Anthura was awarded the Tuinbouw Ondernemersprijs 2019 last week. The anthurium and orchid breeding and propagation company from Bleiswijk managed to impress the jury with their strong international position as well as their focus on sustainability and good employment practices. Commercial director Marco van Herk: “There are still quite a few challenges with regards to sales, innovation and sustainability.”
By Hans Neefjes
The trophy, a more than 1.5-m tall metal sculpture, is prominently placed next to the front desk. “We got to take it home immediately after the ceremony last Wednesday and we get to keep it. It isn’t too heavy. We’ll bring it along later on, when it’s time for pictures”, says Marco van Herk cheerfully.
Before we start the interview with Anthura’s commercial director, we’re offered a piece of cake. Some of their business relations ensured there’s plenty for the coming time. Many of them sent a cake with their congratulatory message. Van Herk appreciates it, and he also likes the food trucks offering healthy snacks, which will visit the three Anthura locations in Bleiswijk soon, as a gift from another connection. A treat doesn’t always have to be sweet.
But how about sending a flowering plant as a gift? Van Herk points at a large potted phalaenopsis in the room. “All visitors love it, but when you look around offices in general, you hardly ever see any flowering plants. I believe there are lots of opportunities, for example in the form of gift concepts that use flowering plants instead of cakes. We’d like to help the sector develop that market.”
Does that mean that Anthura does more than just breeding and propagating?
“We are anthurium and orchid specialists, so we want to know literally everything about those plants. That’s why we had the air-purifying qualities and the degree of toxicity of the plants investigated in specialised labs. We also want to learn more about the opportunities of orchid and anthurium on the distribution market. We’ve developed and tested many things ourselves, like bouquets with cut anthurium, pots with a water reservoir and systems to create flowering-plant walls. We often get growers, suppliers or customers involved in these things from an early stage. At the end of the day, they are the ones who have to accept the novelty and develop it further.”
This pioneering approach is another aspect that was highlighted by the jury of the Tuinbouw Ondernemersprijs. Do you do anything else in this field?
“We’re in a strategic collaboration with four other ornamental plant breeders, called GenNovation, to explore the opportunities for new breeding techniques. Crop innovation company KeyGene mapped out the DNA of both phalaenopsis and anthurium for us. That’s a good start. It’s up to us now to do something with that information. Our new, 1.3-ha innovation and breeding centre is going to have lots of facilities for this. Our R&D staff will be working at a molecular level more and more, to improve our varieties.”
The jury also stated that you have a lot of knowledge and skills, which can help the sector innovate and develop further. Is that true?
“The jury mentioned the fact that 35% of our employees are higher educated. But the knowledge and skills they mentioned, also apply to the rest of our staff. Innovation and development will only happen if we all work together. We don’t have too many people working in our greenhouses anymore. Many things are automated. Former director Nic van der Knaap showed thousands of visiting school pupils and many others around our company. People are always amazed when they hear about and see our technology. And when they find out that knowledge of statistics and technology is just as valuable for us as knowledge of cultivation. When it comes to employees, we need a wide range of people.”
Are you looking forward to the role of ambassador for the horticultural sector, which is part of the award?
“Yes, of course! Even more so after all the positive responses and congratulations that we received. We work in a great sector. That’s worth sharing. As an award winner, perhaps we’ll even get easier access to certain parties.”
Who would you like to connect with?
“There are still quite a few challenges with regards to sales, innovation and sustainability. When we celebrated the 80th anniversary of Anthura, we discussed these themes with the stakeholders of a few different companies. We’d invited well-known TV presenter Matthijs van Nieuwkerk as a host, so our customers felt like they were in the audience of his famous TV show. The discussions led by Van Nieuwkerk were very worthwhile. But now, it’s time to follow through. If we do nothing, nothing happens. We’d like to do our bit with regards to the three themes that I just mentioned. But only if our role is clearly defined and if we know how everyone in the chain is going to work together. That’s the kind of thing we’re currently discussing with various parties.”
How important is sustainability?
“It is becoming more and more important. That’s why we’re taking part in the FSI chain project. Their goal is that 90% of the trade consists of sustainably produced plants and flowers in 2020. As a company we invest in things like geothermal heat and solar panels, and we get recycled carbon dioxide and sustainable energy through OCAP. Sustainability isn’t always strictly business, though. A good example is our role in a project regarding an endangered orchid in the Swiss Alps. We helped with the propagation and reintroduction of this variety. A project that we received the Plantum Sustainability Award for in 2018.”
Which challenges are you currently facing with regards to sales?
“We all know that phalaenopsis sales aren’t great at the moment. The market for cut anthurium has been difficult since 2008. Potted anthurium is doing alright. The supply of phalaenopsis is going down, because growers retire or switch to a different crop, and also thanks to changes in cultivation technology, which were introduced to improve quality and decrease loss due to pot worm. I do believe we’ll be seeing an acceptable market equilibrium again in 2019. We must watch out for negative and unjustified sentiments regarding price and supply. What we learned from cut anthurium is that a decrease in supply doesn’t always result in market recovery, especially if there are sufficient alternatives available. We still see opportunities for cut anthurium, though. Just like for phalaenopsis, the sustainable cultivation method, unique ornamental value and long shelf life are strong selling points.”
To what extent can you be of help to Dutch growers?
“First of all, by developing better varieties. Secondly, we contribute to developments in cultivation and sales. Sometimes across the entire width of the crop and sometimes for one specific cultivar, market or company. And we also distribute across the border. Exports. China is our main growth market. The number of affluent Chinese consumers increases by 40 million per year. That’s on top of the existing 450 million.”
About Marco van Herk and Anthura
Marco van Herk (50) is the son of a rose grower. He completed his third-level horticultural studies in 1990. After working in the family business for half a year, he started with Anthura as a crop consultant/salesperson.
He became the commercial director of the anthurium and orchid breeding and propagation company in Bleiswijk in 1997.
Founder Nic van der Knaap’s twin sons Iwan and Mark (1971) also joined the company upon completion of their studies at Wageningen University.
Marco van Herk and Iwan and Mark van der Knaap have been leading the company together since 2004. The company has been growing steadily over the years. They opened a branch in China, for example (Kunming, 2007), a new 12-ha propagation greenhouse in Bleiswijk (2009) and a lab in Macedonia (2015). Their branch in Germany (Arndt) is still growing too. The acquisition of Gunter Arndt Jungplantzen in 1995 marked Anthura’s start in phalaenopsis.
The company celebrated its 80th anniversary in 2018. This festive year was filled with activities, a visit from the Dutch King, and last, but not least, the Tuinbouw Ondernemersprijs award.