Bidvest Execuflora: Planting green ideas into the corporate environment

One of the biggest developments in corporate life over the past decade has been the green movement. At Bidvest Execuflora, there is a commitment to communicating just how the environment impacts on all businesses, with a particular focus on the office.

The company has very much grown from a grass roots entity in 1979, to one of the two biggest players in the interior landscape industry in South Africa, as Robbie Strang, Managing Director explains:

“We are specialist interior landscapers who specialise in the design, installation and maintenance of plants, pots, flower arrangements and canvass picture rentals and have offices in all of the major business centres around the country.

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“We only focus on the corporate market and serve small business owners, right up to shopping centres and national corporations with multiple offices.”

The concept of interior landscaping to enhance office space came to South Africa in the early 1970s, with Execuflora entering the market at the end of that decade.

“We started with small roots in offices, selling pots and plants and providing weekly treatment and replacing plants when necessary,” describes Strang. “The business began in Johannesburg (where we are still headquartered today) where the two owners were working as Xerox salesmen. A member of their team had a sister who was supplying dry flower arrangements to offices and had noticed people were asking for live plants. The two Xerox workers saw their opportunity and started up the company with a sales mentality that quickly built the business.”

Strang has been with the company for the past 15 years and has seen two major quantum leaps as the industry has evolved. The first was the purchase of the company back in 2003, now 100 per cent owned by Bidvest:

“There was undoubtedly a quantum change at that time and we have subsequently received lots of financial support that has helped us to grow,” he reflects. “Before the acquisition we were predominately Johannesburg-based and had a small operation in Durban, but the financial backing has seen us develop a national footprint and we now have offices in Cape Town and much expanded interests in Durban. We have also been able to acquire other businesses to help us grow into probably the second biggest interior landscape company in South Africa today.”

All a far cry from such humble beginnings, when people bought plants and pots and the two founders provided a regular service. That aspect has also changed radically and today Strang says that companies tend to rent rather than buy;

“The industry has certainly evolved more into a rental business, which gives customers a great deal more flexibility if they want to change plants or if they relocate premises. We have had incidents where a client was replacing plants and their staff locked themselves in a room as they didn’t want to be parted with a particular plant!”

Strang suggests that changes within the industry, combined with acquisitions and financial backing has enabled Bidvest Execuflora to grow fourfold.

Bidvest3“New pots designs that have been introduced into the market over the past 10 years have made a dramatic change to how we do business. Before then the focus was very much on selecting plants that were aesthetically pleasing, with the pot a secondary consideration.

“The arrival of new aesthetically pleasing pots however has seen a change in philosophy and many clients now regard the pot as more important as it is a decorative item too,” Strang describes.

The company does not manufacture pots, relying instead on a network of manufacturers who are constantly evolving designs to satisfy a fickle market where the term fashionable is always quickly changing.

Many of Bidvest Execuflora’s contracts run over periods of 12, 24 or 36 months, although Strang says that there are alternative markets available for short-term projects: “We worked on projects at the 2010 Fifa World Cup (TM) and the events market is one that offers great potential and one that we are eager to get into,” he indicates.

Such contracts will however require extensive planning and offer rewarding short-term work that can supplement much longer contracts. Of course building relationships over time is an important aspect of the business and Strang suggests that some of the company’s clients have been on the books for 30 years.

Among the highest profile contracts on the company’s portfolio was a six month project to install plants for Eskom, at the biggest atrium in South Africa.

Another significant development underlines Bidvest Execuflora’s commitment to the environment, as Strang explains:

Bidvest1“We were recently awarded the contract to supply the national Nedbank sites around the country. Ned bank is regarded as the green bank that always tries to ensure it operations and buildings are as environmentally friendly as possible and many of its buildings are Green Star rated – something we are equally passionate about.

“South Africa is perhaps a little behind other regions of the world when it comes to indoor plants and the environmental benefits, with plants still seen as more of an aesthetic investment. There has however been a lot of research carried out in places like Australia and America (where NASA was researching plants as early as the Seventies) and the analysis has come up with some interesting facts when it comes to air filtration.”

The findings come at a helpful time for the domestic indoor landscaping industry, as companies look to carry out cost-cutting exercises, with plants and pots often one of the first services to go.

“We are trying to inform the market of the findings of the research and with environmental issues and Green Star accreditation on the horizon, we can help businesses to prepare with our services,” Strang insists.

“In conjunction with IPSA (Interior Plantscapers Association) we will be working with South Africa’s Green Building Council to include plants into the Green Star Ratings as the Australians have done. We now know that there should be a minimum number of plants per square metre to help improve air filtration in the office. It is important that the soil is not compacted onto roots systems and many of our pots are made from recycled materials or specially painted with environmentally friendly chemicals. Plants can also be used to help regulate humidity levels that are key to our clients,” he continues.

As part of this movement, Bidvest Execuflora has been developing a series of mobile green walls – a new concept that Strang says is gaining global momentum:

“There have been a number of large green walls developed and we wanted to create smaller ones that were more mobile and could easily be repositioned within office spaces. These can be used for screening and again help to improve air filtration. We are developing prototypes right now and these should be ready for trial in the next few months with a number of interested parties.”

The green wall innovation has been developed in partnership with the company’s sister business Top Turf, which specialises in exterior landscaping solutions.

Bidvest4With the economy still in downturn, Strang says that the company is focused on conveying the message that plants and pots have a much more meaningful contribution to make to the workplace.

“It is tough due to the economy and many companies are cost cutting right now,” he admits. “We are trying to inform the market of the green benefits of our service, particularly with the green movement gathering pace here in South Africa.”

Another challenge is the general shortage of skills within the industry, which Strang says Bidvest Execuflora is addressing through in-house and external training. The bottom line is a committed workforce with low turnover of staff. The company currently employs 226 workers and operates a fleet of 45 vehicles – at present staff have to report to the local centre before going out to jobs – in Europe staff typically go straight to jobs from home, something Strang hopes the company will adopt in the future.

The economic downturn has also impacted on the number of growers and the quality of plants has deteriorated, leading the company to acclimatise plants before they are sent to clients.

Overall however Strang is happy with the company’s position and sees many opportunities on the horizon; “I think our involvement with the Green Building Council is vital – people need to understand there is far more to the plants than aesthetics. In time I believe that businesses will discover the far more technical aspects and will attach value to what we deliver.

“Technology continues to develop and the design of pots is changing, with far more environmentally friendly varieties already available, some of which could include in-built fans to improve air filtration.

“With the economy the way it is, we are looking to consolidate our position and our primary focus is on delivering high service standards. We will continue to concentrate solely on South Africa but I wouldn’t rule out further acquisitions if the opportunities were right.”