Production: Innovator fights back

Can a big range of niche products compete with mass produced imports? Kennock Park Plants is showing precisely how it can, says Jack Sidders.

Kernock Park Plants: range includes Agapanthus, Astelia, Choisya, Cordyline and Phormium. Image: KPP
Kernock Park Plants: range includes Agapanthus, Astelia, Choisya, Cordyline and Phormium. Image: KPP

It has been a fantastic year for British growers. The weather, the downturn and the exchange rate have combined to create booming plant sales that left many nurseries completely sold out.

On top of that, the weak pound has made Holland's plants 25% more expensive. But nobody is predicting the demise of Dutch imports just yet. Their highly automated and very efficient businesses spawn massive volumes of cheap plants.

This approach is widely seen as the future for horticulture across Europe, much to the chagrin of the traditional British family nursery. It is often said that to compete, these companies must reduce their ranges and drive for greater efficiency.

Though this logic appears irrefutable, some companies are now fighting back. One such innovator is Kernock Park Plants (KPP), whose vast range flies in the face of the giant Dutch monocroppers.

"We have moved away from some of our traditional products and into other areas where we think we can nip in around the big boys' heels and find some niche markets," explains KPP business development manager Mark Taylor. "We try to be ahead of the game as much as possible, but admittedly it is not always that easy."

He draws a Venn diagram to illustrate the point, with hardy nursery stock on one side and bedding on the other. Taylor says KPP fits somewhere in between but has increasingly been moving towards the hardy nursery side. As its range increases, it is holding less and less mother stock and buying in more and more plants.

"The small batches are probably our strength and our weakness because they are difficult to manage but at the same time allow us to be more flexible," he observes. "We have a balancing act between economy and productivity."

One reasons for the shift to hardy nursery stock has been the company's acquisition of 90 lines from Hewton Nursery, which closed in October 2008. Taylor claims that it has made KPP the country's biggest supplier of plugs, at least for the time being. The products include Agapanthus, Astelia, Choisya, Cordyline and Phormium.

KPP managing director Bruce Harnett says the deal has helped the firm to expand its exports by taking on some of Hewton's former customers. "It tags on well to our strategy of going away from our core business to something that is a little bit different to propagate," he explains. "It has been quite a steep learning curve and it has shifted us towards nursery stock, not to say that was intentional."

Taylor notes that the nursery stock move is partly customer led, driven by demand from landscapers. During the 1990s, the company was well known as a supplier of carpet bedding products to local authorities. Despite an increasing tendency to move away from bedding, it has found more of the niche products in which it takes pride that have allowed for continuing public sector sales.

Using computer technology, KPP has developed a range called "InstaPlant", which offers bespoke carpet bedding designs that can replicate 2D and 3D images. As well as providing an opportunity for prestigious installations such as the 600sq m design the firm showed in Trafalgar Square, Harnett believes that it complements its business model.

"It fits in very well with our production cycle," he points out. "It comes in at week 16, when there is a gap in what we normally do, and it goes on until about week 26 or 27, so it fills that up quite nicely."

It is indicative of the sort of niche product Harnett and Taylor are looking for — it fits well with what they are doing and allows them to add considerable value to what is otherwise a high-cost, low-profit product.

But not all of the firm's experiments have been such resounding successes. KPP won the rights to sell the "botanic find of the century", the Wollemi Pine, back in 2005. Endorsed by Kew and generating a mass of publicity, the ancient pine seemed a guaranteed cash cow for the Cornish company.

Four years on and it still holds large stocks of Wollemi and has lowered the price from £70 to £59.99. But Taylor says the experience has been extremely valuable and the publicity it generated has helped raise KPP's profile and put it in touch with many more garden centre buyers.

"The Wollemi has been successful, though we did perhaps buy in a little too many," he admits. "In its category as a conifer it has been the best seller excluding Christmas trees. But apart from anything else, it has been a great marketing exercise for us."

As well as introducing the company to a wider audience, it forced KPP to re-evaluate its web presence. A separate website was developed to sell the pine and the knowledge gained through the experience has led to the introduction of another website for its other ranges.

"The catalogue is still very important but the web is becoming more important now," Taylor confirms. "Obviously, that is the way things are going and we are keen to keep ahead of those developments."

The firm has regularly been at the forefront of innovation since it was founded by Bruce's father Richard Harnett in 1975. The semi-retired founder is widely credited with coining the term "patio plants" when he introduced a range under the same name in 1986. Patio plants are still extremely important to KPP, which sources many of its most exciting new products through its membership of Proven Winners.

The brand originated in the US and there are now nine European growers pooling their knowledge about propagation, distribution and marketing. The European group meets three times a year, with the key meeting to select new varieties in April or May. It was through Proven Winners that KPP was able to secure the deal for Wollemi Pine, but Harnett says he would like to see the group doing more to promote itself.

In America the brand is highly recognised and trusted. But a tendency for larger European retailers to promote their own brands makes it difficult to achieve the same recognition here. It is something that Taylor is determined to work on.

"Proven Winners isn't as high-profile as it should be and there is a consensus that it should be a recognisable brand," he says. "It's a question of whether it should be known by the grower or the end consumer. I don't think there is any chance of us getting it in Wyevale, for example, but I do want it to be known by our grower customers."

Another area where KPP has successfully adapted technology is integrated pest management (IPM). "We have totally integrated pest management, using about 20 different things from lacewings to nematodes," says Taylor.

"We have been doing it now for about five or six years and it is getting better and better each year. There is a better understanding of IPM now but it is a lot about training staff and getting them to tell you about outbreaks of pests and disease."

He adds: "Having about 50 per cent of our own mother stock limits our risk of introducing too many pests. But because we bring in some stock from warmer climates, we have to be extremely careful that it is clean."

The company is also innovative in its heating methods, using a massive wood burner to heat its 30,000sq ft (2,800sq m) under glass. Installed in 2006, the system required some tinkering, but Harnett says he is now very happy with the result. It uses 20 tonnes of wood per day during winter and about 4,000 tonnes per year.

Though at first glance it may not appear very environmentally friendly, the wood is ethically sourced and the firm is working towards carbon neutrality. But it still relies on the use of peat to some extent.

"We find that you can't get the same results with plugs if you don't use peat," says Taylor. "It is still the best product available. They take better if you have it so we still need a percentage of it."

Looking ahead to next year, there is much reason for the young plant grower to be optimistic. It has more than 100 new varieties in its 2010 catalogue and pre-season orders are already up on last year.

A formidable amount of planning goes into producing 1,200 lines, around 60 per cent of which come from cuttings on the KPP nursery. Harnett says he is determined to inject as much precision as possible into the process, aiming for a day when they know the exact week that stock will be available.

But he remains confident that KPP can continue to improve its methods by following what could be Harnett's company motto: "We are always looking to diversify to stay ahead of the game." So the firm may not be going Dutch, but few would argue that it is not going forward.

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