‘Of course we export. Out of all the greenhouses in the world, you can be assured that 80 per cent have their origins in the Netherlands and that we are involved in a large number of these.’ Greenhow is interviewing Bert Strikkers, co-director of Alumat Zeeman.
Bert was recently appointed to the managing board in order to boost Alumat Zeeman’s export figures. ‘We have noted that the agriculture and horticulture industries have been undergoing increasing international development. It is our ambition be among the top three global players in the field of parts and systems for greenhouses within the next five years.’
The appointment of Bert Strikkers to the management board will enable his co-director, Hans Zeeman (currently the third generation Zeeman at the helm) to concentrate more on the production facilities. Various greenhouse parts, up to and including complete systems for greenhouse screens and air control systems, are produced according to custom specifications at the company’s state-of-the-art factory. ‘Our strength lies in our ability to turn our hand at pretty much everything. We produce primarily smaller series, tailored entirely to the end customer’s requirements.’
‘When it comes to sales, you can choose largely between two strategies: you can either become a supplier to greenhouse builders in the Westland region or you can focus more narrowly on supplying the installers and customers at the end of the chain. ‘In the former case, you have to be an absolute cost leader with as little overhead as possible or, in other words, produce things as cheaply as possible. There’s nothing wrong with this strategy, but our strength clearly lies in the delivery of added value by offering our international customers precisely the right quality, service and expertise,’ explains Strikkers. ‘This means that we to keep abreast of all international horticulture projects.’
How can you do that as a small organisation?
‘To be able to answer this question, we will first have to examine the international role played by the horticulture industry in the Westland region. Nowhere in the world is there such a dense concentration of horticulture business, as well as suppliers specialised in this industry. Not only we know this; the rest of the world is also aware of it. A new greenhouse is a huge investment to which the owner is bound for at least the next fifteen years to come.’
‘Because of the scope of the investment and the image of the Westland region chances are big that a prospective investor will approach one of the horticulture firms here for information first. Some foreign companies even spend an entire week here to visit several suppliers on order to gain a better impression of the latest technical developments. This is possible thanks to the dense geographical concentration of horticulture firms here; you will find everything there is to know in the field of horticulture technology within a fifty-kilometre radius.’
‘Most people are simply not aware of the magnitude of an investment in greenhouse horticulture; all they see is the glass exterior. Half the costs, however, are associated with the many systems needed for the optimum cultivation of your crops. This means that to build a single greenhouse you may have to request, either directly or indirectly, hundreds of quotations for each of the various parts and systems. A large portion of these quotations are directed at companies operating in the Westland region and, through our network, we always get the latest scoop on what’s going on. We are often introduced to clients as well: if a client has a specific request and the relevant supplier can’t meet this demand, the supplier will generally refer him to someone else – which is often us. Of course, we do the same. However, although we consider the sky to be the limit, we prefer to stick to only those areas in which we excel.’
Strikkers continues: ‘We would rather make a customer happy by referring him to another party than straining to act as an intermediary. This is a clear a trend emerging in the international business world. ‘End customers are ordering their systems directly more and more often, simply because they understand that every intermediary link raises the price. This is a favourable development for us, particularly for the parts division.’
‘Of course, our network extends far beyond the Westland region alone. We visit many trade fairs all over the world every year. Although we don’t have our own stand at these fairs, we are very well acquainted with our Dutch colleagues. Believe me, if an Israeli customer wants to build a greenhouse, he will undoubtedly end up at the Dutch pavilion and we will learn about it through our network.
‘To get back to your question about how we conduct our export business: our export strategy consists in part of making optimum use of the image the rest of the world has of the Westland region and by deploying all of our contacts both here and in the rest of the world. After all, having a business that has never once gone bankrupt since it was founded in1928 puts us in a privileged position. That may not sound all that impressive, but in the small world that is the horticulture industry that means that in all of 85 years we have never disappointed a customer with a project that was not completed or a supplier with an unpaid bill. This gives us confidence.’
‘Speaking of confidence, everyone in the Netherlands likes to talk about giving and taking. Nevertheless, in the world of international sales the focus more on giving and receiving. Being in the position of the seller, it’s never a question of taking anything from your customer. You have to have confidence in the expectation that your customer will be willing to give you something, that you will be granted an order. Bert, for example, speaks five languages, which is indispensable if you want to build up a good business relationship with a foreign customer. Command of the English language is particularly poor in France and Spain. If you’re able to approach a customer in his own language you are at a considerable advantage on the competition.
‘In summary, our strategy to enter into commercial negotiations has brought us a lot of success in the horticulture niche. With regard to our products, we aim to maintain our focus on flexibility and custom work, while experimenting with new methods and technologies. Our primary aim in this is to automate the process to the greatest extent possible.’ The company clearly employs a two-pronged policy.
Has this always been the case at Alumat Zeeman?
‘No, not at all,’ Hans Zeeman confirms with a grin. ‘The company was actually founded purely by accident. My grandfather was a fisherman and he came home after three months at sea to discover that his son had been born while he was away. He was so upset that he had been absent during the birth that he immediately sought work on land. He started a maintenance firm for greenhouses and, because he was sometimes unable to work because it was either too cold or too hot, his activities gradually shifted to the sale and production of parts. After all, when you work in a big warehouse, you aren’t bothered as much by weather conditions. That was the start of our company.’
Do you have any concluding remarks?
‘Certainly! I’d love to plug our latest innovation. Besides market development, we are also engaged in product development. Based on our expertise in greenhouse screens we recently developed an automatic anti-hail net that can be used by tree nurseries, for example. The net can be opened and closed by remote – through a simple SMS – to enable the grower to effortlessly activate the system. Of course, hail isn’t a regular occurrence in the Netherlands, but in Italy and Germany it is a serious problem. This means that this product will generate lots of export opportunities. Another advantage to this system is the micro-climate that is created underneath the net, which slightly raises the temperature. This can prevent frost damage to young plants, which will also grow better and faster on account of the net.’