From working togheter to doing business together.

Josceline Bogaers is a columnist for FoodPersonality. She interviews Fast-Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) managers about their leadership vision, their dreams, and their frustrations. This time she spoke with Perry Dekkers, Commercial Director at Growers United: “In recent years we have evolved as a cooperative, from working together to doing business together.” Read the article below:

How does the Growers United cooperative work?
Growers United is a large producer cooperative of and for fruit vegetable growers. We focus on the sales, marketing, packaging, and quality assurance of the fresh products from all the affiliated members. We are active in four product groups: tomatoes, sweet peppers, aubergines and cucumbers, and we sell our products mainly to European retailers. Our growers are breeders and entrepreneurs with their own businesses. They each have shares in the cooperative and sell all their products through the cooperative. By owning shares in the cooperative, the growers jointly build up value and invest it in developments that further strengthen the cooperative. This cooperation and collaboration between growers began about ten years ago and was born out of a desire to have a greater impact on what happens to their products in the supply chain.

Why did you recently move to a new building?
We used to have four separate packaging facilities, but we have grown rapidly as a cooperative in recent years and have evolved from “working together” to “doing business together”. Furthermore, retail customers are asking for a broad range of vegetables. That lends itself to a “one-stop shopping” design. The separate entities are gradually merging together, and they’re sharing knowledge, labour, food safety, ICT and automation, packaging, varieties and production techniques more and more. In October we moved to a new central packaging facility, and we immediately repositioned the cooperative, with the new name Growers United.

Why were all those changes necessary?
In our club we are very ambitious; we have many progressive growers. We want to be one of Europe’s top three players in high-quality fruit vegetables. The packaging facilities each outgrew their premises, and with a joint product range we are an even stronger partner for our customers. Implementing automation, digitisation and robotisation can now also be done more efficiently; low costs remain important. In terms of both growing and packaging. In addition, the previous name “Coƶperatie DOOR” (DOOR Cooperative) wasn’t very strong. Putting all of that together led to the decision to reposition and rebrand. All parties came together for that surprisingly quickly; the time was right for it. Growers United reflects who we are and what we do: a cooperative of and for growers. Our pay-off shows what we stand for: “good food in good hands”.

Are there some growers who are finding all those changes difficult?
On every team, you’ll find innovative types and people who take things more slowly. The trick is always to explain to everyone what you’re doing and why. Every two weeks, the growers and the management discuss progress and policy, and there are all kinds of committees. This is how we try to stay connected with our members on all subjects. Naturally, it is harder for some to keep up with the pace, but luckily members have a great deal of confidence. The growers are comfortable with the chosen strategy and policy. Currently there are also growers who decided to merge their businesses because they want to look forward to a healthier future together, or because they don’t have a natural successor of their own. It’s great to see that. As a cooperative, we like supporting this kind of initiative.

Do you ever think about expanding the product groups?
The focus remains on our four current groups. In recent years we have been growing in leaps and bounds. The cooperative now contains around 600 hectares of greenhouses, and we have partnerships with growers in Spain and Morocco. And there are joint production areas. In our new three-year strategy, we are once again looking at our core activity: the high-tech cultivation of vegetables, so, growing in greenhouses. It means you can give the plant exactly what it needs.

Not adding courgettes?
That’s a familiar question, but you can’t grow them on a large scale in greenhouses in the Netherlands. Since we mainly supply the food retail market, we need to have large product lines. We are the market leader in tomatoes and aubergines. We make up more than 50% of the Dutch aubergine production market, in fact. Aubergine consumption has grown enormously in recent years. We are now working on increasing the degree of market penetration further.

How do you ensure that more people eat aubergines?
By using aubergine in food service. That way, people get used to eating them, and they start using them at home, too. But we also increase familiarity with them by putting them into meal boxes more often, with joint promotional activities in stores and by offering inspiration online. Furthermore, we work together with food influencers like De Hippe VegetariĆ«r (The Hip Vegetarian). You can actually use aubergines perfectly as a meat substitute, and they’re fabulous on the grill.

What effect did the coronavirus have on your business?
The demand for unprocessed products increased, because people had more time to cook their own meals. And the demand for packaged products really took off, because people were very concerned about hygiene in the beginning. At the time we were actually working on reducing the amount of plastic we use, but that process had to be put on hold for a while. Of course, we continue to look for sustainable alternatives for our packaging.

How actively are you involved in sustainability?
Soon we would like to be going several steps further than most greenhouse horticulture companies. We’ve made a policy plan for that, with three important cornerstones. With “less impact”, we are reducing our energy and water consumption and the amount of crop protection products we use and making them more green. For example, fossil-free heating is already used for 47% of our cultivation area. “Reduce waste” aims to cut down on waste. For example, the use of different or thinner packaging materials, or the reuse waste streams. The third cornerstone is “healthy people”, and it is all about healthy employees, growers, customers, and shoppers.

You have worked at Heineken. How do you look back on that time?
I learned a whole lot from it. Heineken is the Champions League for marketeers, with brilliant marketing and communication. It gave me a fantastic network and I was able to earn an MBA. I would definitely encourage my children to start their career in a corporate setting. And to go abroad. During my studies, I lived in Spain for a year and later travelled a lot for my job. From China and Japan to Columbia and Ecuador. I saw and experienced so many beautiful things there: different cultures, people, customs, history, and international cuisine of course.

How does change affect you?
I love progress and development; I like getting things moving. I’m not the managing type. But movement has to contribute something. That’s why I always ask the question, “why are we doing this?” I’m a perfectionist in that regard; everything can and should be done better. Then you keep your momentum going, and you keep perspective.

Aren’t you too demanding?
I do hear that sometimes, yes. From my team, but also from my wife. It is a trap. I set the bar high, for myself and for others. I don’t choose the path of least resistance. I am less demanding than ten years ago, though. But the fact remains, the leopard can’t change his spots — we are who we are. I allow myself a little less stress and more distance. Maybe that allows me to think differently and more freely. Sometimes I have to be careful not to get too pushy, but I want to keep growing. I get a lot of energy from making an impact.

How do you keep growing, yourself?
I am curious and eager to learn, by nature. I read a lot of books and look at how other people do things. I learn from that. I used to also copy what I saw, or I displayed socially acceptable behaviour. But I have since learned that I have to be true to myself. Soon I am going to start a training program in working systemically, which interests me. I want to know more about how to change people and organisations. Exploring whether people do certain things out of a conviction or from experience, for example. Once you know that, you can really connect and effect change.

Do you work hard?
My kids say I do. The fact that I work hard, allows them to do the things they want to do. But I have also missed things because of that, such as taking the kids to school. When I was still working for a breeding company, I spent a lot of time abroad for several years. Last year I was always at home. I really liked that. I am now a referee at my son’s football club and often go to watch my girls play handball.

What is your guilty pleasure?
Dancing, specifically rock ‘n roll. I used to take part in competitions and demonstrations, and I was a champion in the Dutch province Zuid-Holland. I have a passion for Elvis Presley, I’ve seen all of his films and played his records to death. That flamboyant vibe and those moves… I was born the year that Elvis died, and I sometimes joke that he lives on in me.

Source: interview Josceline Bogaers with Perry Dekkers – People Select