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SK Roses: 'When you're growing roses you need to score maximum points on every detail’

Three fantastic businesses, one prestigious prize. In a series of reports we get to know all three nominees for the Horticulture Entrepreneur Prize 2020. What did it take to get to where they are now? What challenges did they encounter? What is their vision for the future? This is the first report covering SK Roses, where we spoke to entrepreneurs Marc, Bas and Tom Koene.

Growing roses is an intense job. It’s hard work, every day of the year, seven days a week except New Year’s Day, and involves delivering top quality in all areas all the time. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea - and that’s reflected in the fact that the area under cultivation for roses is shrinking every year. 15 years ago there were 1200 hectares of roses; today it’s down to around 150 hectares. But brothers Marc, Bas and Tom Koene of SK Roses are battle-hardened and aren’t afraid of a challenge. Marc and Bas joined their parents’ business in 2016, and Tom joined four years ago.

Together, the three of them are running a pioneering and growing business with innovative entrepreneurship. These are rose growers who optimise everything for their product - from shipping boxes that they have designed themselves to a completely self-designed processing shed - down to the smallest detail.

Every euro earned went back into the business

‘Right from the start our father gave us a lot of freedom and responsibility,’ says Mark. ‘We were allowed to make mistakes. That shaped us, in both good times and bad.’ SK Roses’ original site is on Zwethkade in Wateringen, where the Koene boys’ parents had grown various crops since 1981. Those crops all yielded too little money, so the switch was made to roses in 1993. They started this new adventure planting directly in the soil and without lighting. After a few years they bought a neighbour’s greenhouse. Things developed steadily, and every euro earned went back into the business. Lighting, a heat and power plant, a new greenhouse: only then could the best quality be guaranteed, which was something that their parents always strove for. Not to be the biggest grower, but the grower who constantly seeks to deliver the best quality.

Two extra hectares were acquired on Scheeweg in De Lier a year after Marc and Bas joined the business. The white Avalanche+ rose was planted at both locations. And that made the business a success. ‘Even in 2011, in the midst of the financial crisis, demand for our Avalanche+ continued to grow,’ recounts Marc enthusiastically.

Setbacks make you stronger

The old greenhouse on Zwethkade was made higher in 2015 and given a better climate, with a new workspace and modern lighting. ‘After six months the plants developed a quarantine disease. We had to replace the entire crop,’ says Marc. ‘That was quite a setback, but we were all of one mind. We firmly believe that things like that make you stronger.  

‘Not long after that, in 2016, we were no longer able to supply enough Avalanche+ to our customers. There was too much demand and we did not have enough stock. We also wanted an advanced processing system, so we set out to find a new site,’ continues Tom. ‘We looked at many sites, including in Pijnacker and Bleiswijk, but they didn’t fit with who we are as a business. Ultimately we were able to buy this site on Noord Lierweg in De Lier after some intensive negotiation. Exactly midway between the two other sites.’

Designing their own processing shed

The reason for a large processing shed was to meet our customers’ needs. 'Customers wanted morning orders with roses from two sites where there were two small machines,’ explains Tom. ‘That's not efficient. At the new site we have two large processing machines with a total of 57 stations, whereby we can set each station to our customer’s needs and requirements.’ Bas adds: ‘You now have all the sales for one customer at one location, with one quality manager. That means our process is much more streamlined.’

‘Building a new processing system is not something you can do overnight,’ explains Tom. ‘It’s a complex processing system that has been fully designed by Tom, who is very good with 2D and 3D CAD software. He thereby worked with Marc and Bas to constantly consider what the perfect finished product should look like.’  ‘Oh man,’ says Marc, remembering that time. ‘We were drawing every evening, constantly making changes. We really thought about everything in order to create the ideal process.’

‘The roses are cooled on site,’ explains Tom. ‘When the roses enter the shed they go straight into the cold store, to which they return again within twenty minutes after processing thanks to our internal transport system. This enables us to maximise the freshness of the product.’ Bas nods. ‘You won't find a transport system like it anywhere else in the rose business,’ he adds.

Vibration dampers

How much of an all-rounder can a grower be? Not only are the three brothers continuing a tradition of hard work and smart investment, but they are even able to come up with a unique processing system and the technical design for it themselves. “Did you know that every one of our water containers has vibration dampers?’ says Marc. ‘White roses are easily damaged, so you need to take account of that in your transportation. Tom, tell them how we dealt with that.’ ‘We started by testing simple containers,’ Tom adds straightaway. ‘We placed those on the truck and compared them to the current process. Constantly checking how many damaged roses they cause. Travelling in the cargo space, seeing what happens to the roses. That way we constantly improved our container, with special bespoke partitions for example.’ 

‘In the end we fitted special vibration dampers under the containers so that the quality of the roses is also safeguarded during transportation.’ In the end we saw that the number of damaged roses was less than with our old way of working.

Maximum score

SK Roses has the opportunity to build on another three hectares behind its existing site. A new, larger shed with a large cooling system is what’s needed. Tom has also produce all the plans for this, to which Marc and Bas have contributed. ‘The way in which the roses will then move through the new shed is more efficient and we can process more, which is necessary because we will also have more hectares under cultivation.’ 

‘You can only survive in the rose business if you are the most fully-rounded business,’ concludes Marc with passion. ‘You need to achieve a maximum score on every detail. Then you’ll have a fabulous crop. We see ourselves as a pioneering business that acts as a role model. We’re going to be building a shop for the public here in January, which will also enable us to tell the story of our vision of rose-growing.’

‘The Horticulture Entrepreneur Prize would not only be massive reward for the work that we have done up to now, but also a boost to help us tell that story on a larger scale.’