70 years of Gediflora

21 Sep 2021

Today, Elien is the third generation of the Pieters family who runs Gediflora. It all started with the tomato growing business of grandpa Georges. Dirk Pieters, Elien’s dad, turned the company into a global leader, cultivating ball-shaped chrysanthemums, together with his right-hand man Wim Declercq, who is still head breeder today. And as everyone knows, behind every great man stands a dedicated woman. Dirk’s wife, Christine, is no exception to that rule. In a nostalgic mood, we listened to the story of these three Belgian Mums pioneers. A story about a great deal of manual labour (in the field and in the office), about having the courage to make decisions and about their passion. And last but not least some good advice for young people: learn languages.


Wim and Christine, how were your first years in a family business?

Christine: “Right from the start, I was fully involved in the family business. I started at the bottom of the ladder, but gradually climbed up the rungs. It was a family business, with father, mother and son – who would later become my husband. My husband’s two sisters also worked in the company. It was a complete change for me, where I had to but also wanted to prove myself right from the start. We worked 7 days a week and in the little time that was left, I spent on administrative tasks. In the early days, that too was all done manually. I still remember when we finally bought our first computer.”

Wim: “I started here on 4 January 1982. That’s almost forty years ago. I started as a labourer and of course the business was quite a lot smaller then. When I started here, we were with just four employees.

I was hired as a picker and at that time everything was still done by hand: picking, planting cuttings, filling pots, setting out pots in the open, weeding, etc. We still grew our own mother plants here and at that time we were still working exclusively with chrysanthemums as the traditional flower for the 1st of November, intended for the Belgian and French markets.”


Dirk, was it obvious to you from the start that you would have to think outside the box to expand?

Dirk: “When I made the decision to take over my parents’ company, I already knew through my contacts that there was a huge international market for chrysanthemums that had nothing to do with the 1st of  November. From there, the idea grew not to focus on ten different products, but on one single product which would then be marketed worldwide. And then our ambition was to become as good as possible and to deliver top quality. When the French started to cross-pollinate and patent their plants in the 80s, I knew I had to make a decision: ‘Either I start cross-pollinating myself, or I had to look for something else’. There wasn’t much time to hesitate or wait, because it can easily take a good five years to market a new plant.”



Has that been the driving force behind your growth? The decision to develop and breed new varieties yourself?

Christine: “Absolutely. It’s thanks to our breeding activities that the company has been able to expand so fast and that we have become a global player. Of course, that is also thanks to my husband, who’s idea it was to bring new varieties onto the market.”

Dirk: “Starting our own breeding was indeed one of the most important decisions we ever had to make. If we hadn’t done that, it would have been over and out. Crossbreeding and pollinating is not difficult, but it is the genetics behind it that are important. That’s the information that’s worth its weight in gold. But to be able to implement this decision, of course you also need the right people. Who are you going to hire or have trained for that? I think that’s very important.”


Fortunately, with Wim in your ranks, you didn’t have to search too far for the right person…

Wim: ” That’s true, but it wasn’t like that from the start. Dirk had hired someone to take care of the breeding, someone who had studied. He then started the breeding, but at that time our company was not as big as it is now. This meant that he had to spend the rest of the time rolling up his sleeves and helping out elsewhere. In the end, he only stayed with us for three months. He wanted a job that was more in line with what he had studied. I then approached Dirk and said: ‘Dirk, take your time and look around for someone else, and  in the meantime I’ll take over. And that’s how I started as a breeder in 1988 and 33 years later I am still here doing it.”


The close relationships and minimal hierarchy between employees are typical for your company, aren’t they?

Christine: ‘”Yes, that’s true, and that’s what Elien is trying to do too. Keeping some distance from your employees is necessary, especially when the company is expanding. But we have given everyone the freedom to do what they like doing best. The driver is still the same one as in our time. He has been working here since 1984/85. This shows the strong bond that exists within the company.”

Dirk: “You have to have faith not only in yourself, but also in your employees. With this in mind, I have always given our employees some responsibilities. I was always asking them what they thought we could do better. And when we travelled abroad to see the flower trials, I took four or five employees with me. If you don’t get them closely involved, they may believe what you say, but if you give them the chance to travel with you, you can start brainstorming on the plane, or while you’re visiting the flower trials. I think that’s very important. And Elien does it the same way.”


That brings us to your adventures abroad.

Wim: “When we decided to start working together with a Dutch company, Dirk told me that he had been invited to go to America to see how the chrysanthemums grew and flowered there. My wife doesn’t want or dare to fly. I had already once made a flight in a small sports plane in Wevelgem, but that was all. Then I decided to take the plunge. I gathered all my courage and told Dirk: ‘I don’t care what it costs, but I want to go. I will never get this chance again in my life.’ He wanted to think about it for a while, and after a few months he agreed and said it was okay to come along.”

Dirk : “It is only when you go on site that you learn and that the eagerness to learn is very important. Wim was always my right hand, so he accompanied me. And my wife, being left handed, was my left hand.”

