THE HAGUE, The Netherlands: The shared passion for floriculture in the Netherlands and Germany generates business worth billions of euros a year for the Dutch economy. What makes the bond between countries so blooming? The business platform Holland Horti International investigates.
The value of Dutch floriculture exports – including bulbs and trees – to Germany has now reached almost five billion euros, making the country’s eastern neighbours by far its most important ‘green’ trading partner.
German buyers – known for their eye for quality – are impressed by the Dutch exports. Erik Jaap Kroone from Nijssen Junior believes that the German market views the Netherlands as a ‘top producer’, while Chris Buurman from Buurman Planten puts the country’s appeal in Germany down to its ‘mentality’. Norbert Engler from EPS attributes the success of the Dutch floriculture exporters to the ‘highly innovative’ nature of the sector.
Facts and figures
Let’s start with a few figures to put the trading partnership into context. In 2015, the Netherlands exported over 100 billion euros’ worth of goods across the German border, cementing a close economic bond between the two countries. On the world stage, only the economies of the US and Canada are more closely intertwined.
This relationship is most evident in the floriculture industry: the Netherlands generates a tidy sum of one and a half billion euros a year by selling flowers and plants to its German neighbours. Last year, German companies spent 119 million euros on bulbs produced by Dutch companies. Germany is also an important export market for Dutch tree growers, who sold almost 400 million euros’ worth of goods to the German market.
According to Marc Eijsackers, director of the Flower Council of Holland, the special relationship between the two countries goes back a long way. “Coincidentally, just the other day I was sent a report dating back to the 1980s. The report mentions how, even back then, German consumers were showing loyalty to Dutch products. There are three factors driving this loyalty: reliability, availability and proximity.”
‘The Netherlands is a top producer’
Erik Jaap Kroone is the director and owner of Nijssen Junior. The majority of the Aalsmeer company’s customers come from Germany – and Erik is confident that he knows why, “The German market views us as a top producer. The Netherlands offers exactly what German customers are looking for. What’s more, in the regions where we are active – central and southern Germany – there are fewer growers, so we step in to fill the gap in the market.” Chris Buurman, from Bemmel-based company Buurman Planten, echoes this sentiment. “We supply to the top end of the market.
Luxury garden centres know that they can’t compete on price. So they set themselves apart by offering different products, or different colours – which we can supply from the Netherlands.”
‘Products with a unique selling point’
Norbert Engler – director of EPS (Euroregional Pflanzen Servicecenter, or Euroregional Plant Service Centre) in Kevelaer, just the other side of the border – confirms this viewpoint on behalf of the country’s German neighbours. “Dutch companies supply products that complement the German offering in terms of quality and variety. Most of our partnerships with Dutch suppliers relate to products with a unique selling point, such as Phalaenopsis in many different types, sizes and special shapes. There is a wider range of arboriculture products available on the Dutch market. Your floriculture sector is highly innovative, and delivery reliability is good.”
However, the close relationship between the neighbours has been a long time in the making. Jan Roelofs emigrated to Germany 47 years ago to find his fortune in the flower wholesale sector. “At that time, the relationship wasn’t close. The Germans called us ‘the Flying Dutchmen’. German growers often sold their own products. Then the Dutch came into the picture, and the early days were difficult. My business was slow to get off the ground in Munich.”
The turnaround in relations is marked by Roelofs’ ten-year stint as chairman of the BGI – the association of the German Flower Wholesale and Import Trade, and the equivalent of the Dutch VGB. ‘Together with the VGB, we invested in improving the partnership between the two countries. We now view one another as colleagues. A great example of this partnership in action is the border region of Herongen-Venlo: all of the companies in this area work together.”
Norbert Engler adds: “We’ve worked with Dutch suppliers ever since EPS was founded. We view the two countries as one big region – a region without any borders.”
Borders may have virtually disappeared – in part due to the rise of computer technology – but what about cultural differences? Germans are known for being punctual and thorough, as well as formal. And in contrast to the calm, matter-of-fact Dutch entrepreneurial nature, Germans can be perceived as almost brutally direct. Is this recognisable in day-to-day business? “Yes, definitely” , says Willem de Groot, who is responsible for export sales to Germany at bulb specialist JUB Holland. “The Germans think we talk too much. But that has a flip side too – you shouldn’t always be the one doing the talking. If you do, your German counterpart will soon come to the conclusion that you’re arrogant.”
Hans van Rijsewijk, commercial director at arboriculture company Van den Berk in Sint-Oedenrode, recognises this observation. “German customers are professional and strict. A German customer will arrive right on time for a meeting. A Belgian customer will be a bit late, and a French customer later still. And while a German customer will always get straight to the point, a British customer will always ask how things are going first.”
‘The Dutch come across as open and friendly people”, says Norbert Engler. “But a Dutch person never loses sight of their commercial interests. If you do business with the Dutch, you need to agree on all aspects of the partnership carefully to make sure that the Dutch party isn’t the only one to benefit. Once you know that, the Dutch make great trading partners.”
‘German buyers have an eye for quality’
The German eye for quality – another manifestation of that well-known reputation for ‘Gründlichkeit’, or thoroughness – is no barrier for top producers such as the Netherlands. Chris Buurman elaborates, “’You can’t say ‘well, that colour looks similar, that’ll do’. The colour has to be exactly as agreed.”
Willem de Groot added, “The Germans are very quality-conscious. We have German customers who demand tulips in size 12+, the largest size available. And there are plenty of other German customers who don’t want bulbs smaller than size 11 or 12.”
Hans van Rijsewijk has seen the recession start to bite on the other side of the border, too. “German customers used to be driven solely by quality. Quality is still important, but they have now been forced to take price into account, too.”
Personal contact is important
The proximity of the two countries and the high quality of the infrastructure that links them also helps to boost the close trading relationship between the Netherlands and Germany. German companies are welcome visitors to events such as the trade fair in Aalsmeer, and Dutch companies cross the border in droves each year for events like the IPM in Essen. Erik Jaap Kroone explained, “We regularly visit Germany, and our German customers like to visit us too. Digital communication is bringing people across the world closer together, but German customers still value personal contact.”
“I’ve just returned from a trip to Sicily,”, said Chris Buurman. “By chance, I visited with a German business partner. We often visit suppliers together. So if you’re looking for a good example of partnership…”