For years Obed and Hetty Smit had a close relationship with NOM - now we say goodbye on paper. We look around one last time at Smit Nurseries, the Groningen company that upgraded the somewhat dormant houseplant into a trendy home accessory with their luxurious and original "Eden Collection.
We get to go into the greenhouse with owner Obed Smit. The photographer for this article has already disappeared on the horizon, looking for the brightest background. You would almost think you can observe the curvature of the earth in here, that's how far the view extends. So this is what 160,000 square meters under one roof looks like. Just imagine: enough space for 32 soccer fields, if necessary with locker rooms and all.
Twenty years ago we were the first in the Netherlands to see houseplants as a luxury product. Sturdy cardboard design label on it, with a beautiful image - and appealing names.
Obed Smit, owner of Smit Nurseries
Obed himself remains fairly level-headed about it: 'Well, it's not a tropical greenhouse with ornamental ironwork and whistling songbirds. It's a plant factory, though.' Meanwhile, the photographer has found his spot, in a sea of soft pink. Obed is noticeably more in his element here among the plants than in the office: 'Wonderful example this little pink plant. It originated as a wayward mutant of the green variety we already had. Our cultivation experts see that right away - not a failure but an unforeseen opportunity! We then try to figure it out so that it becomes an attractive and robust new variety. Look, take this other one: it already existed everywhere with flaming white-green leaves. Ours is exactly the other way around, much more sturdily drawn too, with a sweet red edge as an extra. Much more exciting, right? Speaking of robust: one of our customers, a garden center, hung a sign above our Eden Collection with 'Strong Boys'. Plants that don't wilt or fall apart after a week. The middleman knows that.'
'Twenty years ago we were the first in the Netherlands to see houseplants as a luxury product. Sturdy cardboard design label around it, with a beautiful image - and appealing names. Rain licorice, swanweed, the melon plant. We soon had a strong team; we complemented each other perfectly. Nanno was a driven salesman, Lammert, like me, an enthusiastic plant hunter. Always looking for new crops that were still unknown here. In trade magazine Floristry they called us a golden combination. We once started small, with 4 hectares. That slowly became more and more. We did it by feel, the pioneer way. It worked. And then Kees Pingen was still to come!
Obed Smit finds the new housemates of plant lovers in Europe in the tropical places where they are just outside, in the wild. 'I like to wander through the interior of South America, Ecuador, Costa Rica, you name it. Indonesia, also such a mecca. Asia is home to many passionate collectors. I always keep my eyes peeled. Collecting totally new plants and patiently turning them into a commercial product, the best work there is! In Windhoek, Namibia, I would walk through a residential area and ring the doorbell of someone with a beautiful garden. Sometimes they are suspicious, but I only leave when I have cut off a spent stem of a beautiful specimen. There I found a wonderful, whimsical succulent or 'succulent' that turns red outdoors and does very well indoors as well. In Afrikaans 'sticky plant'. Also imported from Namibia: our desert rose or Kalenchoe Thyrsiflora. That makes everyone happy, guaranteed.'
Just technically, there are four methods of propagating plants. Putting a seed in the ground, the cutting (no introduction needed), the plug (with a beginning of roots in some potting soil) and finally tissue culture with stem cells, cells that grow in the laboratory under the influence of hormones. This is called meristems in professional jargon. You don't see any of it in the living room anymore.
Daily tools: the iPad
Many growers and gardeners have problems with the high energy prices (understandable); Obed Smit, for now, does not. He is doing everything he can about that. His iPad goes everywhere with him 24/7, including visits to acquaintances and also in meetings. 'I put a lot of time into that, that math. We buy gas to heat the greenhouse and with the output of our cogeneration unit we supply electricity back to the grid, everything we don't need ourselves. I pay very close attention to the daily prices of purchases and sales. You have to keep adjusting that complicated puzzle manually, there's no other way - to strike at exactly the most advantageous moment. The rates fluctuate enormously now, with violent outliers. A gas price of 1 euro would be lethal. I already saw 1.60 listed somewhere for 2023. Fortunately, we purchased a lot of gas well in advance; we already had a long-term contract for affordable gas when it was not yet current.'
Latest news: merger with Plant World, Naaldwijk
'We do this partly for my family and partly to ensure the responsible survival of the company in the future. After all, we are talking about 190 high-quality jobs in Groningen; in the busy season, another 100 temporary workers are added. My wife Hetty and I also wanted a little more peace of mind privately, hedging risk for our retirement. I am now 54 and Hetty 52. A little more time for the grandchildren perhaps. Another factor: I have no successors in the family. All four of my children have been on exploration trips to South Africa or Namibia, but they do very different work.'
'For now, the merger with Plant World does not feel like a step backwards. It is hard work; the new combination must also run well again. I think it will; there is also someone on the board who is obsessed with plants and discovering plant species. What will I definitely do when things settle down? A lot more traveling, to all corners of the world. And then a little longer. On the more adventurous trips, into the jungle without a comfortable hotel, Hetty always stayed at home. Maybe we can go out together more often. And not to a terrace in town. Planthunting is the best thing there is!
Annemieke Wouterse on a successful exit
Investment manager Annemieke Wouterse has been closely involved with Smit Kwekerijen for 10 years; the cooperation with the NOM exists much longer, since 2002. Quite extraordinary, because the average duration of this kind of 'grow-and-flow' trajectories is only about 5 years. Doesn't matter whether it's a startup or a scale-up. When NOM proceeds to sell the stake in a company, it is called in the office 'an exit'. May sound cold and unemotional; rarely is it.
Annemieke recounts. Remarkable and telling detail: she talks about Smit Nurseries in the we form rather than the she form: 'Why so long and close? Just like an ordinary "marriage," we went through ups-and-downs. The marriage pledge is 'for better and for worse' for a reason. We had some management changes, with favorable consequences: professionalization of processes, a positive vibe, skillful response to demand. Specifically, that means: the right plants at the right times. In the past, the entire greenhouse had to be full per se. Now we say: rather three-quarters full with profitable, good products. As little as possible forced to sell surplus at auction, having just enough in stock to supply our own customers.
There were also down times; when I proposed refinancing, a necessary, new financial boost, a NOM colleague who had doubts responded with "Are you sure?! But I firmly believed in it, thanks to a rock-solid trust in the people of Smit. At its core always a healthy company, I felt. Incidentally, the bank also had immediate confidence without any doubts; that is quite unique. In retrospect, that extra injection of capital didn't even seem necessary. And now look at it! Of course, windfalls came around the corner in time. Sometimes unexpectedly. In the corona time, suddenly everyone was indoors a lot. Then it must be a little cozy at home. So what do you do as soon as the stores reopen? Pick out atmospheric houseplants. A glossy magazine that features in a home decorating report makes the pancake plant suddenly trendy and in demand, with its cozy, round leaves that resemble pancakes. At Smit they then immediately succeed in growing an attractive and healthy variety of it.
It was worth it, that long breath. Perhaps the secret of NOM; we are not so sales-oriented. You have to be able to put yourself in the other person's shoes, put the company's interests first. That is exactly why I work here. Other investors are still sometimes pressured by their shareholders to deliver returns quickly; within five years is quite common. We have the patience and ability to look at the much longer term. Of course, after 20 years we also want to make a nice profit - money that we can put to good use again for important, new investments in the region.'