Horticulture courses through Adam Ferjani’s veins. It is, he insists, his professional lifeblood and that of the industry. "This industry is our lifeblood and we have to support excellence," explains the communications manager for professional horticulture and speciality agriculture at ICL UK & Ireland. His company is one of the biggest names in the sector and reflects its wide reach and diversity.
ICL products range from fertilisers, plant-protection products and growing media to wetting agents and bio-stimulants used by customers on their golf courses, sports fields, public green spaces, ornamental plant nurseries and farms.
"As a credible horticulture business that invests in science, research and development, we do everything we can to sustain excellence, not just through our products but by promoting and encouraging technical ability by supporting industry awards through sponsorship and judging."
As a communications manager, Ferjani heads up all front-line liaison with growers and others in the horticulture industry. It is his job to make sure ICL is known to be at the forefront of all of its specialist areas in horticulture, especially ornamental plants. This has nothing to do with spin and everything to do with performance and results.
"We don’t blow our own trumpet but quietly work year in, year out, with customers, helping them grow plants better and sell them on," he says. "Success on the field, trial bed or wherever, that is our greatest achievement. It is all about our customers and how they perform."
Those customers include the multiple award-winning David Austin Roses and Thompson & Morgan, which scooped gold at this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show. Like David Austin Roses and Thompson & Morgan, Ferjani’s company has grown and evolved, and is connected to some of the biggest names in horticulture including Levington, Fisons and Scotts.
When Levington launched to the professional horticulture market in June 1966, what it had to offer soon became a revelation in the way plants were grown and retailed. Levington Compost was well formulated, light, easy to handle, sterile, consistent and supplied in heat-sealed bags. In 1997, Levington became Scotts Professional, which three years later was taken over by ICL.
Good news, positive vibes and excellent publicity, be it through the kind of business expansion enjoyed by ICL, Chelsea Flower Show or iconic names such as David Austin, however, can have trouble rippling beyond the professional confines of horticulture, says Ferjani.
This is a particularly sensitive issue for a sector that sometimes does itself few favours, he suggests. When Ferjani went to sign up for an RHS course that he had seen in a college prospectus a few years ago, he was told the course had been cancelled — only one person had applied in two years. This is partly an image problem but also due to a lack of career emphasis in secondary schools, he believes.
"We can do ourselves down and the sector is often seen as a place of last resort. We need to change perceptions at primary and secondary school level and drive home what a great career horticulture can be. We need technical, scientific, thinking people — people who can grapple with complex but fascinating issues such as plant biometrics and the chemical composition of soils."
For this reason, industry awards are an absolute must, he says, scoping out entries to the Horticulture Week Business Awards 2018. Ferjani is astonished at the creative and innovative flair demonstrated by this year’s entries, not just the winners. Reaching the finals is an amazing achievement because choosing them was one of the hardest tasks for the judging panel.
"Well done for getting this far. You were up against strong competition," he points out. "It’s an achievement for peers and industry leaders to have judged you such a high achiever. And bad luck to all those who just missed the final cut this time, but take heart. This is one of the toughest awards competitions across all sectors and you have everything to play for next year."
Ferjani adds: "If we can help, we will gladly do so through advice, because the more we support the industry and share best practice, the better it is for us all." This is no idle promise of help. ICL UK & Ireland has built up a reputation for working with customers long term to hone growing-media mixes, talk them through bio-stimulant ranges and spell out the implications of integrated pest management. Unlike some companies, says Ferjani, ICL will not just sell you a product and say "off you go". It is even looking at launching an ICL academy.
"We want to add value and build partnerships with customers. It leads to better relationships with growers, better end products and good results in the field. But we can only do this if we have the right people — and we do. All our people are fully qualified and undergo continuing professional development to keep up to speed in this fast-changing sector. The advice they give is not just right but the best, and we need to identify more of these people through initiatives like industry awards."