Rudi De Kerpel: "Innovation begins with listening"

picture of the writer Hendrik Keeris, Co-Founder Bizzy

Hendrik Keeris, Co-Founder Bizzy

4/8/2022

Blog

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Few people have left such a unique mark on the Flemish retail market as Rudi De Kerpel. With Eurotuin, he demonstrated that a garden centre can be much more than a few bags of potting soil on wooden pallets. With Goodless, which makes reusable cups, he is once again trying to find the right balance between gut feeling and data.

In 1995, Rudi De Kerpel had been the director of a flower auction for six years, when he got a phone call from his brother. There was a former greenhouse in Merelbeke that was looking for a new owner. He decided to take the leap. “It was a period in which the word ‘retail’ only existed in English. I liked playing shop, but initially it was just a bunch of shelving with potting soil. With a few of our own tweaks, Eurotuin – which is what I called the store – over the years grew into a chain. I am still surprised to see how people go several kilometres out of their way for it.”

Initially, De Kerpel was inspired by the Netherlands, where Intratuin was in the midst of expansion. “I had built up a large network with the flower auctions. Forty of us used to join forces to go to suppliers and buy in volume. We’d also visit each other regularly and kept motivating each other to do better.”

The golden rulebook

The adjustments made by De Kerpel made Eurotuin a trendsetter in the sector. In fact, it introduced a lot of concepts that competitors would later copy. “I would be behind the till for 40 weekends a year myself. That way, I knew exactly how my shop was going. Are the plants dry? Are the boxes dusty? What are people asking me? I wrote everything down in a book. Then I would move certain products around, for example.”

That book became the golden rulebook for Eurotuin, because innovation begins with attentive listening. “We sold everything for dogs, cats and rodents. Because of this, people would ask me to recommend a good vet in the area, or someone who could take care of animals. That’s why I started our pet health centre WelloPet.”

Another one of those innovations was the pond section. “That started as a small experiment. I bought two large black tanks and put fish in them. That evening, they were all already sold. It is often through these little tests that you see whether there’s a gap in the market for something. You have to test the waters and know what customers are willing to buy from you. It’s obvious that there’s no point putting a pharmacy in a garden centre.”

De Kerpel also found inspiration outside the store. Two to three times a year, he’d go to a trade fair that seemingly had nothing to do with his business. For example, a furniture trade fair. “It was at these moments that I tried, along with the branch managers, to identify trends and see how they fit into our sector. I spotted that people who do a lot of gardening, also like to spend time in the garden with friends. So I started focusing more on tableware, for example by selling Serax plates at Eurotuin.”

How sustainable are your suppliers?

Eurotuin was quick to make a name for itself through these innovations. Thanks to two takeovers and the opening of an extra garden centre, the chain grew to four stores. “To figure out where we could expand, we had an area plan indicating all of our competitors. We looked at five crucial parameters for potential takeovers, including location, number of inhabitants and their earnings. That enabled us to quickly identify some potential in Roeselare and in the area of Brakel. We saw the diamonds in the rough and succeeded in tripling turnover in three years by expanding.”

In June 2018, the reverse happened: Eurotuin was itself taken over. Aveve bought De Kerpel’s group, a good twenty years after he’d set it up. This enabled him to focus on a topic that had been close to his heart for years: sustainability. In 2019, he launched Goodless, which makes reusable cups out of polypropylene coupled with a smart recycling system.  “For a long time, I could only do my bit for the environment by donating money to Boyan Slat—which I did with great pleasure—but when Eurotuin was sold, I could become more proactive myself”, he says.

De Kerpel keeps a lot of data to get a good idea of how many tonnes of plastic Goodless helps save. “There is a great deal of public information available about companies, but very little on how sustainable they are. However, this data could be crucial in the future when companies want to choose what suppliers to work with.”

Despite this, he doesn’t depend on data alone. He also relies on a gut feeling, just like with Eurotuin. “When things go wrong, I often hear people say that they already had a feeling this would happen at the outset. To figure that out you don’t need to sit on a mountain in a yoga pose. All you have to do is what I would do all those weekends: keep your ear to the ground.”

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