-courted tennis clubs was simpler: the idea of having all-weather courts appealed because they could be open all year round.

Hotels and resorts were also keen to aid their more mature patrons' knees with the softer-surfaced synthetic courts. Vivian's first export success was to a Fijian resort with a tennis complex.

By the late 1980s, hockey pitches were turning to synthetic surfaces, and Vivian struck a deal with Dutch yarn manufacturer Desso to make pitches for export to Europe. The contract, which finally ended in 1999, opened Tiger Turf to the lucrative European market, now the company's biggest buyer for soccer, hockey and multi-use pitches.

The company's revenue climbs 30 per cent a year and Vivian recalls just one year when sales did not increase from the year before.

The 60 local staff focus on the smaller New Zealand and Asia-Pacific market, while the other 120 staff are in England, Australia, Germany and the US.

Competition is tough: there are about 60 other synthetic turf manufacturers in the world but most focus only on their regional market.

Tiger Turf group general manager Ian Fulton says stiff competition comes from China. The company set up a small office there in 2004 with only a local agent but pulled out after just 18 months.

Vivian is relieved he didn't stay longer. Now, he says, there are 30 local synthetic turf-makers all manufacturing a "lesser" product.

China's a huge market though, and the company has achieved some sales there since it left. Vivian and Fulton, who came on board in 2000 fresh from running Reebok's Africa and Middle East operations, aim to target the soccer-mad markets of South America and Eastern Europe next.

Even if new markets slow, pitch replacement would keep the industry growing globally but Vivian doesn't expect a slump any time soon. The education market - not just sports fields but playgrounds and play areas - is barely tapped, he says, with the likes of the US growing at about 20 per cent a year.

"We've barely scratched the surface."

Green & growing

* Auckland-based Tiger Turf makes synthetic turf for sports fields.

* Set up in 1981, it now has three overseas factories, plus one in New Zealand.

* 60 local staff and another 120 in England, Australia, Germany and the US.

* Next target markets are South America and eastern Europe.

* Saving water and reducing maintenance are key selling points.