Wolfgang and André Ripkens have made a lot of progress in recent years. Apart from investing heavily in automation, the German pot plant growers have also introduced three new sales concepts: Silver-Land, Out-Land and Stone-Land. It turned out to be a great move; the market has responded enthusiastically to the combination of a recognisable look and premium quality. This is generating a lot of added value for father and son.
Topfpflanzen Ripkens is situated in Straelen in the heart of the German Lower Rhine region. This area near the Dutch border is one of Germany’s main horticultural regions. It is plain to see in Straelen: nearly every street boasts at least one horticultural business.
Laurenz Ripkens founded the family business in 1971. Initially they grew both vegetables and cut flowers, but from 1980 pot plants started to play an increasingly important role in the business and in 1990 they switched completely to pot plants. “We’ve tried all sorts of things to find out what suited us best,” says Wolfgang Ripkens (56), who joined the business in 1978. “Cyclamen have played a central part in our cultivation plan. They are particularly interesting because the season covers a large proportion of the year: we deliver cyclamen from the end of June until February. At present we ship 400,000 cyclamen every year, all in 11 cm pots.”
Aside from cyclamen, silver leaf plants are also an important pillar of the business; the entrepreneurs grow Calocephalus, Sanatolina and Festuca, among others. “We deliver around one million silver leaf plants annually, between July and November. Some varieties grow in greenhouses and the rest are kept outside, on the container field,” André explains. He joined the company three years ago and runs it alongside his father.
Lavender became part of the cultivation plan five years ago, and from mid-May onwards father and son deliver around 250,000 lavender plants every year. “We started growing lavender because we didn’t like the container field standing empty for so long every spring,” says Wolfgang. “Our product range is rounded off with Culphea and several Sedum varieties, which are shipped in spring and summer. The variety in our crops keeps us busy year-round and means we can employ our workers throughout the year. We only work with permanent staff and employ ten people in total.”
Expansion and automation
The Ripkens pot plant business comprises 1.5 hectares of greenhouses and 4 hectares of container fields. Most of their greenhouses were built in the 1990s, with 0.4 hectares of new glass being added in 2012. “We use only Venlo greenhouses with 4-metre roofs. Nothing special, really, but it works well for us, especially with the combined energy and sunshade screens that we use.”
In 2012 the container field was also expanded by two hectares, but further growth was not an option, according to Wolfgang. “Our land parcel was packed to the hilt. The only expansion opportunity I can see is if the businesses across the road eventually close. Buying or renting a different location would be too inefficient.”
To boost their existing production, the entrepreneurs recently invested in rolling benches and an internal transportation system. “The optimal use of space that comes with these investments allows us to deliver 20 to 30% more plants annually. That is why this investment more than pays for itself,” André confirms.
Investments in automation
To enable them to process larger quantities and be less dependent on staff, they have also invested heavily in automation over time. In addition to two potting machines with pot dispensers and ejectors, the company works with a special forklift combined with a release fork. “All our potting and ejection machines are supplied by Mayer. We chose Mayer for their quality and service. If there is ever a problem, they always send a mechanic very quickly,” André tells us.
His father emphasises that the high degree of automation helps them to maximise the output of the business. “Despite the increase in production numbers, we haven’t had to hire extra manpower in recent years.”
It doesn’t happen overnight
Father and son Ripkens were keen to up their production as a result of increasing demand, which was all due to the success of the sales concepts they had developed. “It started in 2007 with the Silver-Land concept,” Wolfgang explains. “We had been growing the silver leaf Calocephalus since the 1980s, but because more and more breeders were including this plant in their assortment, the auction price plummeted. That’s when we hit on the idea of combining various silver leaf plants in a single tray, with a recognisable name and look. We called it Silver-Land and put the plants in a blue 12 cm pot with special pot labels. Our triangular blue and green logo also provides a certain level of recognition.”
The market responded well to this concept, which was quite innovative for its time, according to Wolfgang. “But it didn’t happen by itself: we visited many garden centres in the first few years, as well as many trade fairs. We certainly wouldn’t suggest it happened overnight. But we’ve seen great improvements in the past three to four years; our concept is gaining popularity and demand is on the increase.”
Faith in the future
Following this positive market response, the entrepreneurs introduced several other sales concepts. They combine different varieties of cyclamen in a single tray under the name Out-Land, for example, and Sedum varieties are marketed under the Stone-Land flag. “These concepts also embody quality and uniformity. Automation provides added value here as well. In order to be able to deliver a product with optimal uniformity, they always pot large batches of plants and prune the plants every five weeks. Garden centres have indicated that the quality and look of their products give them a competitive edge.
Now Wolfgang and André sell all their potted plants under the Land Concepts flag. This has made supplying auctions a thing of the past; they only sell directly to traders and garden centres. “We deliver to higher-quality garden centres, not to discounters,” Wolfgang Ripkens emphasises. “It goes without saying that selling through this channel yields a better sales price; consumers who buy at higher-end garden centres don’t mind paying a little more for products that appeal to the senses and are guaranteed to be good quality. Because we hold a patent on our products, other businesses can’t just run with them. In other words: our products can no longer be substituted by others. That gives us certainty and faith in the future.”
Wolfgang and André Ripkens grow a large variety of plants in the German town of Straelen: cyclamen, various silver leaf plants, lavender, Culphea and several Sedum varieties. In order to be able to increase production despite the company’s limited opportunities for expansion, they invested in rolling benches and an internal transportation system a few years ago. They have also made significant progress on sales in recent years, introducing various sales concepts with a recognisable look and a focus on quality.
Text and images: Ank van Lier.