Growing up in Belgium, Paul Deroose did not plan to pursue a career in horticulture. Instead, he studied to be an electrician.
But his family has a history in plants. His great-grandfather was an azalea grower, as was his grandfather. Paul’s father Albert took up azalea growing as well before switching to bromeliads in the 1950s. The name Deroose also has a tie to plants; it translates to “the rose” in English.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that Deroose found his way into horticulture. His brother, Reginald, took over the Deroose family plant growing business and had a plan for a new business model that required building an entirely new greenhouse.
Building a new greenhouse is expensive, and Reginald was looking to form a new business from the ground up. Enter Paul, who switched careers to help his brother.
“It wasn’t like my father was making tons of money,” Paul says. “He was at the end of it, I think. So, my brother wanted to build a totally new greenhouse, so he needed people to help him that were going to be flexible with the salary.”
From the beginning, Deroose Plants never used seeds to produce plants because they wanted their plants to grow as uniformly as possible, Paul says. Instead, they rely on plant cloning and tissue culture.
Fast forward to today and the business has grown into something far bigger, and more successful, than Paul or Reginald could have imagined. Deroose has facilities in Belgium, Florida and Shanghai, and each location specializes in a specific aspect of the business. Belgium is the company’s home base with a laboratory for research and development, greenhouses for production, breeding and product development. Shanghai, meanwhile, is home to Deroose’s plant cloning hub, while Florida is home to Deroose’s greenhouse production facility.
Deroose sells 26 million young plants annually, accounting for roughly 90 percent of their business. The other 10 percent is serving nurseries and greenhouses with starter material.
“[Young plants] are, 100 percent, our core business,” Paul says. “We make babies.”
The plants they primarily grow are bromeliads, orchids and succulents, among others.
A sunny beginning in the U.S.
In 1994, about a decade after Paul and Reginald went into business together, they had established a base of customers in the United States. But at the time, they were operating exclusively out of Belgium. According to Paul, this was made difficult because growers cannot export any type of growing media to the U.S.
Before looking for a facility in the U.S., Paul says Deroose considered other options that they believe would have been cheaper to operate in, but that came with added costs.
“We looked first to move to Mexico, then to Puerto Rico. We looked [at] Costa Rica,” he says. “It was kind of the idea to move that production facility to a cheaper country, but that wouldn’t have been a smart move, because you still have to fly the plants [to the U.S.].”
While attending that year’s Tropical Plant Industry Exhibition (TPIE) trade show in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Paul put the word out that Deroose would like to expand to the U.S. and soon, the owner of Hickerson Flowers in Apopka, Florida, approached Paul on the trade show floor. Hickerson Flowers had open growing space and talks started immediately.
“It’s very strange [that this happened so fast], but we weren’t thinking that at that moment,” Paul says. “We changed our return flight, drove to Apopka, and the next day on my way home, I had to make up my mind, and about four months later, I was here.” This visit to the U.S. was only the second time Paul had been to the United States.
Applying European standards in the U.S.
In 2001, seven years after the meeting at TPIE, Deroose opened its own facility in Apopka. Paul says the facility “stunned” people because it was built to European technological standards. The facility is highly automated and needs far fewer workers than the averaged North American operation, Paul says.
“We are far more technologically advanced in our production facility because of the labor cost,” Paul says. “It’s very automated.”
Additionally, Paul says Deroose’s facility in Apopka is also built to European environmental standards.
“Our facility runs on rainwater that it captures from the roof, and we send that to the plants with fertilizer, we recapture it, and we recycle it over and over again,” he explains. “So we don’t add water to the aquifer that is polluted.” Three years ago, Deroose won the Environmental Agricultural Award from the Florida Farm Bureau for its water conservation efforts.
For Paul, moving to America to run the Apopka facility while Reginald remained in Belgium was a major life change. But after over two decades in the U.S., he’s still enjoying the climate — a contrast to his more overcast and rainy homeland.
