‘An additional five years are needed for things to settle down in some new direction’

Anthony Tesselaar in his trial gardens in his hometown Silvan – approximately 50km east of Melbourne.

Anthony Tesselaar International’s market introductions have been highly successful. The Australian plant breeder’s agent is perhaps best known for the multiple award-winning landscape Flower Carpet rose series, the Canna Tropicanna series, the fountain-like shaped Festival Cordylines and, more recently, the compact and highly scented Daphne Perfume Princess, and the compact and profusely flowering evergreen Fairy Magnolia, all of which are grown by commercial plant nurseries worldwide.

Immigration is a vital part of Australia’s history and national identity. The story is no different for Anthony Tesselaar, a reputable plantsman and plant breeder’s agent from Greater Melbourne.

Immigration also shaped his family’s history, with previous generations of Tesselaar originating from Beverwijk in Noord Holland. His parents, Cornelis and Johanna Tesselaar happened to be on the last migrant liner that left the port of Rotterdam in 1939, a few weeks before the outbreak of the Second World War.

The couple brought some gladioli corms and grew them during the War Years for cut flowers, sold on the Melbourne flower market. After the war, they primarily began importing bulbs from Holland, acting as agents for Grullemans. Later, the Tesselaars added two existing daffodil farms in Victoria, which had been growing bulbs since 1880 on 80 hectares of land. Ultimately, the focus was on dry bulbs for wholesalers and pre-packaged bulbs for major retail chains and mail orders. At the same time, the Tesselaar family expanded their cut flower operation, which evolved into a wholesale cut flower distribution hub in the 1980s, with 323 growers feeding into the system. Flowers were picked up in the morning and brought to the Tesselaar distribution centre to be packed and shipped to shops the same night.

Born in 1947 in Australia, Anthony grew up in the intersection of two worlds, metaphorically speaking with his feet in wooden shoes and a friendly Crocodile Dundee hat on his head. He has a genuinely Aussie accent that is easily recognised by its diphthongs, while he occasionally uses some Dutch vocabulary.

Living life to the full and travelling the globe

It is unknown if Anthony is familiar with the typically Dutch proverb ‘to sit behind the geraniums’, meaning ‘to be inside the house, leading an inactive life, usually because of an elder age’. But we acknowledge that post-pandemically speaking, life at 76 for Anthony and his wife Sheryl is far from lethargic. The couple is lucky to have beautiful scenery all around their hometown Silvan – situated approximately 50km east of Melbourne. They are the first to agree that nearby landmarks such as Lake Silvan Reservoir and Mt Dandenong invite them to relax and sit back. Yet, they are still happy to live full professional lives, travel the world to find new and distinctively different plants, and maintain many long-term business relationships.

Anthony comments on the current state of the ornamental plant trade, “In the past few months, we have been travelling in all the markets we operate in, Australia, New Zealand, North America, Europe, and Africa (South Africa). In catching up with breeders and commercial growers, some patterns stood out. The industry did super well in ‘20 and ’21 and gave green professionals much hope. In 2022, many people thought this would never end and planted more out than the best year in ’21. But as travel opened again, people just wanted to get away, and gardening was no longer the only thing to keep one busy. The same year marked an oversupply with many buyers cutting orders in May-July, which caused much angst within the industry.”

The majority of growers now are all being very cautious. Anthony adds, “Interest rates, staff shortages, higher logistic costs. And Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine greatly impacts holding this positiveness going forward.”

Sales in many markets are down, creating even more caution in the future. “Many existing business models will have to change. At the moment, those who have been running very tight with the banks will be facing tougher decisions. I think an additional five years are needed for things to settle down in some new direction. Some will make good and profitable decisions during this time; others will have difficult decisions to make. Indeed, greening the planet is here to stay, so compared to many other industries, we are in an advantageous position. Yet, outside influences are strong; the industry faces greater scrutiny from environmentalists and the government. We represent a green industry, but the green pressure against our plastic containers is strong. Many of these minor influences are all coming together much quicker than at any other time. So, we must understand costs and be prepared to adapt to a changing environment.”

