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In the garden with: Erwin Meier-Honegger (Ernst Meier AG)

25 Apr 2019

Erwin Meier-Honegger runs the Swiss family business Ernst Meier AG together with his sister Bettina Walser-Meier. - Photo:

Erwin Meier-Honegger runs the Swiss family business Ernst Meier AG together with his sister Bettina Walser-Meier. - Photo:

Erwin Meier-Honegger has been running the Swiss family business, Ernst Meier AG, together with his sister since 2012. The garden centre that belongs to it is one of the most innovative in Europe.

The company's history already began in 1894. At the time a seed trading company with 28 employees was founded in Tann, Switzerland. Today, the company employees over 200 people and has moved to a new location spanning 35,000 square metres in Dürnten in the Zürcher Oberland. The garden centre has already won many prizes: For example the "Graines d'or" in 2012 for the best international garden centre of the French "Groupe J" and the "This-Priis" in 2016, an award for companies that sustainably integrate employees with a handicap. In addition to the garden centre, the AG also maintains a large nursery, a horticulture department as well as a publishing company.

Mr Meier-Honegger, you are a professional gardener and are now running the company that your great-grand parents founded in the fourth generation. Was it always clear to you that you would join the company one day, or did you have other plans in-between? Today, many family business have difficulty finding a successor.

Meier-Honegger: My father's enthusiasm, the development perspectives of the company and the prospect of travelling the world on behalf of the International Garden Centre Association, lured me. This lure worked on me and the profession that it implicated was actually only a secondary issue. Now I am challenged with finding the fitting bait for my successors and for the omnipresent lack in skilled workers.

You travel a lot, also abroad, with your job and through your association work. What is the difference between the green industry in Switzerland and that of neighbouring countries? Or aren't there any differences?

Meier-Honegger: One can't experience the character of a country more pronouncedly than in the respective garden centres. "Show me your garden centre and I will tell you, who you are," in my opinion that is how one could sum it up. If the TV programme "Wetten, dass?" still existed, I would apply with the bet that if I was turned out in whatever garden centre, I would be able to guess the respective country it is located in within two minutes.

Will you be attending spoga+gafa in Cologne again in September?

Meier-Honegger: In the meantime, I have handed over the responsibility for procurement to my colleagues. As such the trade fairs in Cologne are no longer an obligatory date in my diary. Visiting non-industry events is sometimes more important for me in order to understand the changing trade environment. However, visiting the trade fair every few years is of course important so that one doesn't lose contact with the industry environment. I agree with an assessment I recently read in a newsletter from Canadian media entrepreneur Tyler Brûlé: „Why do people come to trade fairs? Because you need to haggle and build relationships in person and we shouldn’t forget that there’s a certain amount of eroticism that goes with massive exhibitions like this. The trade fair is just a continuation of the three-day school trip we all grew up with.”

You invest a lot in the training of your employees and say that garden salespeople have to develop more into nature advisors. How important are good employees for the success of a garden centre?

Meier-Honegger: They are the most important aspect. Everything else apart from the employees is available online. The trade guru David Bosshard from the famous Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute sums up the future success of the retail trade in the following formula: Two parts service plus one part product. Service = employee. They are much more important than the products and the setting.

You are also the publisher of the garden magazine "Schweizerischer Pflanzenfreund" (Swiss Plant Friend), which appears monthly. The publication has been in circulation since 1900. How do you explain this long-term success? Many other garden magazines have been discontinued over the past years.

Meier-Honegger: Success is relative, but it is very popular. It is however possible that our subscription magazine is gaining a new relevance. The mentioned 2:1 formula requires new value chain models. In this connection many companies, such as Apple for instance, are placing their bets on subscription models. Can this also be a solution for garden centre services? The subscription fee as a paywall for enhancing services in the bricks and mortar trade?

Do you find time for your own garden alongside all your other tasks? Or haven't you got one because all the plants you are involved with all day in your work life suffice?

Meier-Honegger: My wife takes care of our private terrace garden. She is my most critical and adventuresome customer. Every Sunday we undertake a tour of the terrace together which provides me with inspiring cognitions.

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