“Still today, after 20 years, you feel like you’re in a more vacation-like atmosphere,” Paul says.
Offsetting costs in China
Deroose’s Shanghai, China facility in opened in 2007. It’s located on leased space from a company called the Shanghai Flower Port, and was opened to help offset high labor costs associated with cloning plants. According to Paul, high labor costs in Belgium, as well as the high Euro exchange rate, were significantly cutting into Deroose profit margins. At the same time, Paul says the business was starting to feel the effects of the global recession.
Due to lower labor costs in Shanghai — Paul says labor costs in Shanghai are about half of what they are in Belgum — Deroose’s facility there is now their main production facility for plant cloning. When the transition was made, Paul says it insulated Deroose from the global economic struggles. If Deroose had continued significant cloning efforts in Belgium or Florida, it would have been unsustainable.
“When you clone a bromeliad, the raw product is a cluster of plants. There are about five plants on that little cluster. You have to acclimate that to the greenhouse, and after it’s grown for about three months, you will separate that by hand and create those plants,” Paul says. “That can only be done by hand, and if you do 10 million plants here in Florida and another 15 million or so in Belgium, that is a lot of hand labor.”
He notes that, as a foreigner, there are issues with growing in China. The language barrier can sometimes present issues, as does the time difference when plants need to be shipped across the world. But, he says, it’s all workable. Even shipping is manageable, as Deroose ships its plants on commercial flights instead of cargo flights, allowing plants to reach their destination within a few days.
“It could be done in the United States. I have friends here down the street doing the same thing,” Paul says. “But it’s the same — when I go there, every time, we talk about us doing the plants for them in China, that they would save a lot of money.”
Cloning, too, is a vital part of the business. For one, it allows Deroose to produce more uniform plants — something they say makes their products more desirable.
“If you make bromeliads by seed, unless you have an F1 hybrid, you’re going to get a mix of all kinds of plants,” Paul says. “Which nobody wants, because you want a uniform crop with the shape that you want and the color that you want.”
Over time, Deroose has also developed a precise cloning process.
“The cloning allows [us to] take the meristem,” Paul says. “It allows you to take that and you make genetic exact matches of that product. It’s done in a laboratory, and you can just choose one plant that you like and make millions of the same, and they will all have exactly the same genes. So, even when you find one that has a defect, if the defect is desirable, then you’re going to put that one in the lab, and clone that one.”
A stable, successful future
In the spring of 2016, 80 percent of Deroose’s shares were bought by a Belgian company named Siat, that Paul says is one of the world leaders in raw rubber product production. Deroose initially caught Siat's attention with its cloning technology; Deroose sold Siat access to it so the latter could begin cloning rubber trees.
The sale to Siat marked a new era for Deroose and Paul says this change has been positive. While moving to China had somewhat insulated Deroose from the recession, some financial trouble persisted. The facility in Shanghai cut costs, but that did not lead directly to more profits. Belgium, due to higher operating costs, struggled. And while Paul says Florida did well, the number of employees dropped to 60 after being over 100 in the years prior.
“In the recession, we slipped into survival mode,” Paul says.
When Siat took over, Paul says Deroose become more financially stable than they had been in some time. The Belgian part of the business, after years of struggling, is becoming profitable again. The Florida facility now has 130 employees. In China, staff has been added to sell Deroose plants into local markets for the first time. And, most importantly, the rubber tree cloning has offset the costs of ornamental production.
Deroose is also expanding its offering. In 2015, they first sold the Q-ismas Stars, a patented mini poinsettia variety from Graff Breeding out of Denmark. Paul says they only sold “a handful” when they debuted in 2015. Last year, they sold 16,000 at Christmas and are aiming for 100,000 units this coming fall. They’re also expanding into other industrial crops, as well as food crops like herbs, hops and strawberries, for clients.
Now, more than 30 years in, Deroose has finally achieved Reginald and Paul’s vision: uniformity in growing and financial success outside of the greenhouse.