FitzGerald Nurseries in Ireland have received awards and accolades for innovation, and their growth and success is evidence that this recognition is well placed. But what is it about the business that is innovative?
Pat FitzGerald, founder and managing director, confesses that he gets personal enjoyment from involvement in plant breeding, particularly the EverColor® range, but that it takes more than new products to be innovative. “Winning the All-Ireland Business Innovation Award in 2011”, says Pat, “made us think, well, yes, we do do things differently.” Significant changes to production systems run as parallel innovations to new product development.
Expanding their production systems into micro-propagation in 2005 enabled FitzGerald Nurseries to rapidly build up new lines. Although there does need to be a variety-by-variety approach to setting up systems, micro-propagation certainly contributed to expansion of international sales. FitzGerald Nurseries now supplies more than 26 countries.
Another significant change to their production systems was made in 2017, just over a decade later. FitzGerald Nurseries implemented a strategy of strict quarantine measures. No plants except mother plants for new varieties are now brought into the nursery. This strategy takes advantage of their isolation from main production regions to enable confident supply of plants to countries with stringent controls, particularly USA and Japan, expanding their customer base even further.
Innovation in business practice is not without risk. Fitzgerald Nurseries manages this risk through patience and attention to detail. Cordyline ‘Charlie Boy’ is a good example of this. From as early as 2006 there was no doubt in Pat’s mind that Charlie Boy was a superior cultivar. It was only in 2017, though, that the nursery managed to have success with production volume. The real challenge with this dedication to innovation is in finding ways to recoup the investment of time and resources. Plant Breeders Rights are an essential part of this, but so is careful pitching of price and volumes to markets hungry for new lines.
How do FitzGerald Nurseries determine what the market wants as new products? Although trade fairs, consumer shows and design trends showcased in popular and trade magazines are good ways to find out other people’s ideas, it is not the way to be original. “Too much attention is given to copying what others do”, says Pat. He believes that general knowledge of societal challenges and demands is the most important consideration. Many of the new products from FitzGerald Nurseries are suitable for living walls and green roofs, as well as for indoor container design. “The reality is that cities are expanding, living spaces are becoming more compact, and the growing realisation of the contribution that plants make to people’s health and well being must mean that demand for plants will increase”, explains Pat.
And responding to the growing interest in urban farming, FitzGerald Nurseries are expanding into food crops with the company Beotanics. “Beo in Gaelic means life or live”, explains Pat. “Our work focus through this initiative is to respond to trends in consumer needs, not trends in fashion. As an industry we have become a bit lazy in delivering truly valuable plants to the consumer”. Early indications are that these innovative food crops are of value to society. How will society respond? “Call back in 2019”, Pat smiles!
Author: By Dr Audrey Gerber