Q&A: "More competition than ever before" in supply chain, says Robinson Fresh exec
On a daily basis Robinson Fresh global vice president of sales and marketing, Gary York, is dealing with the wide range of factors that can impact international trade in fresh produce. To gather his insights, we caught up with the executive during the Amsterdam Produce Show & Conference where he discussed retail consolidation, sustainability and increased competition between European ports.
Given your global role I'm sure we'll have a lot to talk about, especially at an international event like the Amsterdam Produce Show. But we'd like to start with Europe, the world's leading fruit import region. When you come to a place like this, what are the trends you look for in fresh produce?
Let me just start by talking about Produce Business and the job they’ve done here with the Amsterdam show. We’re probably one of the very few companies that have attended every single one of Produce Business’ shows. The New York show; it's probably 12 years old. We’re a proud supporter of that show; we get a great deal of ROI (return on investment) from that event.
London now is four years old and running strong. I’ve personally been to every one of those shows; we’ve seen the growth there and what it’s done for the U.K. market, bringing in buyers from across the globe within the fresh fruit and vegetable industry.
And this is also a great show for us – it’s the second year; our European headquarters are only two kilometers down the road so we’ve an experienced team nearby, so for us it’s a fantastic way for us to meet a lot of our clients, suppliers, and other relationships within the supply chain here in Amsterdam. Because of all of this, we really enjoy this event.
And do you see this as the forefront of what could be just as big as those other events?
100%, and for us it’s not always about what’s as big but what’s relevant. If we think of some of the bigger shows in the world – and they’re great shows – there's Fruit Logistica in Berlin, Fruit Attraction has been an emerging show over the last six to eight years, and I'm on the board of directors for PMA and they put on a tremendous event in the United States with Fresh Summit every year.
So those are big shows, but more and more it’s these shows that capture industry leaders, think tanks, innovators, great speakers, and personal friends of mine I’ve gotten to know over the last decades, so you can get a lot done on many fronts.
It sounds like you're enjoying it, that's for sure. If we move on to discuss the fruit and vegetable industry, there has been a lot of talk about convenience, smaller store sizes, heightened competition. There was even mention this morning from Ed McLaughlin [of Cornell University] about smaller stores putting the squeeze on the number of items you can possibly bring to store. But companies like yours do pride themselves on product introductions, so how do you reconcile that with the fact stores are getting smaller and there are actually more growers now wanting to find consumers in new places? How do you find the balance?
First of all – one thing we know for sure in this industry is change is constant, and you have to be a company that can adapt to that change in order to be truly successful. We take a lot of time trying to understand what our business model should look like in the future, and for us it’s an asset-light model, which allows us to be more flexible in how we can react and adjust to change. Supply chains are shifting – to your point, retail consolidation, store sizes are shrinking, and consumer behaviors are evolving in general
I spend a lot of time in Asia, and some of our newer relationships are e-commerce companies. Today for the Chinese middle-to-upper class, more of them buy fruits and vegetables online than they do offline; that’s their term for brick and mortar. Depending on where you are in the world, the consumer can behave very differently and their shopping patterns are always changing.
If you go to Eastern Europe you have some hypermarkets with stores the size of three soccer pitches and consumers behave very differently, so a company our size needs to be able to adapt to that consumer and those trends in different parts of the world, and also provide the retailer with consumer insights and analytics that are required to help guide them toward continued success.
And what about stability or precision for meeting those demand changes from the supply side? What do you have to do with your suppliers and growers to make sure they keep pace with these changes, and at the same time they feel confident enough to make the investments needed?
It's a great question. It’s why we’re here in Europe, it’s why we’re growing in Latin America, and it’s why we’re expanding all over Asia. For our growers to be profitable and healthy moving forward, they need strong companies like Robinson Fresh to help deliver real solutions for them, working with them to better understand what the products are that they should be producing or investing in.
We work with growers in multiple geographies across the globe, and some of the iconic brands that we pack in include Tropicana citrus; Green Giant Fresh asparagus, avocados and vegetables; Welch’s grapes; and some others. These brands, as well as some of our own proprietary brands, help to create confidence in the consumer that we are producing safe and great tasting fresh products. At this show we’ve talked about additional trends like food waste and ugly fruit. Sometimes these issues can be addressed with a singular solution like what we’ve done with the Misfits brand in the United States in taking cosmetically challenged products, that would otherwise go unharvested and left in the field, and making it available to the consumer.
The consumer feels great about that because they’re able to get value with these products – they taste good, they feel they’re contributing to sustainability by consuming these products, the retailer sees increased margins, and the supplier is able to sell most of their crop and do that through Robinson Fresh and our world-class cold chain distribution solutions. So it’s really a win for all parties.
So the thing I would say is we have an obligation to our growers. We take those relationships extremely seriously, and we look to drive value in multiple ways, ultimately benefiting every party in the supply chain all the way down to the consumer.
Now for a topical question relating to where we are now in the Netherlands, Rotterdam has historically been the gateway to Europe for fruit exports from around the world. However we’re seeing so many other ports around Europe investing in new infrastructure, new terminals, and a lot of companies going direct. We see it in Belgium, France, Spain, Poland, you name it - is that changing the way you’re doing business from a logistics perspective with European imports and exports?
Interesting question here. No doubt there’s more competition than ever before and that’s really throughout the entire supply chain. Rotterdam has really done a great job in investing in their existing infrastructure. The deeper port has meant that larger vessels can arrive here and the latest figures through September of this year show that container volumes have grown 10% plus over the past year. I heard Jim Prevor make a comment yesterday about how households get products delivered through meal solutions or through online fresh platforms, and the associated packaging and related materials are both costly and not very efficient. Ultimately the most efficient way to get products across the world is in ocean containers on vessels that can hold 5,000-10,000-15,000 TEUs. o The larger ports can support those products and move them around Europe through adjacent logistics solutions that are interconnected, so they’re still going to have a very relevant place in the industry.
Which ports like this come to mind apart from Rotterdam?
Certainly in the U.K. with Brexit, we’ll see how that ends up affecting direct deliveries from overseas into Southampton and Felixstowe versus product coming from Rotterdam, Antwerp, Hamburg, and Bremerhaven all will continue to grow in terms of relevance. As supply chains continue to shift and evolve you’ll see more ports emerge as well as the battle of big vessels versus new and swifter services that continue to grow.