Christine : “We were always on the same wavelength. We never felt restricted in our ambitions. In fact, we always had the same ideas. We complemented each other very well.”


Didn’t your parents ever worry, Dirk? Weren’t they afraid that you were taking on too much?

Dirk: “No, I certainly never had that impression. My father knew my character, of course, and therefore gave me carte blanche so to speak. When I joined the company, there was still a lot of work to be done. At that time there was no talk of research and breeding. Sales were limited to Belgium and France. But suddenly the other European countries opened up together with Japan, America etc. I saw it as  a challenge and never really thought much about it. And my father supported me.”


Today, it is by no means easy to enter the international market, but in the past it must have been even harder, especially from a technological point of view. How did you approach this challenge and how did you find the right business partners?

Christine: “There is no question that it was more difficult in the past than it is today. We didn’t have any mobile phones and computers were almost non-existent. You still had to go to a travel agent to book airline tickets back then.”

Dirk : “In choosing our partners, I have always been guided by market reputation. The strongest party is the one that matters most to me. It is mainly a question of mentality and attitude. It’s not just about sales or turnover. For me, the main thing is that they have green fingers, are driven, and have the right attitude. Nothing else interests me, no matter how high their turnover is. And therefore it is important that you go and see for yourself. When we first started in America, I travelled to LA, New York and Texas myself. Because it is just like in Europe, a Spaniard is not like a Swiss and a West-Fleming is not like a Limburger. So you have to be out there in that market yourself and  get to know it.”


The beginning of the cooperation with Brazil has also been one of the milestones in the history of your  company, hasn’t it ?

Dirk: “Yes, that’s right. Again, my contacts played a decisive role. They convinced me to move the production of young plants to Brazil. Why? Because as a result the plants were much stronger and better. We needed those plants in February, March and April. What kind of weather do we have here during these months? The climate there is so much more favourable for our plants.”

Wim: “You couldn’t compare a cutting from Brazil with one produced here. Brazilian cuttings took root within 10 days, while ours needed 15, 16 or 17 days. Moreover, all their cuttings were the same. The difference in quality was enormous and that was decisive. Of course, there is also the price difference, but the main reason why we went to Brazil was purely because of the quality.”



Have you managed to establish a name for yourself on an international level as well?

Wim: “I have to say that I really had to adapt mentally, and today I feel that I was a bit to blame for that. This is also something I advise my children: it is important to learn languages at school. I remember saying to my French teacher when I was at horticultural school: ‘Hell ! I don’t need to know French to talk to my flowers.’ But how I regret not having done more to learn a foreign language ! When you are young, you think you don’t need to bother and at that age  actually you don’t realise how important language skills are. At horticultural school we had one hour of English a week. Nothing much at all. But later on, you go to America on business and so you learn by doing, by trial and error, but you manage. The first time we went to Brazil, we were sitting around the negotiating table with  five people of the Brazilian company. They, including the CEO, the planner and the person in charge, on one side and Dirk and I on the other side. At the start of the meeting they said: ‘Please, go ahead !’. We sat there with our mouths open, the sweat ran down my back, that is how nervous I was. Now I no longer feel nervous, but I was really sweating in those days.”


And to conclude, perhaps one last question: What were the highlights for you?

Christine: “The completely new complex that we started building here in 1989. That was phenomenal for us that we could build up such a business. We built beautiful offices and greenhouses and everything was equipped in a state-of-the-art concept. Another highlight was when my husband was elected Entrepreneur of the Year. At that time, we drove to Antwerp for the award ceremony, but we didn’t yet know that we had won. I guess, they had said it on the radio but we hadn’t heard it.”

Dirk: “When we quickly found a few good varieties early on, the international interest we received also increased. Again, through word-of-mouth. The varieties were sold as end products through auction and then people started asking: Where do these varieties come from? What kind of varieties are they? That is still the best way of advertising.”

Wim: “It may not be a highlight, but it’s a great story. Once, I went to America for half a day only. We wanted to see the flower trials but the people there hadn’t informed us that the plants were flowering far too late. They hadn’t told us there was no point in coming to America and that it would be better to delay the trip for a fortnight. So we flew to America and when we arrived there, one third of what we wanted to see was flowering and the rest wasn’t. Dirk immediately said: ‘No problem, within fourteen days you come back, full stop’. I left here on Saturday morning, went first to London and then on a direct flight to Los Angeles. I arrived there on Saturday evening, had to hire a car to drive an hour or two to Oxnard, went to the hotel to sleep, the next day I got up early, drove to the company, looked at the flowers and then flew back to Belgium in the afternoon. By Monday evening I was back in Belgium again. So I was only in America for half a day. Crazy but fantastic!”

Christine: “There are so many beautiful moments. If you ask me tomorrow if I want to do it all over again in the same way, I would say ‘yes’. I wouldn’t hesitate for a single second.  Despite all the ups and downs, I would definitely do it over again. I don’t regret a second of it.”

“You have to have faith not only in yourself,

but also in your employees.”

– Dirk Pieters