Horticulture Week interview: Carolyn Whetman, managing director, Whetman Pinks

Last week's budget was studied with the level of scrutiny only an election and economic uncertainty can bring. But few people in horticulture are likely to have analysed it in as much depth as Carolyn Whetman.

Carolyn Whetman Image: Whetman Pinks
Carolyn Whetman Image: Whetman Pinks

It is six years since she took the helm of the family business. Since then she has overseen an impressive expansion in the company's overseas activities. "We have got to the stage where 50 per cent of our top 20 customers are export," Whetman explains. "That's how significant it is to us."

It would be easy to assume this is down to the sorry state of Sterling - indeed, Whetman acknowledges it has played a role. But she is adamant that launching into foreign markets on the back of favourable currency fluctuations is no get-rich-quick scheme.

"We are plant growers and plant breeders, we are not gamblers. But the exchange rate has been in our favour and that has helped sales. It isn't a quick fix because you have to build up trust. As far as pinks are concerned, foreign customers didn't even know what they were. But we have been absolutely thrilled with the result even though it has taken a long time."

So what exactly can growers learn from her experience and would she encourage others to give it a go? "The British grower can be very narrow minded and they can have tunnel vision," she says. "They laugh at us in Europe because we are so scared of doing it. But I have always wanted to encourage people to be brave. I have been lucky - and I speak French."

Indeed, learning a language, or at least making some attempt to speak in the local tongue, is among her top tips and a large part of the company's success, according to Whetman.

"Obviously the language is hugely important so even if you can't speak fluently its important to make some effort. We have a French plant breeder so that has helped hugely and we have a German, a Polish and a Spanish speaker, so that helps."

Relationships, she says, are equally important. "Relationship-building is the key, it's every bit as important as with UK customers so that takes travel. Its easy to see customers at trade shows but you don't have time to do it justice."

Extensive travel is now part and parcel of her job as the company has operations all over the world. The next major trip will take her east to develop business in Japan and Whetman admits that she is anxious about how well she will be understood.

"Learning how to trade and understand foreign business practices and the way of doing business is so important. Even in Europe you can't just lump everyone under one umbrella. There are a lot of differences there."

But it has not held her back and the business is growing its operations from America to Australia. "David Austin has been a real role model in the way it has spread the brand world-wide," she explains.

"America is now a huge business for us. Our exports to Australia and New Zealand are growing exponentially as well even though it's a small demographic, so the growth projections are very good for us."

Like most export pioneers though, Whetman acknowledges a huge part of her success is down to the product, hence the reason it can take years to develop overseas business as customers must acclimatise to unfamiliar plants.

"The plant has proved itself over a 10-year period," she says. "In Poland they have survived at temperatures down to -24 degsC and that's a hell of a recommendation. We have numerous varieties of all different shapes and sizes so we can meet a lot of different markets, so we are fortunate."

A key development for Whetman Pinks was the appointment of licensees in Europe, which helped cut down on transport costs, which Whetman says is a key barrier to UK exporters.

"Transport is so expensive. We were losing sales because of the cost. I believe UK growers could export a lot more if there was co-operation between seller and customer on transport. Co-operation would be the cheapest way of getting product across the water but it's very difficult because everybody is selling their stuff at different times of year. We are fortunate because we sell rooted cuttings so we are able to get enough on a trolley to make it worthwhile."

Another pitfall for exporters can be ensuring payments. "The relationship element is key here because you don't want to end up with bad debts. We had one problem and understanding French lawyers' letters is no joke. You rely on gossip in this industry to tell you things are going to go wrong."

Finally, she plugs the Commercial Horticulture Association (CHA) for its work in helping exporters. "We have cancelled our membership of the HTA because the CHA is the one that does it for us," she explains. "That is how we are able to go to Japan - there are grants available to help you export. It is absolutely brilliant in terms of getting you to there and holding your hand."

CV


1970: Studied as bilingual secretary and ad hoc interpreter
1974: Started professional career on north Devon market stalls
1979: Joined HR Whetman & Son
1981: Partner, HR Whetman & Son
1997: Took over Whetman Pinks
1999: Initiated spoken French course for management
2002: Governor, Bicton College
2004: Managing director, Whetman Pinks
2006: Initiated LEAN production and management protocols
2008: Committee, Commercial Horticulture Association
2010: Committee, RHS Pinks and Carnations


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