Perspective: Doug Holden, Benary’s Global Breeding Director

Although Doug Holden is a true industry veteran who has coached some of the best breeding teams, he brings a fresh outside perspective to German flower breeder Benary as its new global breeding director.

Holden received his master’s degree in breeding at the University of Connecticut, where he worked on the first color breaks in vinca in the 1980s. Breeder David Lemon took him under his wing and Holden began his career at Bodger Seed, where he bred ageratum ‘Blue Hawaii,’ which is still on the market. He then led Waller Flower Seed’s breeding program for eight years, focusing on niches in vinca, lobelia, portulaca and viola. When Glenn Goldsmith retired in 1997, Holden directed Goldsmith Seeds’ efforts, which were dramatically expanding into vegetative annuals and perennials.

In 2003, Holden transferred to Yoder Brothers, where he managed the global mum business and set up a breeding station in Colombia. After Yoder’s mums were sold to Syngenta, he approached Benary in 2009 to see if he could help consolidate the seed lines Benary purchased from Bodger as Bodger exited the industry. In 25 years, Holden’s career has come full circle and he offers a unique perspective from many vantage points.

GG: What have you been doing at Benary the last year and a half?

DH: I’m living in Germany and learning German. I’m fortunate management level speaks English but the people in the greenhouses are all German speaking. If you can win the hearts and minds of people in the greenhouse, you’ve gone a long way to be successful.

I’m kind of a change agent and Benary is going through changes. We’re consolidating product lines and simplifying breeding. When I came here, they were working on 160 projects. There are 28 today. Working on 160 isn’t bad, but what kind of company are we and who do we want to be? Benary has interesting products and market-leading products with a complexity in niche items. But it’s hard to be a relevant company if you’re not in the major classes. Since we acquired the Bodger genetics, we now have impatiens, petunias, portulaca, marigolds, violas and more pansies.

Benary and begonias are synonymous. The NonStops and Cocktails have amazing name recognition. We also have strong positions in pentas and rudbeckia. Inspire is an outstanding pansy series. We’re doing interesting work in gaillardia and have our Fast Track Perennials. And of course, we have completely new species, like ptilotus ‘Joey.’

We have started a breeding company in Holland near Enkhuizen, where we are consolidating and focusing our breeding. We also have a technical staff in the United States to support our product with the bigger growers.

GG: What will Benary be doing for California Spring Trials?

DH: We will be exhibiting at Plug Connection, where you will see cool introductions in begonias. One of the most successful newer products is the Big begonia. The nice thing is it’s the anti-grower begonia. It’s a consumer begonia. Sales are robust. We have a new multiflora begonia series called New Star and new introductions in fibrous begonias and salvia.

The original plan was to use Bodger’s Lompoc facility, but we made a business decision to not stay there. It’s important for us to have a U.S. presence. We’re working stronger with staff in the fields and technical support, and hopefully, someday a Benary facility. California is still a good location. As long as Spring Trials is a significant event, we can take advantage of the 12-month climate and be aggressive with faster breeding and making seed. Most of the vertical companies agree.

GG: As a breeding company, is it better to be vertically integrated with a broker sales force or remain independent and have many distribution outlets?

DH: Every company is different. Vertical companies present opportunities and challenges. They are bigger companies. Yoder was a vertical company, even one step more than Ball and Syngenta with finished products for sale and a sales force. Waller was owned by a distribution company (Colegrave Seeds) with a good flair for marketing and high standards of what the product should be.

Vertical companies can be slower, more bureaucratic and conservative. Independents have thin infrastructures but are more entrepreneurial. Many times, it’s nerve wracking to not be vertical. Products have to be needed or good enough. Most independent breeders do rely on sales from vertical companies. I don’t know of one model that’s bulletproof. It’s all about execution and becoming process driven. At the end of the day, you’ve got to do good work and build an organization that can execute.

GG: How has flower breeding evolved the last 25 years?

DH: When I came into the industry, it was family owned. The backbone of breeding programs is still traditional methods but there are techniques being used we studied in school–mutation and embryo rescue work. Glenn Goldsmith led the charge from OP (open pollinated) varieties to hybrids. PanAmerican Seed was significant, too, leading the way in petunias. Excellent OP crops became F1 hybrids and so much more economically important. Plugs eliminated the old seed boxes. Growers also became technically efficient and really good business people.

The industry also is a lot less forgiving for bad varieties, introduction mistakes or bad delivery. If a seed business’ reliability is in question, it won’t get the order. New introductions also need to perform through the growers’ systems. You can have the first red vinca or the first astilbe, gaillardia or pentas from seed. It doesn’t matter if you’re the first in anything if it’s not any good. Quality parameters have to be in place and sometimes we forget that.
To be market leading, you have to be as good as, if not better, to have a chance. Not everyone wants to buy 100 percent of their seed or cuttings from one supplier. That’s why Yoder had nowhere to go but down in mums.

GG: Where will we see the next big breakthroughs?

DH: I reject the idea that breakthroughs are no longer possible. Impatiens have been magnificent, foolproof and disease proof and come in a gazillion colors and habits, but now they are under attack by downy mildew in Europe. Tolerant varieties will be bred. We’re starting to see more interspecific work, like with the Calitunias (calibrachoas and petunias) and phlox/verbena (Velox).

Hybrids will continue to be important. When Jagi Sharma bred the first hybrid violas (Sorbets), the rest became obsolete in two years, even with seed being 10-15 times more expensive. We’ll also see seed forms of vegetative varieties, like the Serena angelonia Ellen Leue bred at PanAmerican Seed.
Perennials are the next frontier but they are more complex than annuals, overcoming dormancy and vernalization requirements. Perennials haven’t had the same standards as annuals in terms of seed quality and bacteria-free stock. With Goldsmith’s Origami aquilegias, we are able to program the flower but the tradeoff is it’s not as winter hardy. Winter hardiness is the trait that’s most difficult to identify, an elusive thing.

Sparkler chleomes and the Origamis were 12- to 14-year projects. Most companies can’t afford to do that kind of work. Making money on petunias and pansies allows you to breed Sparkler chleomes or Magic ranunculus.

GG: What are the ingredients of a strong breeding program?

DH: You need money, facilities, leadership, sound goals that are market driven, talent and a little bit of art and bravery. Breeding is teamwork, but you can’t afford to make mistakes. Mistakes could be the wrong market objective, positioning against the competition, product form for the grower or lack of garden performance.

Breeding can be a lonely job because it takes so long. The first salesperson is always the breeder. You’ve got to take the idea and make it a reality in a way that fits with 80 other things from a research standpoint and get through marketing, sales and production before anyone ever sees it. If you don’t get it right, there’s no return. But if you do get it right, there’s great reward.

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