JUST SO YOU KNOW, I’M GOING TO START A HORTICULTURAL BUSINESS ONE DAY!
You could say that was my husband’s opening line when he and I first started dating, now more than 30 years ago. Paul is an agricultural engineer by training, and comes from a family of gardeners. His stated ambition might not have been such a surprise, but as a city girl and art historian, I certainly wasn’t ready to start rolling up my sleeves straight away – it took a little while longer for that sales pitch to work!
Precisely what it was that Paul wanted to do wasn’t immediately clear, and over the next few years, he suggested several different business ideas. From carnivorous plants to lettuce and herbs, ultimately arriving at tomatoes
Stoffels Tomatoes was founded in the same year, in the midst of a severe tomato crisis. Amidst the noise of peers telling us that we were crazy, we sought start-up capital and took a major leap of faith.
‘Invest against the tide!’ was Paul’s motto when he put up 2.5 hectares of glass in Rijkevorsel. He was ultimately proved right and after a first successful year of growing, put in a permit application to double the size of the nursery. The business came to be known as innovative, and we endeavoured to respond with agility to the needs of the market from the very outset. We were one of the first to start with vine tomatoes and in 2004, one of the first to grow speciality tomatoes that you can still find on the shelves today, like Toma’rito and Toma’tapas.
From the very outset our focus was on establishing a sustainable business and we committed to always choose eco-friendly solutions whenever doing so was economically viable. We were well ahead of the industry as a whole when we purchased our first CHP engine in 1997, which quickly allowed us to shift away from heavy fuel oil.
We went off exploring several times a year. When we came across new varieties and trends, we tested them thoroughly in our greenhouses. Numerous Stoffels tomato concepts found their way to the market and have now become permanent fixtures. We launched the Toma’box and pioneered yellow tomatoes under the ‘2mates’ brand – both of which can still be found on Belgian shop shelves, fifteen years later.
By 2011, the business had already grown to an area of eleven hectares. In the years that followed, we entered into partnerships that saw our production area grow to more than 30 hectares.
INVEST AGAINST THE TIDE!
In Belgium, all horticultural businesses are affiliated with a sales cooperative that takes care of the marketing of agricultural and horticultural products. As a business, we have always had a strong sense of direction in terms of market-oriented growing and selling, and so in 2015 we took the logical step of leaving the auction system. We went solo, restructured the business and established our own sales and marketing department. It was a major about-turn and yet another leap of faith. We went into the new year holding our breath, but our customers stayed loyal and we were given the space to offer new varieties and concepts along a much shortened chain. Straight from the producer to the shop shelves, our produce continued to find favour both at home and abroad. Our first success in brand establishment crossed over to foreign countries and our pampered Toma’dor, the king of flavour, quickly charmed German consumers.
As in many industries, we had begun to see a strong consolidation movement over recent years. Mastodonic businesses with a focus on production and cost began to emerge, but that was not Stoffel’s ambition. We were aiming for high quality, flavour and innovation – but the need to grow production was still there. In the meantime, we had begun to supply tomatoes to sixteen European countries.
In 2018, we involved investors so that we could gain some financial clout and professionalise the business yet further with a view to a large new-build construction project. But permit problems blocked our path, and the new construction was not an immediate success. We needed to be highly creative in upscaling our business and contract growers stepped in to pick up the slack. Everything was still being grown to Stoffels specifications with our selected top varieties and a focus on circular flows in production.
The years that followed were turbulent, and it seemed like every Biblical plague that there was came after us all at once. We now know that the power is in the people.