SGL Keynote interview - we talk to Nico van Vuuren

Kerry Haywoodin Keynote Interview

There aren't many stadium images you see these days without a lighting rig in view! Kerry Haywood met with SGL founder Nico van Vuuren at their Netherlands Headquarters to find out how his vision revolutionised the industry.

Professional rose grower and football enthusiast, Nico was sick of watching top of the bill football games being played on not so top of the bill pitches. In winter, goalmouths didn't show even a leaf of grass anymore and world class players were slipping and sliding across the pitch. How could it be that he was capable of growing thousands of roses per day, even during the dark Dutch winters, whilst the grass in many football stadiums in Europe had serious trouble surviving?

The concept - rose growing

The answer derived from Nico's rose growing background. In the rose greenhouse environment at Porta Nova, all growth factors were considered, monitored and improved, and Nico knew that this same process could be introduced in a lighting system, consisting of metal rigs with lighting armatures.

Pitchcare: How long did it take to develop the idea?

Nico van Vuuren: In 1998, we started to develop the idea and build the first systems, but it wasn't until October 2002 that the first machine made it out into the field. In most stadiums, natural light is not sufficient for steady growth all year long, because of shaded areas, shorter and colder days in winter, and sometimes even in summer, the sunlight is not enough to recover from the damage. I knew that, if I could control the light input in a greenhouse, I could introduce the same technology for pitches and the grass would grow, regardless of the limiting factors. At the time, people said I was crazy; how can a rose grower know anything about improving pitch quality and how can these lights work? To a certain extent, they were scared about something different coming into the market and could not understand how introducing huge two tonne rigs onto the turf would work.

Left: Managing Director, Nico van Vuuren with long-serving Sales Director, Frank van Beusekom Right: Rose greenhouse

Where/how was the system first trialled?

Back then, I would go banging on doors; the front door, back door, the windows and even the roof if I could, to gain access to stadiums. I was so passionate about the product and knew what a difference the lights would make. In 2002, the first system was trialled, ironically, at the Stadium of Light, home of Sunderland FC. We set up a prototype rig in the penalty box and the results were simply mind blowing. So, we invited a number of groundsmen to view the results for themselves including Paul Burgess, Keith Kent, Tony Bell, Eddie Rutherford and Lee Jackson, to name a few - and they were all astounded.

Which facility was the first to install the system?

After the conference at Sunderland, we really started to build credibility and interest. In 2004, PSV Eindhoven were the very first European customer and Newcastle were first in the UK. In 2005, Arsenal were the first UK stadium to treat a full pitch, in at Highbury Stadium. Arsène Wenger was the only member of the Board to vote against it; he said they would damage the pitch and they would look unsightly. Then, one very cold evening in January 2005, I was standing pitchside at a game against Manchester United and there was a tap on my shoulder. Mr Wenger said: "I'm sorry. I have never seen this quality of pitch at the beginning of January."

We were very much still learning at this point, and it was invaluable to have feedback from these guys in order to develop the machines further. Product development cycles at the time were very short, as we listened and made changes to adapt to customer requirements. Today, customer focus is still very much key; we have 350 worldwide and we are proud to be the market leader defending that title.

Are the lights suitable for any cultivars?

Yes. We tested this from the very beginning, and brought it into practice in Australia from 2008 then America from 2010. We have our dedicated test centre, situated next to our offices, where different light sources and light intensities are being tested and also their effect on a variety of grasses. The centre is divided into different sections and, on each section, a separate situation is created to calculate growth. SGL analysers then measure the different values of each section and results are reviewed and compared by our in-house agronomists. These results are included in the developments of new products.

In the early days, my son (who has a background in agriculture), was amazed at how I could grow roses without collating any information. He criticised me for only looking at the roses which were growing well and said: "You have to know your input and output, to allow calculations of data in order to follow a science." That was the creation of our model - both for SGL and in the greenhouse, where we now look at temperature, humidity, biomass etc. to achieve results.

How does a groundsperson know how long to activate the system for?

What was very apparent from the beginning, was that we could easily add light to the surface, but you cannot grow a high-quality pitch from only controlling the light input. You need to be aware of all the growing circumstances as much as possible. Monitoring and analysing is crucial when managing a playing surface. So, the next step, was to develop an analysing system, with an online portal, displaying all necessary data and lighting advice from SGL agronomists. The SGL system became a complete grass management tool.

What this means is that, when we have a new customer, we analyse their stadium, we calculate exactly how much light comes onto the pitch and we use climate databases to determine conditions. All of this data is combined to provide start up advice and can also be used to evaluate a customer's requirements and build a model of how many systems are required etc. Many of those customers go on to use the portal for 24-hour analysis to monitor the conditions of the soil and every aspect of the conditions in the stadium. We offer three different levels of support for the portal; from weekly reports to monitoring the equipment themselves with the data provided.

Left: Real Madrid overig Right: Green Bay Packers

Are there restrictions around dimensions and how they can be stored?

