Interview - Graham Spencer, founder, Plants for Europe

Graham Spencer established Plants for Europe in 2003. It is now a leading independent plant breeders' agent serving the European market and has breeders in other markets including North America, Eastern Europe and the Far East.

Graham Spencer, founder, Plants for Europe - image: HW
Graham Spencer, founder, Plants for Europe - image: HW

How did you start out in the horticulture business?

I went straight from school to work at Croftway Nursery, a specialist perennial grower run by my parents. They started making retiring noises and asked me whether I wanted to take over, and I said no thank you. I was keen to have weekends and of course a lot of the work in retail happens at weekends. I did a postgraduate diploma in marketing at night school. I had no grand plan at all.

What support did you have starting Plants for Europe?

I was lucky that I had the support of some respected plant breeders from the outset. Mike Tristram of Binsted Nursery, his father David at Walberton Nursery and Martine Tell­wright at Fleurie Nursery were all friends and neighbours from my time at Croftway. They offered me the chance to represent their varieties and this was a tremendous boost.

How has the business grown since then?

It has attracted more customers from other markets around the world and now covers a wide range of plants. The business has grown substantially since we started. Turnover last year was 20 per cent up on 2011. Growth has come from new varieties and we're not reliant on the UK market alone. Twenty per cent of our business is in the UK and the rest on the continent and elsewhere. My wife recently joined the company, which shows how it's growing.

Are there many companies doing the same thing?

There are two or three similar firms in the UK and about eight in the EU, with not many worldwide. Breeding is a small business and it is quite secretive, so you don't know what everyone is doing.

How important are new plants for the industry?

The appetite among growers for new varieties is huge. It gives them something different from competitors. Some are growing the same things they have for years, and it is those who are not doing so well. Those with new things are doing better. On the breeding side, there is a huge amount of work to do. Breeders need to understand what the trade wants rather than breeding on an ad hoc "this is fun" basis.

Do different parts of the supply chain work together?

Not enough. People further up the chain don't understand what people want to buy. They'll produce a new blue petunia, which is fine, but can we solve the problem with other things too? That thought process needs to be gone through.

What are the big breeding developments at the moment?

People are looking for things that flower early. There is not a great deal that's looking colourful early in the year. There's a ready market there and that's one area for breeders to look at. Also, the steady improvement of varieties has transformed plants. If you compare plants in 2013 with the 2011 varieties, there is not much difference. But if you compare them with plants from the 1990s, the difference is enormous. It's about improving the product and rewarding breeders so garden centres and landscapers have a better product.

What are the major issues for the industry?

There are issues over respect for breeders' rights. It is better now than it was a few years ago, when people would just take a variety and ignore the rights. Growers have realised they gain more by working with breeders. Also, plant health. We have to keep pests and diseases out and be sure plants are good before we ship them around and outside Europe.

Does infringement of plant breeders' rights happen a lot?

It goes on at two levels. There is large-scale infringement, which you don't generally find in the UK. You find some growers in the south of Europe shipping products for low prices. It's difficult to police but if a lot of plants appear my licensed growers tell me pretty quick that they're on sale for a lower price than they should be. It also happens on a small scale, with people propagating a small number of plants. It's not a victimless crime. The industry is getting better at preventing it.

What are your plans for Plants for Europe going forward?

We're going to continue what we're doing, with expansion in some areas. We're working on promoting the portfolio we already have, putting our breeders in touch with young-plant producers. Also, we've begun trials that have already started bearing fruit. As well as our core markets, we'll try to expand our work in North America and Eastern Europe — in the EU and outside.

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