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Women in export: Birkdale

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Between Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck in Hong Kong’s Disneyland you might spy an Australian bottle tree or two. It’s a little taste of Australia in the luxury landscaping project, for which Australian company Birkdale International supplied 800 40-foot sea containers filled with full-size trees, plants and shrubs. "It was a major logistical operation," Barbara McGeoch says. Among the many jobs McGeogh is responsible for in the business she coordinates exports from Australia for Birkdale. The Disneyland contract came out of a number of smaller export projects. Birkdale began exporting jacaranda trees to Japan in 1989 and the following year supplied plants for the Queensland and Australian exhibits at Expo 90 in Osaka. "That was very successful and because of that, we gained a good reputation within the government of being capable of exporting. Our earliest export enquiries actually came through the government," McGeoch says. Birkdale responded to export enquiries on a reactive basis for two years before deciding to establish a dedicated export division. From that point, the Birkdale team actively sought business in South East Asia where there was a demand for Australian plants. Birkdale’s first major export project was supplying the Brunei royal family for a golf course and large public park. "We soon learnt that you can never assume your client’s landscapers will know how to look after your plants, so we sent staff to assist with overseeing the planting and establishment process. It was a matter of selling the ‘sizzle with the sausage’," McGeoch says. Birkdale International drew on a large network of suppliers in Australia, but found soon enough that exporting everything from Australia was impractical. "It’s impossible to be competitive because of the freight and cost of production," McGeoch explains.

Developing a supply network

A joint venture in the Philippines gave the Birkdale team their first experience of setting up a production nursery overseas, groundwork that would stand them in good stead for the Disneyland project. Birkdale worked with two landscape architects out of Los Angeles for two years before commencing work on the theme park in 2002. To deliver the volume of plants required, Birkdale set up a 12 hectare production nursery in Guangdong province in China. Today Birkdale has a turf farm, tree farm and production nursery in China to service projects in South East Asia. McGeoch explains that they source product from other horticultural suppliers in China, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Egypt, Lebanon, Europe and Australia. Their diverse network is a key part of maintaining quality assurance under the ISO standards. To this day, McGeoch cites the Disney project as the most challenging and rewarding project that Birkdale International has worked on. "It was a world first in terms of complexity and volume. We moved large trees and palms of up to 12 metres in height. We were the pioneers in this type of logistical management." Their work paid off and Birkdale International established a reputation as capable and quality suppliers for high profile projects. As demand for their service grew, Birkdale International expanded to include landscape installation and maintenance-"so we could provide the total package", McGeoch says. Birkdale International won the tender to supply and install vegetation for James Packer’s City of Dreams Casino in Macau. With these high profile projects on the company’s resumé, McGeogh found that former clients began to recommend Birkdale for other jobs.

Negotiating logistics

Exporting live plant matter is a bureaucratic minefield, requiring negotiation customs and quarantine requirements in each market. "One thing that we’d always do when we were exporting to a new country is meet with the quarantine authorities of that country and clarify their requirements. We also submit samples of soil-less media that we would use to grow plants for their approval." That way, McGeogh says, when it came to exporting they already knew of Birkdale and what it was doing. "It made the process much smoother." Not preparing for quarantine can lead to "a very nasty experience," she advises, "and an expensive one". Following the Disney project, Birkdale expanded its business offerings to include landscape installation and maintenance "so we can provide the total package". Birkdale began as a family business, with McGeoch and her husband running a large nursery in Queensland. As they began to enter the export market, like most SMEs they struggled to meet performance bonds, which usually form 10 percent of the value of the contract. "The Export Finance and Insurance Corporation assisted us to meet these which made it possible to free up our resources for working capital," McGeoch says. Over the last 15 years Birkdale has exported to projects in the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Oman. To service this region effectively it was necessary to establish a company in the region (as Birkdale already had in Shanghai). In 2009 Birkdale established a company in Abu Dhabi, trading under Nakheel Birkdale International LLC. "What we’re trying to do in the UAE is introduce more plants that are suited to that climate," McGeoch says. "And that is very challenging because of the extreme heat and salinity issues." Some Australian plants grow very well in the Middle East. "We’re also interested in assisting with the development of their own indigenous plants, which is only just starting to happen now as sustainability is becoming more important," she says.

Building a reputation

The international supply network Birkdale has built up over 15 years has been vital to their success overseas. Landscape architects are particular about their requirements (sometimes to the centimetre), and it is imperative to have an extensive network of suppliers to be able to meet clients’ specific needs. Learning the complex logistical management these projects require has been a long process. "When you’re doing your costings you need to think about your buy-in costs, preparation to meet quarantine requirements, shipping, logistical management and whether there is a contractual obligation to undertake maintenance." It has been Birkdale’s ability to consider all of this and still produce quality work that has cemented its reputation overseas. "Our track record means people have confidence in our abilities and that we can deliver. That’s the most important thing because the projects we’re working on are high profile. Delivering top quality stock in good condition is of paramount importance," McGeoch says. She believes her industry is one of the toughest to work in. "Being a leader, particularly in the area of complex logistics, has created the biggest challenge. But we’ve always enjoyed a challenge. We’re had to train our own staff, because there weren’t people in this industry qualified to do what we were doing." McGeoch is proud of the work she and her team have done building up Birkdale’s reputation over many years. Birkdale’s good work with Disney in Hong Kong has led to a repeat contract to expand the theme park. The Birkdale team is also working with landscape architects for the upcoming Disney Project in Shanghai. McGeoch believes this proves the value of long-term good relationships. "The Disney Hong Kong project firmly established our international reputation. Without that experience, I doubt that we would be where we are today."

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