Willaert is a wholesale outlet to the local and international trade. Annual trade currently stands in excess of 22 million units, encompassing shrubs, perennials, confiners, climbers, grasses and seasonal products such as pot mums. Currently they serve around 5,000 customers, realising annual sales of €43 million.
Willaert is a privately owned company run jointly by husband- and-wife team Rudy Vannevel and Els Willaert. The company traces its origins to Els’ father, Noël Willaert, who grew vegetables in his backyard during the 1960s. It was two decades later that founder Noël decided to specialise entirely in nursery stock. Back then, he revolutionised the industry with the Willaert cash and carry concept and laid the foundation for today’s wholesale business with sites in Roeselare (headquarters) and Opglabbeek.
Together they comprise an area of 13 ha including a 10 ha outdoor area, a 1 ha indoor sales area and a 1 ha hardware store.
Today, Willaert continues to grow 10% of all plants by themselves. Consider it an homage to founding father and plantsman Noël Willaert. “Willaert has forged relationships with a group of reputable suppliers from Flanders and throughout Europe. As for locally grown plants, we are working exclusively with a group of 15 growers who supply hedging, shrubs and conifers in container or as bare root stock. Their range also includes groundcovers, perennials and roses. Locally sourced production covers an area of over 90 ha. Specimen plants, palm trees and patio plants are sourced from suppliers in Southern Europe (with Pistoia providing 80% of the plants),” said Thomas Verdonck.
Verdonck, responsible for liaising with garden centre buyers from France, explained that the business attributes almost 60% of its turnover to income from exports. Belgium’s southern neighbour, France, was their first export venture and continues to be the most successful accounting for 53% of total turnover. He said that Willaert’s customers range from garden centres and landscapers to local authorities and garden designers. Their strongest customer base is within 50km radius, but customers come from as far away as Lille and Paris to buy plants. The domestic market still accounts for 40% of sales and is dominated by a sizeable number of landscapers and garden retailers who come to select high quality nursery and garden centre product, the product that suits end-customer demands.”
Key’s to success
One of the keys to Willaert’s success is that they work hard to focus on the needs of each of their customers and how they can best support them. “In the field of landscaping, for example, customers ask us regularly for expert advice. That varies from drawing up a planting proposal to writing up estimates. The ultimate goal is to have the right tree in the right place and a fair price with a profitable outcome. We are also bidding on landscape projects in France, Belgium and Luxembourg,” said Verdonck.
He outlined how keeping an eye on quality has also helped the company be successful. “We set the bar high and do not budge. There are strict quality control procedures for each plant that arrives from the grower with any of poor quality being immediately sent back.”
Regardless of industry, it is well-known that most unhappy customers don’t complain, they just never come back. Verdonck: “However, when one of our customer feels that his or her expectations have not been met, they will definitely make a complaint. Because they know that we will find a solution. It’s about building relationships that go beyond one single order or project.”
Another key to success is the company’s deliveries using their own transport. “We take pride in having our own fleet of trucks and will deliver anywhere in Belgium, France, Luxembourg or the Netherlands. For almost all trees, shrubs and plants, our standard delivery time is within one week of order confirmation. You can also bring your own truck, which will enable you to enjoy a 6% discount on your purchase price,” said Verdonck.
Over the past 54 years, Willaert has seen a lot of changes, but probably the most significant one the industry faces is ever-changing customer expectations: wanting a fast, simple and easy user experience. “Logistically, this has been one of the biggest challenges. We want to ensure every order will be delivered on time. When a customer orders his plants on Monday he will take delivery on Thursday in the South of France,” Verdonck said.
Overall, the plant wholesale business is ‘instant-appeal’ driven. “At Willaert’s we increasingly focus on merchandising, branding and visually appealing plants because our customers tell us that that’s what end-consumers are looking for,” outlined Verdonck.
He continued, “In our industry product presentation and packaging are always evolving. We have seen countless trends with shapes and colours of pots currently being under scrutiny. Equally important for our garden centre retailers is that plants are supplied with an attractive coloured label with a picture and description. Meanwhile, there is a surge in organic plants even if there’s a lack of organic ornamental producers. In organic ornamental horticulture France is already a few steps ahead, while Belgium is falling somewhat behind. But the country is taking its first steps towards more eco-friendly plants and these are promising.”
Time is money
The company understands that a customer’s time is valuable. That’s why Willaert offers a range of services including new stock arriving weekly, picture labelling, pre-priced labels and much more. Orders can be placed by telephone, email or via our online store.
The cash and carry is well laid out. From Abelia to Acer or Artemisia to Anemone a premium selection is readily available. The 3000 plus varieties are alphabetically arranged in logical product areas. And at the reception desk customers can pick up the keys for an electric cart to tour the 12 ha site in Roeselare.
Verdonck: “For our landscapers and garden designers we have created a specialist area for quick and easy shopping. Here almost all plants come in P9 containers, without picture label.”
Sustainability is high on the company’s agenda. In 2010, the company earned the MPS Florimark label, a B2B label for sustainable businesses.
Rudy Vannevel stressed that the company has quite a few of good examples of how to run a sustainable business. “Our offices are as well-insulated as possible. We use timers and sensors to ensure that lights do not stay on unnecessarily. Of course we recover water and we have a 11,000 m³ retention pond for rainwater. As for our packaging material, the company opted for packaging that can be re-used multiple times. Recently we started using biodegradable pots in our P7 range. In addition, our logistics system is efficiently organised and our carts meet the Euro 6 emission standards. What’s more we created an 8 meter-wide- bee- and butterfly-friendly area around our premises and car park.”
Belgian plant nurseries export 60% of their production around the world. According to VLAM, the production value of the ornamental horticulture industry to the Belgian economy is €566 million. It is estimated it supports nearly 10,000 jobs.
by Ron van der Ploeg