Canna Tropicanna.

Embracing change with a purpose

Anthony has been preaching about embracing ‘change with a purpose’ throughout his professional career since he joined his parent’s Tesselaar family business in 1965, still in his teenage years.
He recalls, “I strongly advocate for more efficiency, better genetics, and change to adapt to the marketplace. While President of Australia’s Nursery Association in the 1980s, growers always complained about insufficient profit margins. I often proposed change, but after the first positive reactions, the compulsion to stay what is familiar always kicked in, with growers clinging to the false security of what has always worked in the past. Even then, I confronted growers with the challenges of open-ground nurseries, telling them they had to be careful about how much chemicals they were spraying because the time will come when they have to clean up the soil before they sell it.”

One of the most drastic changes in Tesselaar’s professional life occurred in 1992 when he exited the family business and branched out independently. Subsequently, he established Anthony Tesselaar International (ATI). This company works with plant breeders to evaluate their new plants, protect their intellectual property, manage licensing, marketing, and branding, and collect royalties from growers.
In business management jargon, clinging to the familiar is called the ‘status quo bias’. If, by their very nature, growers resist new cultivars simply because they fear uncertainty and loss of control, Tesselaar reckons that asking yourself the tough questions is crucial. Are you growing the best genetics in your particular crop, and is it cost-efficient? Is a new product better than an existing older crop? In selling novel plants, have you aligned your message and benefits across all partners in the value chain?

Experiential marketing

Anthony, who is known for his reflections on consumer habits, business goals and strategy, explains that from the onset, ATI adhered to the principle that ‘a new plant is good enough when it is low maintenance, creates a wow factor, you would sell it to your mother, and, ideally, has four season interest’.

He comments, “Take our Canna Tropicanna series, debuting on the Australian market in 1997, with Tropicanna Gold in 2004 and Tropicanna Black in 2008. Their flamed-coloured foliage lights up any garden or patio and put on a great show when you get the sun as a backlight through the leaves. Tropicanna is multiplied through tissue culture to ensure the cleanest stock availability.”

ATI’s philosophy has always been more than just selling a ‘product’. Anthony elaborates, “Yes, we look for exceptional and easy-to-care-for plants. But there’s also a quest for plants that do not just have a two-week peak followed by an ‘off’ period for the rest of the year. Good and interesting plant varieties have good staying power for at least 20 years.”

In defining what plant is good enough for the market, Anthony, a long-time member of the international organisation defending the Intellectual Property of breeders of vegetatively reproduced ornamental and fruit varieties (CIOPORA), will, rather unsurprisingly, also ask himself whether any novel plant can pass the DUS (Distinctness, Uniformity and Stability) testing successfully.

Anthony says he will always try to put himself in the end consumer’s place, adopting an unorthodox approach. “If you think people are buying plants, they are not. The mainstream is usually not looking for a specific plant, but for a solution, experience, and, in the era of eco-consciousness and ethical purchasing decisions, a meaningful story behind the plant.”

The fountain-like shaped Festival Burgundy Cordylines with tulips as underplanting.

Down to earth, please

Anthony says that painstakingly crafted and costly consumer surveys are not worth the effort. He explains that something called ‘the elusive consumer’ may lead to a very misleading outcome. “People will usually tell you what they think you want to hear. What they do in real life is often very different,” Anthony said in an earlier interview with FCI.

He strongly advocates for a down-to-earth approach by observing customers in a garden centre and retail nursery. Important questions include: what they put in their shopping cart, how much is their average spend, and what’s on offer?

When pondering over the amount of new plants which appear on the market each year, with only a few making it into the second or third year, the seemingly endless diarrhoea of ‘sensational’, ‘exceptional’ and ‘phenomenal’, ‘inspirational’ or whatsoever breeding breakthrough, Tesselaar says, “While the men, dominating our industry, tend to put new on virtually anything to increase sales, women – with 70 per cent prominently present as end consumer – struggle to find something that is new and does not disappoint. If you want to sell a new plant, it must be visually attractive and be reliable in garden performance, the prerequisites for repeat sales.”

