FOGGIA Whether you buy your rose from a boutique in Barcelona, a store in Manchester or a florist in Copenhagen, it is probably an Italian rose -- and there is a good chance it comes from the southern region of Puglia.
Around the city of Foggia, where the unemployment rate stands at 15%, the Ciccolella flower growers have a thriving business. It is one of just four companies from the South to be amongst the 300 quoted on the Italian Stock Exchange -- and the only floricultural company quoted on any of the European bourses.
Ciccolella is a family business, established in the 1960s by two farmers, Paolo and Maria Antonia, and expanded by their four sons: Vincenzo, Corrado, Francesco and Antonio.
In 2004, the next generation decided to expand again, establishing a unique partnership with Edison, an energy company that was in the process of building a power plant in the nearby city of Candela. The exchange is simple: Edison gives to Ciccolella the excess hot water the power plant produces, saving on costs of the cooling process. Meanwhile, the water passes through a series of pipes that provides virtually all of the heating necessary to warm specially designed greenhouses built around the power plant.
The tradeoff has been a huge success: at the opening of the power plant in 2006, greenhouses were covering just a few hectares and now, six years later, nearly 100 hectares. And expansion continues. After European integration, the Ciccolella group acquired three top Dutch flower companies specialized in trading and logistics. The company today has nearly 400 million in annual revenue, selling some 7 million anthuriums, and is market leader in rose sales in Europe. Meanwhile, Candela is the biggest flower cultivation site in Europe.
Foreign flower market
More than 40% of the company's total production is for the foreign market: at least twice a week a refrigerated truck full of roses leaves the south of Italy and arrives, three days later, in Amsterdam. The transport fee of a single flower stalk is five cents. It is expensive," explains Vincenzo Ciccolella, the eldest brother and president of the holding, "if you consider that the roses that come from Kenya by cargo cost only two cents more.
Part of the cost burden is linked to insufficient infrastructure in southern Italy: There are five airports in Puglia, but none is used for the cargos," says Ciccolella. "We would have to go to Rome or Milan, but it is not worth it.
Corrado Ciccolella, president of the company, cites Italian politics and excessive "bureaucratization" as the two biggest long-term obstacles to business growth. But the current economic crisis has also cut into the flower industry. Its not about quantity," explains Corrado Ciccolella. "But the prices went down 15%. Half of the roses that are sold nowadays have a short stem because they are less expensive. Five years ago, it was only 30%.
What can be done to stay competitive abroad? We have to give our customers what they want," says Vincenzo Ciccolella. "We sell 40 varieties of Anthurium and 25 types of roses (six of which are patented, editors note). Our Research & Development department is breeding different varieties to meet the demands of our customers --fewer thorns on the stem and a stronger scent: an almost forgotten trait of a cut flower.
But the company's R&D department is also studying how to better integrate energy production with the agricultural process. Do you remember photosynthesis from school? The flower gets nourishment through light, temperature and carbon dioxide. Ciccolella researchers are reaching the final stage of study on how to recover the carbon dioxide from the power plant and use it as a fertilizer for the plants. In this way carbon emissions decrease and flower production cycle is shortened. It would be another encouraging whiff of innovation from this southern tip of Europe.
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