The Irish Times - Tuesday, September 6, 2011
A flower picked in Africa today will land in your local florist on Friday. How? PETER CLUSKEY visits a Dutch flower market to see a multi-billion euro industry in action
IT’S KNOWN as the Wall Street of the global flower market: an extraordinary series of five high-octane daily auctions where an average of 45 million flower stems and 4.5 million pot plants are sold every morning – turning over €9.9 million a day, 245 days a year.
Welcome to Flora Holland, a remarkable business achievement and a logistical miracle. It’s a a giant clearing house where freshly cut blooms arrive 24 hours a day from countries as far flung as Kenya and Israel en route to neighbourhood florists in Dublin, Moscow, Tokyo and elsewhere – all still looking immaculate.
The five auctions combined mean this is without doubt the biggest daily flower auction in the world. There are 14 auction halls, 50 auction “clocks”, and 115,981 transactions logged every morning between 6am, when bidding begins, and whenever the last of the lots is sold, usually three or four hours later.
The main auction, at the company’s 775,000sq m Aaslmeer headquarters (the size of 175 football pitches and within sight of Schiphol international airport) is by far the largest, selling 20 million stems and 2.5 million pot plants every day.
And while it’s true that size isn’t everything, the reality is that in a country as small as the Netherlands, the first thing that strikes you about Flora Holland is its enormous scale, the way it dominates the landscape for miles around, using more than one million square metres in all – roughly the size of another small country, Monaco.
In fact, because of the jaw-dropping volume of flowers that pours in and out of Aalsmeer every day, it’s officially the third-largest freight port in the Netherlands after sprawling Rotterdam and Schiphol itself.
“Before I started working here, I just thought of a sunflower as a sunflower or a rose as a rose,” smiles our guide, Marion ten Pas. “But now . . . wow.”
Behind the size, there are two things which are lastingly impressive about Aalsmeer. The first is certainly the auction, with its tiers of up to 400 intense buyers in two separate auditoriums. They wear headsets which give them an audio feed of the auctioneers. The buyers’ eyes remain glued to five separate auction clocks, two projected onto giant screens in front of them and three more on their laptops. They spend tens of thousands of euro at a tap.
The other impressive aspect is the just-in-time logistics: a flower picked in Ethiopia today arrives in Holland early tomorrow, probably around 1am. It is sold any time after 6am, and is in the hands of its buyer two-and-a-half hours later. Then it’s into a refrigerated lorry and off on a 40-hour journey to a distributor in Ireland – who has it at the florist’s door before opening time the next morning.
“The speed is really impressive, and crucial to our business,” says Kevin McCartney, owner of Cork Flower Supplies, which distributes to some 30 florists along the western seaboard from Waterford to Galway.
McCartney buys from Dutch exporter Kurt Schrama BV, which in turn buys at the Flora Holland auction. “We buy between €40,000 and €50,000 worth of flowers a week from Holland in the high season, and at times like Christmas, Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day.
“Unlike other European countries, the peaks in the Irish flower business are high but the troughs can be severe. But the refrigerated lorries come to Ireland four times a week, which means we can always get what we need when we need it, at a competitive price.”
The auction though is where Wall Street meets Gardeners’ World . It’s all about nerve. And what’s unique about it is the way the buyers interact with the auction “clock” – which is nowadays essentially a digital projection, more of a dial really, giving information about what is being sold.
At the centre of the clock is all the information the buyers need: lot number, country of origin, supplier’s name, type of flower, including a picture, stage of maturity, quality inspection remarks, including length and weight. Then there’s the price per stem and the quantity of flowers, broken down into the number of containers available and the minimum number of containers that can be purchased.
Meanwhile, on a rail beneath each clock (as their vital statistics flash up on the screens) passes a constant parade of the real thing, container after container of impeccable blooms: roses, chrysanthemums, lilies, carnations, a host of different alstroemeria . . . each getting not 15 minutes but just about 15 seconds of fame.
What happens next is a surprise. It runs completely counter to the way that auctions usually operate. Here the asking price starts high, at the top of the “clock”, and falls until some steely soul taps his or her key to buy at what they consider a fair and attractive price. This is the archetypal Dutch auction – invented by an imaginative cauliflower-grower in the 1870s, to reduce the time growers spent at market.
It’s all over in a micro-second. If your decision isn’t fast enough, you’re out, even if you’ve been waiting all morning for a particular batch from a particular specialist grower. So it’s all about calculating the best price you’re willing to pay, staying calm, trusting your expertise and experience, and hoping there’s nobody out there cooler than you are.
By the time you draw breath after your adrenalin-fuelled purchase, another three or four batches have been sold, and the cut-throat world of flowers has moved on. At least that’s how it seems to an outside observer. The buyers themselves don’t turn a hair. They’re on to the next deal.
And there’s more. As well as the buyers who arrive here just before 6am, prising their eyes open with caffeine, there are scores of Flora Holland-registered buyers on phones and the internet, buying from wherever they are in the world.
Not alone that, but some buyers are so big and powerful that they have their own “dealing rooms” at their company headquarters – where their buyers trade not just the five Flora Holland auctions, but a host of others in the Netherlands and elsewhere as well.
In business terms, the key to what happens here is total transparency. If certain types of flower have been over-produced, the price falls. If it’s coming up to Valentine’s Day, and roses are not as plentiful as they were last year, buyers will be anxious to get in first, and the price will rise.
Aficionados of Who Wants to be a Millionaire would probably recognise it as a high-stakes floral version of Fastest Finger First.
“Maybe the worst thing that can happen here in the morning is that the broadband network breaks down in the middle of the auction,” says Marion ten Pas, with a slightly nervous glance across the rows of impassive buyers.
As quickly as the stems are purchased, the process begins of extracting each order from the millions of containers of flowers and pot plants in acres of storage within a stone’s throw of the auction rooms.
From the catwalks above, the scene is like the horticultural version of a Breughel painting, with scores of golf buggy-style carts crisscrossing each other, hauling trailer after trailer of flowers, trolleys of the more delicate blooms being moved slowly by hand. Quality control staff conduct random checks – and around them all long-haul staff move from one point of the complex to another by bicycle.
If all this sounds like the creation of a tightly controlled, faceless, corporate multi-national, nothing could be further from the truth. Flora Holland, in actual fact, is a co-operative, with 6,000 grower-members who shape its policy and appoint its board. And it works.
THE FIVE MOST POPULAR CUT FLOWER VARIETIES
Grown in: South Africa, Kenya, New Zealand, California
Popular for : Funerals in southern Europe, and laid in cemeteries for All Saints Day. Given for Mother’s Day in Australia
Volume grown : 4.1 billion stems, more popular than roses
Grown in : Kenya, Ethiopia, Israel, the Netherlands
Popular for: Valentine’s Day in red and Mother’s Day in pink