‘Internationalisation is crucial to us’, explains Meiny Prins, CEO and co-owner of Priva, and Businesswoman of the Year 2009.
‘Priva is a family-owned and operated company that supplies climate control products and services. We serve two markets: the built-up environment and production horticulture. We offer measuring and control equipment that will enable its users to achieve the highest possible returns with the least amount of energy possible, and while using the greatest amount of recycled water possible. Our knowledge in the field of horticulture is based on two components: our expertise in the field of measuring and regulation, on the one hand, and our knowledge of plants, on the other. We know precisely what each plant needs and are able to coordinate our parameters to these requirements. This is also the difference between the two markets. There are a lot of variables in greenhouse horticulture, but a greenhouse is also a kind of intensive care unit. If something goes wrong, all the plants in it could die within an hour. This process is not as critical when it comes to buildings; we usually don’t complain unless it’s too hot.
‘To keep a leading edge with regard to technology, over 150 of our 450 employees focus on product development, which is an aspect in which we invest a quarter of our revenue.’
‘Our exporting activities are also crucial. To keep a leading edge with regard to technology, over 150 of our 450 employees focus on product development, which is an aspect in which we invest a quarter of our revenue. The Dutch market is too small to bear these costs, let alone the risks of a possible crisis on the market. A workable distribution of risks is, in any case, important. We have to offer our employees a solid foundation. It takes three years to train a salesperson to be sufficiently knowledgeable with regard to our technology, for example. Training a service engineer takes five years, and the training programme for a project engineer takes a full decade to complete. When you invest as heavily as this in people, you can’t suddenly cut costs and then decide to expand immediately after. We sell our products for the horticulture industry in over 100 countries, we have 10 branch offices and supply our products to 140 specialised installation professionals worldwide. Our dedicated consultancy services, however, are still offered only from our head office in De Lier.’
‘As I mentioned previously, our exporting activities were relatively easy to get off the ground, as we are active within two sectors in the horticultural industry. It comes down to simply travelling along with your customers. In the course of time, Dutch growers have been relocating to all corners of the globe. I could even go so far as to say that every greenhouse horticulture project launched today, no matter where in the world, has a Dutch person or firm somehow connected to it. Growers become used to working with specific equipment when they were still in the Netherlands, and want to continue using it at their new location.’
‘The situation is entirely different in the building and construction industry. In this case, we moved from country to country, conquering our niche in the market as we went along. The first country we established a new branch in was Germany. This was not the easiest place to begin, as it was also the home base of many of our competitors in the building management system sector. It may not have been the best choice at the time. We currently have ten offices in such countries as Canada, the UK, Belgium and China.’
‘Our new strategy focuses more on “verticals”, specific groups of customers.’
‘We are, however, planning to adjust our strategy, because this approach simply takes too long. It takes five to seven years for a newly established branch to start generating a steady profit. This procedure is too expensive, and too slow for building up a global network. Our new strategy focuses more on “verticals”, specific groups of customers, with scalable solutions that we can develop for specific segments and can subsequently roll out on a global scale. Examples include climate control in supermarkets, or operation rooms.’
Many business enterprises with a focus on exporting activities employ stringent selection criteria from the very start. All applications that do not immediately fall within a specific niche are not followed up on. What is Priva’s strategy in this?
‘Of course, we will look into the application, and do follow up on practically every lead except for in specific cases. What is an important point for consideration is that we are the absolute market leader in our segment. What we want to prevent under all circumstances is getting the reputation of being slow – or, even worse, arrogant.’
Are you personally still active in the market?
‘Certainly! My portfolio within our three-headed management team is commerce. I undertake a long journey twice a year, during which I concentrate on business development, in addition to customer relations management. My position as a CEO opens quite a few doors, and gives me opportunities to set my foot on hitherto unpaved roads. What I specifically aim to do, is to launch pilots in collaboration with businesses that play an exemplary role in the market. By using our equipment and accurately calculating the results and, above all, communicating clearly, we are able to convince other companies of the advantages of our technology much faster.’
You are unlike many other CEOs because you are actively engaged in marketing your firm’s products. Many companies these days are led by spreadsheet experts, and not by people who still play an active role in the market. What’s your opinion of this?
‘I’m not such a big fan of spreadsheets. If you start making calculations, you have to use them sooner or later and most often that will mean cutting costs. After that, it takes about a year to straighten out the consequential damage. What’s more important is that, if I were to start working that way, the rest of my business would be prone to following my example. Before you know it, everything will be directed at internal operations, and that’s not what I want at all. I – and the same goes for the rest of my company – prefer to direct my energy outwards.’
‘“Adding value” is our motto, and if I succeed in doing this for another decade, I’m satisfied and will take it from there.’
Meiny Prins is a fervent supporter of the circular economy. She launched the ‘Sustainable Urban Delta’ initiative, a string of pearls in the field of water, food, energy and knowledge.
Is this a personal hobby, or does this tie in with your company somewhere?
‘Sustainability is never a mere hobby; it is a significant theme that deserves the same status as quality. I firmly believe that whoever can offer integrated solutions will have a leading edge on the competition. And that it is important to have a vision for the future. More and more people are drawn to living in a cosmopolitan environment, to urbanisation. This means that the waste water produced by these people will have to be used for the production of food. Waste derived from food will, in turn, be used as biofuel, and residual heat derived from greenhouses to warm residential areas. All of these systems will be scaled downwards, and inter-coordinated. As control is our business, we’re already engaged in developing the next generation of control equipment, in which we don’t take only the greenhouse or building into consideration, but also look into how we can coordinate our system to the processes going on in the direct environment.’
You are the co-owner of a successful business. What are your plans for Priva in the next 50 years?
‘I can’t think that far ahead! My motivation stems from the ability to provide added value. Following in the footsteps of my father, money is not a goal onto itself. Every euro is reinvested in the company. “Adding value” is our motto, and if I succeed in doing this for another decade, I’m satisfied and will take it from there.’
‘It’s not without a reason that I say a decade: these days innovations come and go at such a rapid pace and have such a gigantic impact that added value is the key to survival. Even stronger, everything that is not capable of contributing some sort of added value is disappearing or will be disappearing. This shift is more far-reaching and faster than gradual technical developments. In our niche of the business, we are already referring to what we call “disruptive innovations”, and “game-changing inventions”.’
‘It is far better to develop your own Uber Taxi and retain control over it than to relinquish it to the competition.’
‘Within Priva we have already developed all the knowledge we need to cannibalise our own products. If we were to introduce our new concepts on the market, our own sales figures would drop by half. But that’s not what it’s all about; you can also think in terms of possibilities. By considering new markets to tap into, for example. Of course, you don’t really have a choice: if you don’t jump on an initiative, someone else will. It is far better to develop your own Uber Taxi and retain control over it than to relinquish it to the competition.’
This interview was made possible by Tuinbouwvertalingen.nl. Photo: Priva.