Kees van den Bosch on 20 years of Freeland:

“We started out of necessity, but never had any regrets”

Exactly 20 years ago, Kees van den Bosch founded Freeland. Back then, he was already told day trading was old-fashioned, and that at least one customer must always have your back. Twenty years on, the results of this exporter of outdoor vegetables still show a rising line. He’d prefer staying active in the company for a few more years, and then retreating behind the scenes as an advisor and shareholder.

“I was born and bred in Bleijswijk, the Netherlands, and had no connection to the east of the country whatsoever. From when I was 22 until I was 36 I worked for Combilo, and in the mid 90s the fresh produce sector entered into a turbulent period. Not buying at auction but from horticulturalists had just started. The Greenery and its predecessors saw one manager after another leaving. I liked directly buying from horticulturalists, but the people from Combilo decided to remain focused on auctions. However, Fresh Farm, a subsidiary from Boers op Nieuw-Amsterdam, switched to the new way of doing things, and I liked that. That’s how I ended up in the east of the country in 1995,” Kees reminisces.

Starting at Fresh Farm wasn’t always easy, this company had also entered into an unsettled period after Heinz Deprez had taken over parent company Boers Holland. There were no other companies that appealed to Kees in the east, he felt homesick, and that’s why he came very close to returning to Combilo. However, love threw a spanner in the works, because the trader couldn’t imagine having a ‘weekend marriage,’ and so he started for himself out of necessity in 1998: Freeland was born. “I sold those 100 containers of onions to Sweden for Combilo, and I did the same for Fresh Farm, and that’s how I put bread on the table. Where I sold wasn’t that important. I saw Freeland as the link between horticulturalist and final customer, and that suited the philosophy of shortening the supply chain just fine.”

“When I started for myself, all the pieces of the puzzle started fitting together. Starting a company back then wasn’t as comprehensive as it is now, with all the necessary certification. You registered at the Chamber of Commerce, and you just started,” Kees says. Naturally, a sales location had to be found, and that was Donkerbroek. Kees rented an office space from Arie Koppert. “Back then, there were already people who didn’t want anything to do with him, and people who trusted him unconditionally. I belonged to the latter category. In those years, Arie was the driving power behind the Dutch iceberg lettuce production, he had contacts among growers, and he had an in with carrots and onions. However, when he went bankrupt, I also had to leave Donkerbroek.”

That move turned out not to be a problem either. “In Donkerbroek, one employee was hired every year, and after four years, there were five of us. Nearly everyone came from Emmen, and we always drove to Donkerbroek together, so that the move was more of a relief,” Kees continues. He never experienced the location in Emmen as a disadvantage. “We could actually be located everywhere in the Netherlands, whether in Overijssel, North Holland or Limburg. Remarkably, we buy very few products from nearby farmers, but many shipments go East via Zwartemeer. Because of that, we’re fairly centrally located in our buying and selling area.”

Most important sales countries for Freeland are Sweden, Poland and the Czech Republic. In recent years, Germany has becoming a growth market as well. “In the past, we only drove through Germany, but we never focused on the country regarding sales, even though we have good opportunities there. We also buy a lot from German farmers,” Kees explains. In recent years, the company from Emmen has developed into a true outdoor vegetable specialist. “Onions are the largest in volume. We still have some growth opportunities in greenhouse vegetables, but when you have a small company, you can’t do everything. We might have the occasional success with cucumbers or vine tomatoes, but we’re not in the picture for supermarket programmes with German retailers.”

Kees van den Bosch.

New Year’s Day 2008
Over the years there were plenty of difficult moments as well. For example, in 2008 when the complete sales department consisting of three employees announced on New Year’s Day they’d be leaving. “Due to our good contacts we managed to fill the ranks again quickly, and since then things have been looking up. In April, everything was under control again, and Donna Zandvliet, who supported our sales team, turned out to be a great addition. Because of this, the sales department could focus on trade,” Kees says.

Another year etched in the company’s memory is 2011, when problems arose regarding the export of potatoes and onions to Russia. “In the past, Russia was an interesting market for us during the calm winter months, but in hindsight it would’ve been better if we had done things a bit calmer in those months. You lose less money on holiday than when trading with most of the Russians.”

“In these 20 years I never once considered quitting, except maybe when my three sales people handed in their resignation. However, when you have an extensive network, you can achieve much. I have a number of suppliers that I’ve worked with since my days for Combilo, and we’ve lived through everything. I’m particularly proud that we’ve only ever grown, except in times of a poorer economy,” Kees says. He mentions the communication as a biggest challenge in all those years of trade. “I come from the time of the telex and telefax. Nowadays, trading is mostly done via email. That’s resulted in an oasis of tranquility in the office.”

He hopes Freeland’s name will still be on the front of the building in the next 20 years as well. “I won’t be there anymore then, but perhaps my son or my daughter is interested. Only time will tell. My daughter Laura now works in the office one day per week. I expect to remain active in trade for about three to five more years, and then I think I’ll become a shareholder and advisor. I’m preparing myself a bit for that now. I go all in from May to September, but in the other months I let the other employees do most of day trading. That’s quite a good deal, isn’t it?”

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Kees van den Bosch

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