New stadium builds now consider light storage in their floor plans, however, a lot of grounds obviously don't have this luxury. Quite often, the lights are stored in car parks and the problem comes on match days, when the car park needs to make money. We are constantly looking at how to achieve the biggest possible footprint, alongside the smallest possible storage solution.

Can they be operated remotely?

Yes. The LU440 system has an advanced control panel, which offers a remote-control function anytime, anywhere. This installed SmartBox is connected to the stadium base station and allows the user to set the timer, consult analyser data real-time and monitor power consumption and running hours.

How much does the system cost to run annually?

The yearly power consumption depends on the number of lighting hours required for the pitch treatment. This is different for each stadium and purely depends on the size of the stadium, which mostly would also be relative to the budget available. With our growth models, our agronomists can precisely forecast the power consumption and related costs for a full year.

What are your views on the use of LED?

We are already actively selling and using LED light, with large systems installed in Munich and Wolfsburg and even a full pitch in the carpark of the new Spurs stadium, for when they are in NFL mode and the grass pitch sits in the carpark. We have quite a few customers already around the world using our smaller LED system. The thing is that, in most climates and most stadiums, the heat that comes off HPS lights (as a side product) is used in a very effective and efficient way to increase growth. LED does not radiate heat. So, we believe in LED, but only when it is fit for purpose and offers true benefits; our agronomy team can calculate this precisely.

Is there a system that makes it affordable for smaller clubs?

Our systems are not just for the big and famous clubs. At Saltex last year, we launched the BU50, which is the most affordable and user-friendly grass grow lighting system we built yet. The total cost of ownership for this machine would be approximately £2 per hour (with an average of 1,000 running hours per year). Due to advanced engineering and clever production, the BU50 stands for low investment costs, minimised shipping costs and reduced operational costs and can treat a surface of 50 square metres. Loughborough University have recently trialled this system with fantastic results (look out for a feature covering the trial results in a future issue of Pitchcare).

Also launched last year was the BU10, which is a compact, plug and play grow system ideal as a first aid kit for any pitch. It applies high light levels to recover damaged grass quickly and strongly. The BU10 is fitted with a standard household plug, making it accessible to anyone. Because of the compact design and foldable legs, the BU10 is very easy and quick to place, move and store.

There are also the SGL Select products; refurbished systems sold at lower prices.

How difficult are these smaller systems to put together?

The BU50 and BU10 system are both delivered on a pallet for instalment on site (which also reduces shipping costs). These are aimed at making the system accessible for everyone, including smaller grounds and training facilities. For the BU50, the initial assembly takes a couple of hours, whilst the BU10 is assembled in a few minutes.

Left: BU50 Right: UVC180 in use at Borussia Dortmund FC

Can you alter the intensity/height of the system?

The height is fixed and calculated on the distance and spread whilst, most importantly, considering the uniformity of the light. Obviously, customers don't want one area to grow faster/better than others, so everything is focused on having the right balance and consistency of growth. There are a couple of UK stadiums that have bespoke height adjustment systems, but that's more to allow for restricted access.

SGL is often known for introducing the lights for sports pitches, but you do more than that?

Our goal is to help groundsmen optimise all growing conditions and create an ideal climate for healthy grass growth. Since chemicals are banned in many countries, we have developed different technologies to prevent diseases in an environmently friendly way. We have developed a machine that is specifically designed to prevent fungal diseases on sports pitches, by means of UV-C light: the UVC180. The UV-C light destroys the DNA of active fungi, which prevents disease outbreaks - without affecting the grass plant and the environment. Another preventive technology is the TC50, which consists of a fan and a cooling mechanism that cools down the pitch in summer, to prevent plant stress and grass diseases.

How often do you run Masterclasses?

Historically, I used to travel around the world visiting stadium managers and groundmen and we found, in the most part, that customers didn't talk to each other about the systems, so the Masterclass was born to allow attendees to come together. They started fourteen years ago with a few people in a room, who were offered a Snickers and a banana for lunch, and now have grown into a key event in the sportsturf calendar. They are currently held annually for our customers (by invite only) and comprise two days of speakers and workshops. We don't want them to be commercially led and about selling our products; they are based on gaining knowledge and an exchange of information. In the future, we may have to look at multiple events; Europe, UK, Asia and America, to accommodate the vast number of attendees from all corners of the globe.

Tottenham Hotspur

How many staff do SGL employ?

We currently have thirty plus staff - which we often find people are surprised by. All of the knowledge and expertise is developed in-house with our own R&D, agronomists, marketing department etc. and then much of the production is outsourced with close partners.

Do you sell direct or through a dealer network?

We mostly sell direct, although, we do have a few partners we work with in certain parts of the world such as Japan to help with the language barriers. Moving forward, we will be looking to work with UK distributors for the supply of the BU series, but the larger systems would always require a personal approach.

Thank you for your time.