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Joe Roberts, ForemostCo:

“In over 35 years of operations, we’ve seen a lot change in the foliage market”

A lot is happening in the foliage market. Consumer demand is skyrocketing, and new players are entering. How is the market developing, and how will it develop in the future?

Let's ask Joe Roberts of ForemostCo, Inc., a US-based company that was founded as Foremost Foliage in 1987. Since then, the company has undergone constant growth and expansion to become one of the largest importers of live plants to the United States.

But before diving into the foliage market, developments, and future expectations, first, a bit more information about ForemostCo. "We have two facilities in Florida. The primary office is in Miami, where the shipping and logistics, purchasing, and back-office operations are coordinated", says Roberts. Winter Garden is the home of ForemostCo's second office as well as one of its daughter companies, Phoenix Foliage, a 20-acre liner facility. "In 1999, Primeros en Follaje, covering over 88 acres of rich Costa Rican soil, was added to the family of companies to produce the finest ground cover and grasses", he continues. In 2003, Ornamentales Sapo Verde (OSV), also in Costa Rica, was acquired to provide an additional 130 acres of total planting area. In 2010 Vita Farms completed the group of companies with its two locations in Guatemala. "The original 50-acre nursery lies just outside of Villa Canales and contains 108 greenhouses in full operation." In 2017 an additional 185 acres was purchased in Jocotillo to support continued expansion.

Ornamentales Sapo Verde (OSV) in Costa Rica.

How the foliage market developed
In their 35-plus year of operations, they have seen a lot of change in the foliage market. "While the industry is fundamentally attached to most end consumers' disposable income, creating a natural ebb and flow with the consumer spending index, it is no secret that the recent demand for tropical foliage plants has sky-rocketed, creating new sets of challenges and opportunities," Roberts explains.

This increased interest and demand has attracted other players to hop on the foliage train. "They are starting with bread-and-butter foliage items such as Crotons, Pothos, and Dieffenbachia, which we have been supplying for decades out of our production facilities. This could be seen as a challenge as theory dictates that increased competition and extra supply results in the demand curve becoming more price elastic and downward pressure on prices tend to ensue."

On the left: Premium Leaf & Eye. On the right: Dieffenbachia.

On the other hand, positive competition brings out the best in us and everyone involved, Roberts stresses. "We believe that everyone has a different take on how to do business and how they are ultimately going to serve their customers. Our focus has always been on building custom-built relationships where we can better learn and understand the customer's needs and then work to satisfy those needs. There really is no substitute for experience. Over the years, we have made countless changes to optimize our business processes and practices specifically tailored to supplying the tropical foliage market. If there is one thing we learned is that a cookie-cutter business model doesn't work for our plants nor for our customers."         

Main challenges
What are the main challenges they are currently dealing with? Roberts: "We, like everyone else in the industry, are still dealing with a lot of macroeconomic uncertainty at the moment. It's a puzzling time for the U.S. economy where we are dealing with the Fed raising interest rates to curb inflation, yet the job market, consumer spending, and corporate profit growth seem to prove resilient. On a more global scale, the impact of the Russia-Ukraine war and its effect on natural gas prices remains a significant challenge. It's important to remember that in times like these, we must control what we can and focus on the fact that our industry isn't going anywhere. The pandemic fueled significant growth, and a lot of new consumers are absolutely hooked on plants. This uptick in demand will continue for the foreseeable future."

Vita Labs in Guatemala.

Future of the foliage market
According to Roberts, there are a lot of positive signs that the future will continue to look bright. "From the consumer end, Millennials have made a wide range of things trendy, tropical plants being one of them. The combination of visually-driven social media, Instagram in particular, has done much good for the popularity of houseplants. The next generation, Gen Z, are equally interested in connecting with nature and leading a sustainable lifestyle."

As for the market in general, they see a lot more professionalization and consolidation coming in the near future. "We have had a period of staggering growth. Once this growth slows, it's only natural for companies to shift focus toward reducing costs and achieving economies of scale. Increasing production faster and more efficiently. Unfortunately, consolidation is a natural result of the success that the industry has had."

What makes ForemostCo's products so special?
Roberts: "Everyone believes their product is special, but at ForemostCo, we have made a concerted effort to look at the entire value chain to give our customers a competitive edge. Whether it's supplying the market with proprietary products, building a lab in Guatemala to satisfy the need for healthy and reliable starter material, MPS certifying our offshore farms to ensure quality and sustainable business practices, or even spending a lot of time on trying to find efficiencies and creative solutions in our logistics department to minimize the shipping cost and deliver the freshest product possible; we do it all with the frame of mind that if our customers are in good shape then ultimately we will be too."

From left to right: Jos de Boer, Sjef van der Velden, Joe Roberts.

North America and Europe
ForemostCo operates mostly in North America and Europe, with their production facilities serving both markets. "Our dedicated in-house Sales and Customer Service team spans across the U.S. and Canada to satisfy the needs of our customers as well as to help support and onboard new relationships. We also have a strategic partnership for the European market with Sjef van der Velden's team of Handelskwekerij van der Velden, who distribute our product throughout Europe as young and finished plants."

Roger Beaulieu: ForemostCo's East Coast Canada Territory Manager with Curcuma.

Best Sellers
ForemostCo has a diverse product range, but there are some best sellers. "The first is our Spathiphyllum and Curcuma programs, where we partner with KP Holland. Their genetics are top-notch. Second is our series of colored aglaonemas called Jazzed Gems, which we can't expand on quickly enough. Then we have an extensive ZZ plant program with three distinct varieties and a fourth on the way. With this program, we're able to offer both 4" pots as well as 9cm washed plants from offshore. And last but not least, our premium Pothos mix. "It has really taken off over the past five or six years. In fact, we're seeing competitors now attempting to copy our program, which we consider a form of flattery."

Increase in demand for particular varieties?
Roberts: "In 2021, we could list pretty much all of our product groups under this question. Things have obviously slowed down since then, which is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, with the slower movement in the market, we've seen a few of our mixes really shine. As we stated above, our Premium Pothos line continues to be a top seller, and we're continuing to invest heavily in further refinement of production methods as well as continuing to expand the mix, so we regularly have new genetics to keep the program fresh. It's a whole lot more than just Golden Pothos."

They have also seen an increased demand for Carnivorous Plants, he continues. "The key there is folks don't only want Dionaea. There needs to be a mix of other options like Sarracenia, Nepenthes, Drosera, etc. This program has been a lot of fun to work on and has created a lot of excitement within our company as well. We love playing with funky plants, and this program has a few of them."

Future plans
When looking at the future, their plan is to continue to expand in the North American and European markets. "We will do that by focusing on our core business and customers." They are also continuing to vertically integrate by expanding on their tissue culture lab in Guatemala as well as continuing to expand their list of proprietary genetics. "We've toyed with the idea of moving into different segments of the industry but feel that will only dilute our focus on our key suppliers and customers. As the consumer becomes more knowledgeable, they become more discerning. This means we need to continually improve and be at the top of our game so our customers can be successful in supplying the consumer and retailers. We don't want to be all things for all customers. Instead, we're committed to being the leader in foliage and young specialty plants, providing our customers with consistent quality and exceptional service." 

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