Founder Nico van Vuuren looks back on how it started, and how it’s going.
Nico van Vuuren has had a major impact on the sports turf industry. His grow lighting technology revolutionized pitch management and even earned him the IOG Lifetime Achievement award in 2016. Nearly 25 years ago, the rose grower started his first tests with assimilation lighting on grass. Today his systems are used by 500 sports venues worldwide. We look back with Nico at the early stages of SGL, the challenges that came with it, and why he happily gave up a lucrative concert deal.
Nico’s goal was clear from the start in 1998: “It wasn’t about building a profitable business, nor having hundreds of customers worldwide. It was about showing the world of sports that a consistent top quality grass playing surface was possible in any stadium, no matter the weather and playing schedule. About putting an end to muddy goal mouths and slipping players, and instead creating a grand stage on which football players could showcase their talents.” Back then Nico was already able to grow hundreds of thousands of roses during the cold Dutch winters, so he figured it would also be possible to grow grass all year long. “It was initially a try-out, an idea, but quickly grew into a serious passion.”
He started tests with assimilation lighting on a small piece of grass, together with one of his partners in crime, Dick ter Horst. “Back then, assimilation lighting was already widely used in greenhouses. This technique allowed light and heat to be applied to the plant for faster growth through more effective photosynthesis. The results were promising and we continued our research for years to gain knowledge and experience, and optimise the concept for sports venues.”
After four years the first ever sports grow lighting system was developed and trialled in the 18-yard box of Sunderland A.F.C’s Stadium of Light. It became a huge success: “The club’s goal mouths had never looked so good. You could clearly see the difference in quality compared to the rest of the pitch.” Naturally, Nico was eager to move forward and he was convinced this was the breakthrough. Therefore he decided to host an open day at the Research Centre in the Netherlands, to share the great results with the sports industry. “We invited a big group of people from all over the world and planned two days to spread the crowds. Guess how many people showed up… One, just one! We couldn’t believe it. We knew we had the perfect solution, but no one was interested. It was quite frustrating.”
For a while it seemed like Nico was the only one who had faith in his technology. For a long time he was calling people, day in and day out, but still no one seemed interested. Until, at some point, the hard work paid off. “One evening I was at home with my wife Wilma when the phone rang. Wilma picked up, and said to me that Guus Hiddink was on the phone and that he wanted to speak to me. I thought one of my friends was playing a joke on me and I hung up. But Hiddink called again, and slowly I started to realise that this was really happening.” Guus Hiddink was the manager of PSV Eindhoven at the time and the first one to show serious interest in SGL’s grow lighting technology, together with stadium manager Tom Ploegsma. “They were the main reason for PSV’s willingness to invest in the system.”
So there it finally was after six years, the breakthrough. PSV Eindhoven became SGL’s first ever customer. Their lighting system treated half of the pitch at once with lighting and heat. There were some teething problems but Nico was dedicated and had full focus. “I would happily drive 1,5 hours at 6 AM on a Sunday morning to help the groundsman Harry van de Berk to move the lights. It was crucial for the future of SGL to make this a success.” After a few weeks the results stared to show and all parties involved were convinced it was heading in the right direction. But then just after Christmas Nico got a phone call from Harry, the groundsman: “He told me that he was not happy at all with the SGL system. I was shocked and nervously asked him what was wrong. Then he started laughing and told me that normally he could relax around Christmas but now he had to cut the grass every day because it was growing like crazy. What a relief!”
A few months later PSV carefully discussed the possibility of concerts in summer. Nico had always mentioned this as a benefit and possibility but everyone was apprehensive about it. After setting up a plan of action with PSV and the pitch contractor Agterberg, it was decided to go for it. “We had agreed in the contract that SGL would take a share of concert profits in return for a discount. PSV did not believe in the possibility of concerts anyway so they thought they had struck a very favourable deal.” However, that first summer became a great success. And now, more than 15 years later, the concerts from famous Dutch singer Guus Meeuwis have become a tradition and provide an important flow of income for the stadium. “It would have been some nice extra cash for SGL, had PSV not nervously asked me to remove the clause right after the first successful summer; to which I agreed immediately. My goal was already achieved: starting a bright future for SGL.”
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