Flamingo Horticulture – A Hardy Perennial

Flamingo Horticulture has come through a major acquisition, some troubling weather, & oh yes, a pandemic. We find out how they managed.

It’s just over a year since we took a look at Flamingo Horticulture, which, coincidentally, was right before Giles Turrell took over as Group Chief Executive of Flamingo International, having previously been Chief Executive of the Weetabix food company.

There’s a lot of similarities,” Turrell points out. “With food brands, you rely on raw materials and in our case if you make Weetabix it relies on wheat, so there are parallels. But with giant rose farms you’re dealing with a living organism that’s growing and subject to vagaries of weather and soil, so learning the basics around that was more important. We’re dealing with a different supply chain when you’re dealing with food business factories in the UK, while here they are in Africa, Kenya and Ethiopia, adding value to their products and distributing them to our customers.”

Part of Turrell’s appointment was to oversee the integration of the AfriFlora business into Flamingo. AfriFlora is headquartered in the Netherlands and owns the largest rose-growing farm in the world, with an impressive 1.2 billion stems.

“My role has been to integrate the two businesses, and they are integrated, sharing best practices, leveraging our combined scale,” Turrell explains. “The other big thing is we’ve won a number of significant tenders, including the Tesco flower tender. We’re well-positioned for growth and to look after our most important customers.”

This integration has been a process of bringing the best out of both companies.

“We made it clear as an exec team we wanted to preserve and protect the things that made the specific businesses great,” Turrell says. “But at the same time bring them together to leverage our scale, share best practice, support each other as we move forward.”

It’s been an eventful year for Flamingo beyond that, however, a year full of unexpected crises and bold new plans.

“We’ve dealt with a number of weather events in Kenya. When I joined, they were coming out of a drought,” Turrell recalls. “Then there was the Indian Ocean Dipole, a depression that sat over Kenya for several weeks causing flooding and the accompanying impact on the crops. It shows the resilience of the business that we’ve come through it.”

Turrell also points out that over the 12 months Flamingo has kicked off a new three-year strategic plan focused on how they grow their core businesses.

“We’ve made progress on our CSR agenda with the goal of being carbon neutral by 2022,” Turrell says. “I’ve learned about a new industry and a new business.”

Customer Focusing

One of the biggest projects Flamingo has been engaged in over the last year has been a real dive into the makeup and motivations of their end-customers- not just the retailers purchasing their products, but the people picking them up in shops.

“I think one of the things I’m really pleased about is the business was always customer-centric, but we’ve taken from different categories how we learn and think about the shopper,” Turrell says. “I think we really understood our customers, retailers such as Tesco, but we needed to understand the shopper.”

This included how they shopped the category and when they were buying.

“Is it as a one-off treat, as part of a weekly shop, were they gifts for birthdays or parties?” Turrell asks. “We were really trying to understand the demographics of those shoppers, understanding when and how they shopped. By understanding the category and the customer and the shopper we can better serve our customers with the right range, quality and innovation. And that’s been at the forefront of our agenda. That was extremely important to us.”

Enduring the Pandemic

However, the behaviour of end customers, and indeed, all of us, has changed drastically over the last few months, and whether businesses thrive and fail has frequently depended on how quickly they have been able to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We had a very clear plan. Whether it was luck or judgement we saw this coming and we got ahead of the game,” Turrell says. “First, protect our people. There’s nothing more important than whether the people in our offices and factories in the UK or our farms are safe. So two weeks before lockdown everyone who could work from home was working from home. We put in place food hygiene standards in all our plants, hand washing, all those types of things were very important, well ahead of official requirements. We put social distancing in place in farms, washing hands, and enforced 50% capacity on our buses so people weren’t sat too close together.”

Once the people were safe the next priority was to look after the farms. As Turrell explains, “The next issue was protecting our farms and making sure whatever happens we looked after our farms even if demand went away. We would farm as if the produce was still required. We want to protect the farm so that on the other side the farm was protected and healthy. Our retailers really saw the importance of ensuring workers were able to continue to work.”

The next, and final challenge was the make sure the books remained balanced throughout the crisis.

“We cut any discretionary expenditure, any capital expenditure, so we could understand how it would play out,” Turrell says. “Because nobody knew, and in many ways, we still don’t know. We’ve always made sure protecting our people was the number one priority, followed by protecting our crop and our balance sheets. We wanted to make sure we had a strong business that would come out the side to keep employing our people.”

When the crisis hit, the immediate impact on Flamingo’s bottom line was alarming, but things are already starting to recover.

“We saw an immediate drop in demand across the whole supply chain, there was panic buying of bread and toilet paper and pasta, and flowers weren’t at the top of the agenda so that consumer behaviour changed in the first four to six weeks,” Turrell remembers. “Bit by bit we’ve seen businesses get back to normal for several reasons. Either direct to the consumer or online purchase of flowers has increased exponentially. People were sending flowers if they couldn’t see mum or dad or granny for her birthday. Retail stores are returning to normal and people are spending more time at home and flowers are a wonderful way to brighten up your home, so things are approaching pre-crisis levels.”

As well as flowers, Flamingo’s food production has also continued unabated.

“Throughout all this production has continued as normal, so the products we grow like a mangetout, sugar snap peas, and tender stem broccoli we’ve been able to keep feeding the nation,” Turrell says proudly. “The future is bright for this business, it’s a great business with a strong team and we have clear priorities.”

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