Tom and Vickie van Wingerden left the Netherlands with 5,000 dollars in their pockets in 1972 and set up Metrolina Greenhouses in Huntersville, North Carolina just north of Charlotte. Their children who now manage the operation live by one simple principle: each day do 1% better than the day before. Metrolina yielded annual growth in turnover of 5-6%, thereby evolving into a giant, supplying some of the largest chain stores in the world.
Abe van Wingerden has a few moments for a brief telephone interview. He heads up the firm with his brother Art. Abe is extremely busy with the months of April, May and June accounting for some 60% of the company’s turnover of over 200 million dollars. “We typically have around 800 people on our payroll, but that’s risen to 3,000 now. When it comes to Mother’s Day and spring we have to work our socks off to supply indoor and outdoor plants to our buyers”, he says in an American accent.
As a 2-year-old boy he accompanied his parents to the United States, was educated in the states and first worked for Procter & Gamble. His Dutch has gone to the pot, he says openly. But the firm is run like a true Dutch family. “My brother and I hold 48% of the shares. The rest are held by the other family members. Every morning we drink coffee with our mom Vickie, who lives on the premises, and on Saturdays we have lunch at her place with the whole family. On those occasions there's a mix of both business and home life. Yes, we discuss our business at the same time. I don't know whether somebody from the third generation of Metrolina Greenhouses will take over the management role. But with 18 grandchildren it’s a strong possibility.”
Big, bigger, biggest
He understands the surprise by the Dutch who look at Metrolina. It's big, bigger, biggest. In that typically American way, the company doesn't shy away from showing off its size, its fleet of 250 trucks of its own and 180 trucks leaving the complex loaded with plants on a daily basis. The website boasts that its 72 hectares make it America’s biggest greenhouse complex. Metrolina has a second, nursery site in York, to the west of Charlotte, encompassing 70 hectares for cultivation of outdoor plants.
According to Greenhouse Grower, its production totalling 7.1 million plants last year puts Metrolina Greenhouses in the top 10 largest producers in America. “Our strategy entails us wanting to do better every day, which implies automatic growth in size. We are extending to counterbalance that expansion, not vice versa. What’s more, the eastern United States is big, i.e. the market we’re serving. The benefit for us is that our area of distribution comprises a single market with hundreds of millions of people. Dutch horticulturalists have always had to export, whereas we don’t.” Father Tom, who passed away in 2009, started with Woolworth as his first customer. Now Metrolina Greenhouses has three buyers that are among the largest chain stores in the world in terms of size, including the Fortune 50 companies Lowe’s and Walmart. Every two to three days Metrolina serves the 1,200 stores of these and other retail giants. Abe explains in simple terms that it is also about having a mixture of plants.
Technology is king
How do you explain the success? Without a second thought he repeats the slogan that his father nailed above the door: “An absence of innovation means stagnation: without investment you’re going nowhere.” To work like that we have to invest in improving all processes. Since 1972 we’ve been doing nothing else. Not only are we big, we're also extremely modern: Technology is king these days. Robotics, automation and ICT form the backbone of all processes in the greenhouses. I think that in the future fewer and fewer people will be manning the production lines, and that their work will be taken over by robots. To that end we’re collaborating with highly innovative suppliers from across the globe, Svensson included. It goes without saying that we’re also acquiring knowledge and expertise from the Netherlands. After all, it's still the country where greenhouses were invented.”
Big data factory
However, Metrolina is reliant on two other pillars: data and logistics. “We're a big data factory. All data emanating from our buyers’ stores is used by 15 analysts each day. Here it is decided what will be shipped out to the store the next day. And in turn you need an extremely innovative logistical system for that. Not only are we a producer of plants, but we also take care of the end-to-end process all the way to sales. When it comes to plants we get rid of all the hassle for our buyers. Investments in these three supporting pillars are in fact only possible if you have a long-term strategy in place, as is often the case in family businesses. In a company listed on the stock exchange they’re required to report what those investments have yielded every quarter. We’ve got far more time to do that. Our 10-year plan to 2025 anticipates growth of at least 20%, in which case our profitable turnover would climb to 250 million dollars.”
Finally, Abe has another tip for his colleagues before he disappears back into the huge greenhouse complex. “Dare to see things from the perspective of a marketer. Each year 5% of our sales has to be made up of new items. That gives you something to sell to your buyers and in turn their customers are happier. It’s often the case that Dutch growers stick to the same items for far too long. Moreover, we’re investing in such things as pot concepts like Ready Refill. To this end we use the data emanating from the stores.”