Left to right, Philip Townshend, Anthony, and Sheryl Tesselaar.

Blooming bonds

Anthony says he is fortunate to work with the world’s best plant breeders. His adage is ‘less is more’. While some plant breeder’s agents boast they manage hundreds of plant varieties from various breeder clients, ATI has approximately 20 branded products in markets on three predominant continents: Australia and Oceania, Europe, North America, and Africa (South Africa).

It is safe to say that meeting the late plant breeder Werner Noack from Gütersloh, Germany, took Tesselaar’s professional life in a new direction, as did his uncle. “In 1989, my uncle, Canada’s major garden rose distributor, visited us in Australia. He was searching for an Australian distributor for Noack’s new ‘Pink Flower Carpet’ rose in Europe, also known as ‘Heidetraum’. I decided to pick up the job myself.”

The first of the series, the iconic ‘Pink Flower Carpet’, launched in 1989. In the years to follow, new members of the Flower Carpet family – including White Flower Carpet (aka ‘Schneeflocke’, also named Golden Rose of The Hague in 1995) and Yellow Flower Carpet (aka ‘Celina’) – would also achieve the same illustrious award. The Flower Carpet Rose series has received over 30 international rose awards.

The Flower Carpet series continues to be the mainstay in the landscape/shrub rose category in many countries as they are claimed to be remarkably resistant to roses’ most dreaded fungal diseases, powdery mildew, and black spot. The fast-growing Flower Carpet cultivars produce masses of small, semi-double, red-pink flowers throughout the season.

It is easy to understand why he, Noack and other plant breeders such as Mark Jury -aka Mr Magnolia – from New Zealand are getting along fine. They combine their talents, with breeders and Tesselaar bringing in breeding expertise and the right marketing skills, respectively.

Plus, they share their commitment to protecting nature and natural systems. And this was long before the global eco-awakening occurred among consumers worldwide. Anthony says, “Natural disease resistance is key in selecting new plants. In the 1990s, we felt uncomfortable with the idea that the end customer eventually had to resort to chemical sprays to keep everything ‘nice’.”

Under pressure

Plant breeders, plant breeder’s agents and their grower customers are constantly pressured to introduce new products for customers. But successful innovation does not occur overnight, stresses Anthony. The ‘magic’ often happens after a myriad of crossings, trialling, and a relentless search for the perfect growth habit, hardiness level, colour, pest and a good pest and disease resistance and fragrance. He comments, “We test, test and test in all the different markets to be sure that they grow in the areas we say they will. On average, it can take up to seven years before you have a saleable plant. Testing in situ can be a daunting task, only if you consider there are nine climate zones in the USA alone.”

After having spent 58 years in the ornamental plant business, Anthony, who is on a committee with the Australian government to promote the mental and social benefits of plants and since decades involved with the Melbourne International Flower and Garden Show, is still able to appreciate the unmatched beauty of plants and take joy in trialling, trading, and admiring them.

And Tesselaar wouldn’t be Tesselaar if he hadn’t concluded his story on a philosophical note. “Why do we go out into the garden when we’re stressed? Rising inflation, financial insecurity, and work deadlines are just three jolly topics that might send us outdoors. But then, when we are out in the garden, we face unpredictable Mother Nature. Seeking respite where we don’t have control doesn’t make sense…until you scratch the surface to reveal the garden magic that’s helping us all feel less anxious.

Plants and gardens have a beneficial effect on everyone’s health and social well-being. Go into any place with a looked-after garden and find a happy sharing person. Or walk through a housing suburb or estate with trees and colour, you will find the whole suburb benefits regarding cleaner streets and absence of graffiti; people enjoy being amongst nature and all the beauty it represents.”

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