Around 60 British Protected Ornamentals Association (BPOA) members have visited Neame Lea Nurseries in Lincolnshire. The BPOA group, which came from as far afield as Jersey and Cumbria, saw new glass from Kees Greeve covering 40,000sq m.
The turnkey project is due for completion by the end of the year. Managing director David Ball said using more automation in the new glasshouses and production areas will help to offset National Living Wage (NLW) rises, which he said would increase Neame Lea's wage bill by 15 per cent - or £400,000.
"The NLW will have a big effect. That's why automation is key," he said. "We have to look at cutting labour costs. Instead of transporting trolleys around we'll use conveyors from the glasshouse to the packhouse." He plans to add biogas to biomass too. Ball said flexibility is important because if the bedding market declines, automation must be adaptable for other crops, such as herbs.
Floris Berghout from Kees Greeve said Neame Lea was having an integrated scheme incorporating irrigation, the glasshouse structure, control logistics, screens, heating, overhead stackers to move benches for cleaning and climate computers. The Dutch supplier is also doing projects for VHB, Lovania, Vitacress and Pinetops. He said: "If you can save more than it costs, go for automation. If you have cheap labour, don't." With wages at EUR16 an hour, the Dutch automated, and Australia should too with wages at $22 per hour, he added.
Managing director David Ball joined the business in 2007. His parents, Tony and Jayne Ball, set up in 1988 as Bridge Farm Nurseries. They bought Neame Lea, which was set up by the late Malcolm Barney 35 years ago, in 2010. Since becoming managing director in 2012, David Ball has driven expansion, automation to combat wage rises, and general efficiency at the nursery. Neame Lea supplies Asda via IPL, Waitrose and Tesco with bedding plants.
Latest Defra figures showed glasshouse space in the UK fell by 8.6 per cent last year and that gave "a huge amount of opportunity", said Ball. The company has moved from £1m turnover in 2012 to £18m in 2015 and from three acres of glass to 42 acres, having spent up to £10m on developments.
Ball wants to move back into herbs and to start growing cut flowers such as tulips and lilies in the future to give the business more flexibility. Neame Lea sold its shares in JVG Herbs business in 2014.
The BPOA tour of Neame Lea attracted 60 growers, keen to see how one of the more dynamic growers in the business is expanding. Ball spoke of how Neame Lea adapted to changing retail environments, with 2012's bedding sales disaster leading to a serious look at costs and wastage. "I looked at it and realised we couldn't carry on doing what we were doing or we were going to go bust," he said, adding that he made the "whole business focused on cost".
After doing 75 per cent of business with Asda, Neame Lea took on Tesco in 2014. Ball, who has introduced packing and cold store facilities to provide a fuller service for supermarkets, said: "All customers want to pay the price where you can earn money but don't want to pay for a price where you're being inefficient." He added that taking on Tesco was "one of the best decisions we made as a business. We need to have a number of customers to get economies of scale."
With the market consolidating, Ball sees opportunities with Lincsflora leaving the UK market and more cut flowers coming in from overseas - he wants to grow cut flowers. "If you're going to grow as a business, you need to offer a service." He said wholesalers bring "too many links in the chain". Neame Lea has won an IPL supplier of the year award and now supplies 7,000 pallets over Mother's Day weekend.