Growing a Family Business… through the Business of Growth
The business of producing the food we eat and the flowers we enjoy is not as simple as planting a seed and watching it grow. There are many steps involved, and many businesses that manufacture the solutions to ensure the quality of the food and flowers that are produced. In Ontario, Canada, Zwart Systems has been a key provider of one of the most important steps – horticultural irrigation – for almost fifty years.
In 1969, Peter Zwart recognized a need in the greenhouse market for irrigation and general supplies, so he established Zwart Systems in Beamsville, Ontario, and began building a business that would become a successful family operation.
As the business grew, Peter Sr. decided to retire and pass along the business to the next generation. Sons, Peter Jr. and Dave, took over as co-owners, while Mark maintained a position as a designer. Now the third generation has also entered the family business, as each of the brothers has a son at Zwart Systems.
“We are still a very family-run organization despite our growth over the last three or four years,” said Zwart Systems General Manager Jim Van Ryn. “We still operate on a very high ethical standard with family values.”
The services and solutions it provides include irrigation, nutrient control, humidification, water recirculation, and internal transportation solutions for greenhouse operations of all sizes. Its greenhouse horticultural products have reached all four corners of North America, and it has become well known for its top-quality products and uncompromised service. It is also conservation-minded in reusing and recirculating any waste water that is not required by the plant during an irrigation cycle.
The company employs seventy-five people whose roles range from sales to design and AutoCAD, purchasing and order processing, shipping, receiving, production, installation, and service.
In 2012, Zwart Systems entered another market sector to its complement when Canada introduced legalized cannabis for medical use. Its cannabis production systems now account for a significant percentage of its business in Canada. In this area, it partners with most of the biggest names in this industry, such as market-leading cannabis operations, to supply everything from growing bench systems to complete irrigation systems.
“We offer three key products in the cannabis sector – Growing Benches, Irrigation and Internal Transport. We have simply adapted technologies, long used in conventional greenhouse production, to meet the needs of the cannabis grower. Exact nutrient control, space utilization and labour savings are all key elements of operation that successful cannabis growers recognize.”
The company expects the legalization of cannabis in Canada to have an even more positive impact to its bottom line. “In the last couple of years, we’ve been seeing some of the major players in the cannabis market getting ready for legalization, so there’s a lot of positioning happening and a lot of big investments that have been going on,” said Van Ryn. “My guess is that it will just continue to grow. How long that lasts, we don’t really know. There is a bubble aspect to this whole cannabis thing, but we don’t know whether it’s two years, three years, five years, or ten years. So we would expect that the cannabis business in Canada would contribute to our growth in a significant way.”
The significant challenges it has faced while expanding have revolved around the ongoing evolution of technology within the greenhouse business. Growers are always finding new ways to grow to increase yields so there is a technology demand there that has to be constantly met. How well it has done that however, is something that the company feels has made it stand out from its competitors, most of which are located in Holland.
“Our level of technical knowledge and our ability to solve the challenges or to consult with the customer on a higher level technology-wise to solve their problems has differentiated us,” said Van Ryn. “We don’t simply just sell off-the-shelf. Customers come to us and say this is what I want to achieve, and we advise accordingly, which of course is supported by the sale of our product.”
It faces the same issues that most industries do with regard to skilled labour. “Our biggest challenge of the day is finding knowledgeable employees that have a knowledge of our very unique market, but I don’t think that’s any different than most businesses. There seems to be a real lack of knowledgeable people out there, so when we find one, we keep them to overcome that challenge,” said Van Ryn.
“Our effort to retain our employees includes developing and maintaining a company culture that makes it a great place to work,” explained Van Ryn. “We care not only about what the employee can give to us but also what we can give to them. Questions we ask ourselves include: How we can make this a nice place for them to work. How can we help them achieve their own personal goals? How can we help them achieve a healthy work / life balance? We have a true love for our employees and giving them a good place to work.”
Zwart Systems also understands that it is not just what it has to offer that has gotten it to where it is today. It understands that relationships outside the company have been the key to its business development.
“My own personal motto is that our suppliers, our vendors are just as important as our customers because we need both. We need good vendors and good customers in order to make this business dynamic work,” said Van Ryn. “So both those roles are very important. Whether it’s a vendor supplying us with an off-the-shelf item, or whether it’s a vendor who’s helping us develop a system, we rely on their expertise and their partnership to help us deliver a superior product.”
One of the newer initiatives that the company is most excited about is its participation in the development of urban farming. “If you break up our company in four different areas, we have the floriculture sector; we have the traditional vegetable growing sector – so that’s peppers, tomatoes, and cucumbers. We have the cannabis sector, but one other area that we have invested a lot of time in over the last five years is urban farming, and urban farming is really about growing food much closer to the consumer base – so within cities, literally growing in industrial buildings on multi-level platforms to feed the local populations,” said Van Ryn.
Interestingly, and probably a fact unknown to most people, is that roughly ninety percent of all the lettuce that is grown in North America comes from California. “By the time it gets to the East Coast and is bounced on a truck for three or four days, then gets to the shelf, there is significant nutrient loss and the shelf life has diminished significantly, so we are looking at various different ways with different partners in Holland and in America and in Canada at solutions that we can provide to address this challenge,” said Van Ryn. “So while all of this work has not come to fruition yet, we’re working very hard on it. We’ve sold our first few jobs which are really proof of concept jobs. So that’s very exciting and an exciting part of our company that we’re investing in.”
There are many ideas about what urban farming looks like. “There’s a lot of proof of concept happening currently to support people’s ideas about what urban farming should look like, and we’re one of those groups. Out of the various group and ideas, we’re one of the ones that is exploring taking it to a large scale level in terms of operational size, because ultimately the consumer is only going to pay so much for a head of lettuce, so we have to be able to produce it as efficiently as possible,” said Van Ryn.
“We’re looking at satisfying the needs that are brought forth from all levels of the market – consumers, producers, stores and food wholesalers. The ideas range all the way from large scale operations to people feeding their own family and growing lettuce in their house. Our expertise lies in large scale production, so that is what we are focused on. Having said that, there are great ideas coming from all the groups and ultimately we all want to participate in solving the impending food crisis.”
Looking to the future, Zwart Systems wants to take advantage of growth opportunities but always retain its family values. “We are investing heavily within the infrastructure of the company to accommodate growth for the future; we are addressing our operating frameworks and systems, hiring knowledgeable people, all to support our future goals which are moderate controlled growth going forward,” said Van Ryn.
Plans are also in the works to celebrate its milestone anniversary with the people who have enabled the business to become such a success over the years. It plans to invite its vendors and customers for a great day of celebration.
At the end of the day, the secret to its success is not really a big secret. “We have a pretty tightknit industry with high standards,” said Van Ryn. “I think our commitment to product development, a high ethical standard and always, always, always treating our customer well, as we would want to be treated, has been the success formula for us.”