Interview with Stéphane Schröder
CEO & Founder of Guadua Bamboo S.A.
Position: CEO / Founder
- Hello Stephane, can you tell me a little bit about yourself and when you founded Guadua Bamboo?
Before I was introduced into the world of bamboo I studied at the Art Academy in Antwerp, worked as a welder and owned a bar. After selling my bar in Belgium I moved to Costa Rica in 2004 and started an antique furniture business, which in retrospect would completely change my life. I remember the day early in 2006 when one of my sales representatives coincidently introduced me to Guadua by suggesting to diversify our offering with tropical bamboo furniture. He brought me a sample of a bamboo vase and threw it against a concrete floor. When he picked it back up it had absolutely no damage at all. I stood perplex. Back then I didn’t even know bamboo could grow that big! I went home, Googled the word "guadua" and that's how the journey began…
After some initial research, I couldn’t understand how it was possible that I had never heard of this incredible plant? And more importantly why aren't there more businesses involved with this giant bamboo? Of course Colombia and Ecuador already had a long history of investigating, cultivating and building with Guadua, but it was very difficult to find good resources online in 2006. For that reason I started GuaduaBamboo.com in 2007, I was on a mission!
- So without any degree or previous knowledge about bamboo, you started Guadua Bamboo?
Yes, I initially created this website with the primary goal to sell bamboo furniture in Costa Rica and to try and promote Guadua to the world. I continued researching and studying the subject, and published my findings online. Soon the website generated thousand of hits a day and local artisans, architects and engineers started to contact me offering their services. Inquiries from around the world poured in, and that's when I realized I had a huge problem... Guadua angustifolia didn't grew native in Costa Rica!
Local furniture makers and contractors rang the alarm bell, reporting me they couldn't find any high quality bamboo poles at reasonable prices. Because of the monopoly of one or two small bamboo plantations, prices rose sky-high and quality standards were poor. Without competition or alternatives, the future for expanding Guadua Bamboo in Costa Rica where almost nil.
- Is that’s when you came up with the plantation idea?
Yes, more or less. In 2008 I met another Belgian in Central America: Jan Van Bilsen. Jan was an award-winning filmmaker and bamboo fanatic living in Nicaragua since the 80’s. He told me that he discovered the very rare, and massive seed setting of native Guadua aculeata in Nicaragua. Since Guadua seeds only occur once every 100 years or so, the idea was born to set up a large scale bamboo nursery and to find potential investors to help finance Guadua plantations in Central America. It is remarkable that in 2010, Jan and I were responsible for the fact that Guadua was now, for the first time in Nicaraguan history, recognized by the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (MARENA) as a high value and sustainable timber resource for export. Our pioneer work with Guadua in Nicaragua, however, opened new doors and caught the attention of several individuals from around the world. Since then numerous new bamboo start ups and forestry brokers have popped up left and right in Nicaragua. For me however, it was time to return to Costa Rica and push my own agenda.
- I assume that you started planting Guadua on a massive scale in Costa Rica then?
No. To be honest, I was just a one man army at that point and I knew I had to find myself good and reliable partners in order to harness the full potential of Guadua Bamboo. I had all the exposure online and had build a large network of potential clients but what the company needed was a professional structure to bring it to the next level. So until 2012 when I met Santiago Perdomo, I mainly focussed on the bamboo nursery in Costa Rica and sold planting material to private property owners.
- So what happened after you met with Santiago?
Santiago is basically the reason why I moved Guadua Bamboo to Colombia. We both knew that in order to grow the business and fulfill clients demand I had to go to where Guadua was abundantly available. Furthermore, Santiago’s experience in business administration and his network in Colombia could mean a jump start to something really big.
- Since you are now in Colombia I assume everything turned out great?
Absolutely! In less than a year we have re-build Guadua Bamboo from the ground up with an extraordinary team of very experienced professionals in the field. Colombia is after all the home of Guadua angustifolia, with universities, and many engineers and architects dedicated to this amazing plant. We already exported several container loads to the USA and Europe and have acquired our first 140 ha of exceptional farm land in the Valle del Cauca where we are currently planting. It’s amazing what can be accomplished when you have a great team along your side that shares the same passion and motivation. Truly remarkable to finally concretize all those ideas.
- Dare I ask, where do you think Guadua Bamboo will be in 10 years?
That’s hard to predict, because at this rate the sky is the limit. What I can share is that we recently signed contracts with two very important European and American companies. Both are giants if it comes to commercializing and producing high tech bamboo building materials, and both agreed to exclusive partnerships with Guadua Bamboo in terms of supplying all the raw materials for the manufacturing of their upcoming product launches.
- So Guadua Bamboo is now solely focussed on exporting the raw bamboo materials from Colombia?
Yes that’s where we are heading but make no mistake this is where everything comes full circle! In order to supply massive amounts of Guadua we need to continue planting on a massive scale too. Although there is native Guadua available in Colombia, most of those resources are natural forests which are strictly regulated. Furthermore these Guadua forests are scattered around the country which complicates logistics. In order to streamline export and production we need to grow commercial plantations in strategic locations. And that is exactly what we are doing right now.
- To end this interview I would like to ask you a few more very quick questions…
- Tell me one thing about yourself you wouldn't want me to know.
As a former professional welder I rather work with metal than with bamboo. Now isn’t that a revelation?! In all honesty, it’s because I suck using woodworking tools. With metal, one has the advantage to be able to cut, weld, extend or adjust, and cut it again, over and over again until you get it right. That’s a luxury you don’t have with wood or bamboo, once you made a mistake you’ll need to start all over again.
- Tell me the difference between good and exceptional.
Good is what I want our competition to be. Exceptional is what we need to be.
- What is your favorite quote?
Mhhh I have two: “There are three types of people in this world; those who make things happen, those who watch things happen and those who wonder what happened.” and my all time favorite is: “Entrepreneurship is living a few years of your life like most people won't, so that you can spend the rest of your life like most people can’t.”
- And final question: Who are your heroes?
Farmers in general. There is a lot we can learn from their work ethics and resilience. They get up every morning before anybody else. They work harder then anybody else. They face the risk of losing all their work when adverse climate conditions or pests destroy their crops. And yet they keep rolling along even when the market demands their products at bargain prices so others can make huge profits on their backs.
For those reasons our field workers are our most valuable asset. We depend on their impeccable work ethics and in return we reward them with a reliable future and a generous salary. Without our workers there wouldn’t be a Guadua Bamboo.