Germany gives lessons in innovation

Tim Edwards reports back from the European Nurserymen's Association summer meeting in Bad Zwischenahn.

European Nurserymen's Association (ENA) summer meetings are always enjoyable. A session to discuss the business of the day is built into a programme of visits to local nurseries, places of interest and a programme of dinners and drinks designed to promote discussion and friendship. This year's meeting was organised by BdB, the German Trade Association, hosted by Jan-Dieter Bruns, and it gave us all a chance to marvel at German horticulture.

The German hardy plant market, at EUR2.2bn (£1.75bn), is the largest in Europe, but it's not just the scale that's impressive - it's the quality of stock demanded by this sophisticated market. Bruns, whose nursery is probably the largest in Europe, is proud to tell you that he, his father and his grand father have all concentrated on producing quality plants: the implication is that if you do that in Germany, inevitably you become massive.

I'm not sure it's the same in the UK - how many clients are really interested in quality if there's something cheaper on offer? Perhaps it was this German mentality that drove engineering standards ever higher at Mercedes, BMW and Porsche while the UK mindset spiralled downwards until it reached British Leyland and the Reliant Robin.

Seventeen years ago, at the time of German reunification, there was a golden age in German horticulture - tree prices were perhaps twice what they are now and yet costs were dramatically lower. The Bruns Nursery employed around 240 staff at that time and life was good.

The market in Germany has been difficult since then but the company has reinvented itself. Quality is still paramount but costs are well-controlled, labour is used sparingly and mechanisation is everywhere.

Before reunification the company operated from 10 autonomous sites, now from just four. At times during the past 17 years, staff numbers had dipped to 200 but, even with the increased use of machinery, the nursery now employs 300 staff.

Looking east

Before reunification Bruns concentrated on the home market. These days 40 per cent of turnover goes to export and the sales team will seek out a worthwhile job anywhere in Europe; increasingly that means Russia and the East.

In 1990 Bruns visited Russia and spoke at a conference. Several years, and many glasses of vodka, later he got his first order. These days Russia is the most exciting market for the company.

Bruns seeks innovation and inspiration in what might seem unlikely places. We visited a shipyard - which is currently building the largest dry dock in the world - and were told how it, too, had reinvented itself. One ship we saw, carrying a price tag of EUR500m (£397m), will be delivered in August.

The shipyard works on "just in time" production management (only one day's supply of steel is carried at any one time) and the day of delivery is given accurately at the time an order is placed. This seemed incredible to many other Europeans in our party, which probably suggests the infrastructure in Germany works better than in the rest of Europe.

Bruns was clearly familiar with the company - managers from the two firms have exchanged visits and ideas over the years - and you can tell that he has learnt much from outside the world of horticulture.

German market conditions

The German market felt healthy to me. There's talk of a slowdown in the economy, of fewer houses being built, but there's still considerable optimism. And that was reassuring to all in our party. The German market is so big, it influences all of us. The Dutch export EUR70m (£55.6m) to Germany - 25 per cent of their exports. While the Dutch, and the rest of Europe, are excited by possibilities in Germany (and the former Eastern Bloc), they are less inclined to compete in the UK.

And then, of course, there's the euro. The UK is not the only European state not using the euro, but the Danish krone is formally linked to it and Switzerland follows the European economy so closely that the Swiss franc might as well be.

The UK alone has seen a dramatic weakening of its currency against the euro. This makes European plants much more expensive now than they were just a few months ago, and again concentrates European growers on European markets.

I saw some very impressive nurseries in Germany and was encouraged by the health of the market. I should have come away feeling pretty good - and I would have done, but for one thing.

As I tentatively eased a thumb between the tough, inedible skin and the oily, tender flesh of the evening's first smoked eel, one long-standing delegate told me that David Clark, during the last ENA visit to Bad Zwischenahn more than a decade ago, had managed to eat three of the things. And there was a note of challenge in his voice. Thanks to a man in local dress being excessively liberal with the Schnapps my confidence grew, until I put the filleted remains of a fifth slippery monster on my plate. I may not recover for weeks, but how many nurserymen can eat more smoked eels than David Clark?

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