Passing on the torch from father to son
Interview with William and Mike Gitzels from Gitzels Plantenkwekerij.
Soon, Mike Gitzels will be handed the torch from his father William, and take over the families’ horticulture business that was founded over 60 years ago. In this interview we talk to father and son about the past, present and future of their company and the world of sustainable food production.
William, the Gitzels Plant Nursery has been founded decades ago. Can you take us back to where it all started for you?
“When I finished HAS University for Applied Sciences in Den Bosch, in the South of the Netherlands, I went to work at seed company Royal Sluis (now Seminis, Monsanto). After a year, my brother and father asked me to step into the family company, and the three of us focused on young plant production in combination with flowers. Looking back at the scale, our business was about 5% of what it is now. Our father retired soon after my entry, and my brother and I decided to move the production premises from the village of Zwaag to Wervershoof (a few kilometers away) in 2000. A few years earlier, the Provincial Government of North Holland appointed this area as a specialized greenhouse horticulture area designated for further growth. In 2002, I bought my brother’s share in the company and continued to expand Plantenkwekerij Gitzels. Now, we produce about 160 million cabbage young plants and have been offering breeding services to seed companies for the past 35 years.”
When you stepped in, what were your ambitions? What was the way forward to the company in your opinion?
“Well, at first I focused very much on the overall development of the company, and all daily operations that come with running a greenhouse. Later on, I also wanted to develop myself as an entrepreneur and started following additional courses to educate myself again. To me, being able to be involved in all aspects of your business, from daily operations to finance to personnel management, that’s the best thing of being a greenhouse producer.”
What has the company meant so far for your life’s development, both professionally and personally?
“I can safely say that the company has turned me into the horticultural professional I am today. But at the same time, of course I’ve put my stamp on the development of the company as well.
When I started, life seemed simpler: You just got your hands dirty by producing young plants. Now that Mike is entering the company, I see he has a different start. Firstly because the opportunities to connect, to exchange experiences, and to learn, are endless due to the internet and digital communication, but also because of the technological innovations. Secondly, there’s more attention (both positive and negative) for the horticultural sector and sustainable food production. Your work is much more in the spotlight than it was say 30 years ago. ”
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Were you keen and expecting or hoping that Mike or any of your other children would take over the company and continue the business?
“I secretly hoped that my children would continue the business. To me, that would mean that the company means more than just building something up, and afterwards you’re in a position to cash out and that’s that. I have always felt that if you build a company, you build a community, and if you are located in a small village like we are, you have a direct impact on the local community outside your company. To me, it’s important that this can continue. On the other hand, my wife Karin and I, we always have been very careful and never pushed any of the children to continue what we have been doing all these years. But now that Mike is taking over, we cannot deny that this makes us proud!
For me that means that I can start thinking of taking a step back, and, together with Karin, explore other opportunities, and focus on things we enjoy. I’d like to invest more time in consultancy work, guiding other companies in the same business towards success. I reckon that, considering my age, that’s a logical step too; passing on your knowledge and experiences.
Mike’s influence, after having worked in the company for 5 years now, is really noticeable now. Our personalities are quite similar, and we make a good team together!”
Mike, has it always been your dream to take over the family business? And how have you been preparing yourself for this great step?
“No, I certainly did not always dream of stepping into the company. I think that my love for horticulture and plants developed gradually and was not so much inspired by the family company.
By the time I had to decide what to study, and where, I did feel that the HAS University of Applied Sciences in Den Bosch was my best choice, as its programs fit my interests. I graduated in 2016 and first wanted to work with other companies. I worked on various projects in horticulture in the Netherlands and abroad, but when in 2018 we got the opportunity to take over our neighbor’s business, that felt like the right moment to join our family business. I have been working at Plantenkwekerij Gitzels fulltime since 2020.”
What does your day look like? How do you share the responsibilities with your father and your team?
“When the company was smaller, it was also more hierarchical. Now, we work with a larger team of some 30 people and we’re more equal. Although I do think that our responsibilities have not changed within the company. You do notice that, now that we are bigger, our clients are expecting more, and we’re much more visible in the market. But that challenges us to keep on delivering the highest possible quality towards our clients.
William in his days had to focus more on the day-to-day business of running the greenhouse and all the issues that come with it. I have the opportunity now to work more organized and focus on strategy.”
The future looks bright for the particular business you’re in, but what do you foresee are the themes your company and the sector as a whole should focus on? So-called contemporary urgencies?
“Plantenkwekerij Gitzels will always focus on security and quality, but to guarantee this towards our clients is sometimes challenging.
I certainly believe in the future of greenhouse horticulture, and fresh produce of excellent quality that is sustainably produced and accessible to all. At the same time, it’s clear that our food system is changing, and needs to change. I feel that many steps are now being taken and they’re taken fast. Too fast, I think. I truly hope we can keep up as producers, because otherwise food security is on the line. I also fear that the Monsanto’s and Bayer’s of this world will just move to other parts in the world where they don’t have to adhere to stricter regulations. And what global effects will that have?”
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What are your ambitions? What is the future like for Plantenkwekerij Gitzels?
“We strive to further professionalize our company, and guarantee our processes, so we can minimize our dependency on others. We have been able to attract various young talents over the years, and to me it’s very important that we create the right circumstances for optimal performance of the whole team. That team is now obviously more diverse than say 20 years ago, but I feel that makes us better entrepreneurs in the end.
In the Netherlands, we want to focus on our 2 key products: Brassica seedlings for professional growers, and breeding services. When it comes to operations, the focus on sustainability will continue to grow and I think there are lots of opportunities to optimize in that respect still. We strongly believe in our own innovation power, and I look forward to bring the developments in this area further and share them with others as well. In addition, I want to see how we can develop our breeding services and if we can bring our knowledge exchange to a higher level.”
Both William and Mike attach importance to the power of the family company. They both express that there is no desire to grow larger than some 50 employees. ‘Larger is not necessarily better, and certainly not easier!’, they both say.
Last but not least, Mike is looking forward to be in charge himself, but will always be glad that William will be there in the background when needed. ‘Maybe even my brother and sister will join me in the company in the future, who knows!’
Mike, one last question: Who or what is an inspiration to you?
“I draw a lot of inspiration from my own family and the family business. In the sector, I admire Peter van der Avoird of Van der Avoird Tray Plants for his entrepreneurial skills and the company he built. When I look at my generation of graduates from HAS University, I see that people are more inclined to work together, we’re less competitive and of course our world is bigger now. You want to be engaged in something that matters, that gives you satisfaction and not only a fat paycheck. That is also why I really like to connect with growers and producers from abroad. They are often a different kind of entrepreneur because certain circumstances force them to.”
And William adds: “I agree that today’s generation is much more relaxed, but they also grew up in different circumstances than we did. When I was young and took over the business, at times I was really afraid to fail and go bankrupt. That also made everybody much more competitive.
I truly enjoy seeing Mike flourish in the family company now, and with him I see a bright future ahead for Plantenkwekerij Gitzels.”