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Ralph DeBoer, right and Joshua Bulk of Rosa Flora stand among some of their 110 varietals of Gerbera.

Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail

Rosa Flora Growers Ltd.

Where based: Dunnville, Ont.

What the company does: Grows and sells flowers to flower wholesalers

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Year started: 1978

Number of employees: 138

Revenue: About $10-million in 2011


Rosa Flora has its roots in the Netherlands, where the company's founder, Otto Bulk, spent years working in his father's rose-growing business. Mr. Bulk wanted to expand the business, but there wasn't enough space in the Netherlands or in other parts of Europe to set up the acres of greenhouses he wanted.

Mr. Bulk had two brothers living in Ontario who told him all about Canada and how he'd have no problem finding space. In 1977, he moved to Dunnville, bought a parcel of land and built a small house. A year later, he had 25,000 square feet of greenhouse space, and his company, which grows flowers and sells them to wholesale florists, was born.

At first, Rosa Flora grew only hybrid tea roses, but over the years, the company's offerings have expanded. Today, the company has 1.5 million square feet of growing space and the business sells hundreds of varieties of flowers to wholesale companies in Ontario, Quebec and the northeastern United States.

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Mr. Bulk started handing over the reins of the business to his children in 2005. He transferred ownership to son Josh Bulk, vice-president of post-production operations; son-in-law Ralph DeBoer, vice-president of production operations; and daughter, Arielle DeBoer, who runs marketing and promotions. However, the patriarch still comes to work almost every day. "He's a grower at heart," Mr. DeBoer says.

The Challenge:

Rosa Flora sells mass orders of fresh-cut flowers from its greenhouses to clients using an automated system that can process only one variety of flower at a time. The current system is very restrictive if clients want any kind of change, whether flowers of different colours, sizes, numbers in bunches, stem lengths and other options.

What the company offers is "not necessarily what they always desire," says company controller Arjan Vos. "We want to increase competition by offering 30 roses, instead of just 40, for example."

More and more, clients are seeking customized orders. With its current operation, giving it to them means literally tearing apart the packages of flowers that have been put together by the automated system, counting out each stem, rearranging and repackaging them.

Not only is that time- and labour-consuming, it also wastes packaging material, may compromise product quality, and even affects employee morale, the company said in its application. "When employees discover their work is being duplicated, they start to feel devalued," the company wrote.

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Though Rosa doesn't get a lot of custom orders currently – about 10 per cent of total business – it's an area of the business the company thinks it could boost significantly if it developed a system that could be programmable to do more customization automatically.

Not only would such a system allow the company to charge more, but it would also help it to become more competitive to be able to retain current clients, along with adding more. Since some international growers are starting to increase their own customization capabilities, Rosa Flora is concerned that its current customers will start looking to overseas growers if the company doesn't offer this option.

The solution:

Creating such a system would require a significant investment in research and new equipment. What already exists on the market doesn't quite suit the company's needs, Mr. Vos says, so it would need to purchase available equipment and modify it to Rosa Flora's specifications. Mr. DeBoer estimates the entire process could cost $100,000 to $1-million.

The company wants to put its focus on researching and developing such a system. The first step, Mr. Vos says, is to hire electrical engineers and computer programmers who would figure out what technology would be needed to meet Rosa Flora's needs. Once that's done, the company would have to buy equipment to test and modify to its design.

Mr. Vos thinks the company could come up with a functioning prototype within 10 months. And he estimates that it could boost sales by at least 10 per cent a year, along with offering cost savings. "We anticipate the benefits of the system will include labour efficiency gains, reduced packaging waste, and less flower damage due to less processing," wrote the company in its application.

What it would  do with the money:

The money would go a long way toward kickstarting the process, Mr. Vos says. If it won, it would immediately hire the experts to start designing this system, as well as possibly use some of the cash to buy equipment.

What the judges say:

Jim Senko, vice-president of small- added hyphen to medium-sized business market for Telus Corp.

"I liked that their first focus is on the customer and they want to differentiate that customer experience. They had a clear focus as to what they were trying to do. It's a worthy goal because they've got a niche where /that/ they can be successful. Customizing gives them a customer experience niche and, if they can make the changes, it will make a difference. add space I was also drawn to the fact that they're a domestic business cutting flowers, which is largely a foreign kind of market. It's nice to see a Canadian company thriving."

Steve Tustin, senior editor in The Globe and Mail's custom content group

"One of the things we liked is that they're in a competitive international market. So they need/ed/ to invest something that would give them an advantage. What they need to do is very tangible and necessary. The judges could see how they can use this money to get their system off the ground. It's clear that this will get them ahead."

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