Cucumber and tomato grower René Tielemans

"Give employees the chance to get shares in the company"

Cucumber and tomato grower René Tielemans does not see himself as a grower, but more as an entrepreneur and 'builder'. He is always alert for opportunities that come along. According to Thielemans this is only possible because he hardly has any operational tasks and that the company can run independent from him. To make this possible, Thielemans invested a lot in his organisation in the past years. "The company is central, not the entrepreneur. This is a switch you must make if you still want to be a grower in 2026."

René Tielemans (47) is a born entrepreneur, but he is also involved in the community. This becomes apparent from the pictures on the wall. Proudly: "See, here I was Prins Carnaval in Boekel". I am also the founder of the energy cooperation Boekel Energie. Soon there will be solar panels on the roof of our shed, in which locals can participate. Boekel really is my village, I will never leave this place."

The connection of Tielemans with the village in Brabant was an influence to the development of Tielemans Vegetable nursery: moving to a greenhouse concentration area was never an option for the entrepreneur. "I have always looked at the possibilities of my own village. When I took over the nursery from my father in 2001, it had 1 hectare of aging greenhouse. In the following years I renewed the company step by step, and further expanded to 6 hectare. In 2014 the plot of a fellow grower came up for sale, also 6 hectare. Though actually that was a bit too soon, I knew I had to seize this opportunity. Such an opportunity is once in a lifetime in Boekel! It doubled the company from six to twelve hectare."

Self providing organisation gives people sense of responsibility

In the past years Tielemans not only invested in expanding, but also in building a self-provisioning company. The fact that the entrepreneur is not living near his company, is of vital importance, this according to Tieleman. “I took over the nursery from my father quite late, and had already settled in the village. It stayed that way; my father is still living near the company, and that is fine to me: there is less confusion and you can take distance more easily. When you are at home, you are really at home. At the same time it forces you to organize your company in a different manner, delegate tasks, and be more of an entrepreneur than a grower. If you live near the nursery, you can check the greenhouse in the evening, which is difficult for me to do.”

For this reason Tielemans set up an organization in the past years that is capable to run independently from him. The managers are responsible for the separate locations, each location has its own responsible person for cultivation. Team leaders guide the personnel. “To be able to separate tasks and utilize the capacity of your employees requires a certain scale. In that regard, growth is important within the present day horticulture, it is a condition not to put the entrepreneur central, but the company. An advantage is that we as a company - with exception of the takeover of the other plot - have grown steadily. This allowed us to slowly build the organisation, and reduce the number of growth spurts."

According to Tielemans it is important that an entrepreneur is able to delegate tasks. He thinks that he himself is sometimes a little too easygoing in this. "When I see that an employee is not going to finish a certain job in time, I won't say anything. I let it go wrong. In this way I keep it from becoming my problem, and it is a lesson for the employee."

Letting the company build and develop itself

Because of the organizational structure Tielemans has implemented, he is hardly occupied with operational affairs. He mainly focuses on the strategy of the company and setting out the course to the future. “I can really be an entrepreneur, and focus on the further development of our company. You need this space as an entrepreneur, it is the only way to stay innovative. Some years ago we were the first cucumber growers to use lighting. That was a success, and that is why we are expanding the area of lighted cucumbers next year.

As an entrepreneur Tielemans does not limit himself to his own company, recently he bought a former social working place in Gemert, which is going to house his sister’s care farm. “I also want to expand my caravan parking here. Now I am using only old greenhouses for this purpose, which is now almost filled with 400 caravans. These kind of projects give me energy and inspiration. I see opportunities everywhere, I am a builder who wants to build and develop new things. The company structure offers me that opportunity.” 

At the question whether things sometimes go wrong, the entrepreneur pauses for a moment. “ Actually, I am hard pressed to come up with a failure. Maybe that is my attitude: I have an optimistic approach to life, which makes me see things rather as lessons than as mistakes. The only thing I can come up with is that I might have missed some opportunities in recent years. For example for the generation of extra turnover.”

Guaranteeing continuity with divided stakeholders

Thelemans is also thinking about long term: how can the company process when the time comes for him to stop? “I don’t think my children have to continue the company per se. Why couldn’t it be a stranger? Fact is that the nursery, because it can function without me, is easier to hand over than a company that is fully dependent of the entrepreneur.”

Some time later it turns out that Tielemans, although he has to, and wants to go on for some time, has made concrete steps towards a future take over. One of his managers has become a stockholder last year. “In my opinion this was a logical step; he was running one of both company locations independently since 2015. And why should everything be mine? I don’t have that need. On the contrary, I would be happy when someone at the other location wants to be a stockholder. Given the fact the number of company successors is dwindling, more growers will probably be forced in this direction. That is why I advice to give colleagues and employees who are open and suited to this, the possibility to take stock in the company. This can help to guarantee the continuity of your company.”

'Contact with the consumer is not a must'

Tielemans is saddened by the lack of cooperation in the horticulture. "I have a cooperative mind, am very open, and I do not have secrets. The same applies to my employees and this makes our company unique. I have noticed that in study clubs cultivation is often the sole subject. It is logical, but sad: if we would share more figures, for example with regard to labor, it would benefit us all. You can also, by being honest, strengthen each other's company. It is what I have experienced during the HOT Master sessions I have partaken in."

More contact with the consumer is not a must for Tielemans with regard to a future proof horticulture. He bases his opinion on his experiences with 'Vers van Hier'. The entrepreneur as a fellow founder of this concept in 2008. The idea was that we were going to supply product directly from the grower to the supermarkets in the region. In the end this initiative did not make it, but I have learned a lot from it. One of the things I learned is that the consumer is not very interested in which entrepreneur grows their cucumber. The consumer doesn't care about Tielemans Groentekwekerij. It is sufficient if he knows from what region his cucumber or tomato comes from".

The entrepreneur is of the opinion that there should be more fixed relationships between supermarkets/retailers and sales organisations. "Our cucumbers are being sold through Kompany, but growers organisations have always functioned as a 'shop' for traders. If you can make fixed agreements with a retailer, the margin will automatically go to the grower instead of the trader. There is also a more uniform product in the supermarket. Kompany has made a lot of headway in this in the past years."

To each his own recipe for happiness
Tielemans is convinced that his company is future proof with the current structure. To keep on existing, you must put the company central and make yourself dispensable. Still, I don't think every entrepreneur should go this way. Some growers are happy when they can work in the greenhouse and are able to control everything themselves. It is fine, but it will be a challenge to hand the company over in the future. Another option is that you hire extra staff for the points where you as a grower are weaker. You can do what you like, while at the same time our company keeps on developing and will still be around in 2026. It is not a problem if you are not an entrepreneur. It is a condition that you must be prepared to delegate."

To conclude: which growth ambitions does Tielemans have for the future? "Although there are plenty of expansion options, further growth is not planned. With 12 hectare we are doing fine in the cucumber business. Also, optimizing labor and production have the highest priority right now. But you never know what will happen, and when a good opportunity comes along, I will not let it go!"

Source: Coalitie HOT

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