From implementing new business strategies, to building year-round brands for two popular fruits, to boosting labor productivity through innovation, New Zealand’s largest fruit company T&G Global has a lot on its plate. At Asia Fruit Logistica, we caught up with CEO Gareth Edgecombe to hear more about what the company has been working on and what changes we can expect to see in the future.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
FFP: To begin with, you've been in your new role as CEO of T&G for a year and a half now. What has been your experience so far?
GE: It goes in the blink of an eye. The first year of getting to know the team and the business, developing a direction and starting to execute on that has been a real challenge. I've found the industry interesting - the diverse markets, dynamics, different growing conditions, the perishable nature of it, the supply chain. All these different things come together to create complexity in this industry and therefore your execution capability becomes really important.
I've also been impressed with the caliber of talent in the industry, across our partners and within our teams, because it is such a complex industry you've got to rely on strong partnerships and relationships to get ahead. T&G Global is now 122 years old and has a very strong ethos around working closely with partners, doing the right thing with them and building the business for the long-term, so that's been really exciting to become part of that story.
FFP: What have been the most significant developments taking place at T&G recently?
GE: There have been two main things. We've been building out our capability in-market, particularly in North America and Asia, where we see big growth coming on. It's a very competitive space right across the whole fruit portfolio - and in particular in apples - and so in order for us to win with the large volumes we've got, we need great capability in-market to work with retailers to represent our apples really well in-store and have great point-of-sale and great branding in stores.
We've put a lot of work into our teams in North America and Asia, and we've built up capabilities within markets to make sure we can represent our grower base across those. So that separation of our growing from our marketing has been quite a big change, and we've brought on a lot of capability in that space. That includes the appointment of two key staff members, Rachel Stotter, our new director of international sales, and Jodi Reddell, our category and marketing director.
The second significant change is building year-round supply of our produce.. We've been building out our Orchard Road brand in blueberries and table grapes, which follows that same pattern as our distribution in apples.
In the past, T&G has been a New Zealand-based business. We've got 12 market floors in New Zealand and grow a wide variety of produce and it's a very different business from our global business, which has been focused on apples. Our recent focus on grape and blueberries, is about building our 365 supply with great grower partnerships and complementing our apple efforts.
FFP: In your table grape business, what key areas have you been working on?
GE: One is working in-market with retailers, particularly in Asia, as the category continues to expand. Across the markets in Asia, they demand high-quality varieties, very good quality, and availability pretty much year-round.
So, in order to achieve that, we either need to have partnerships or grow the grapes ourselves - and we're now into year four of our Peruvian orchards which are really coming on nicely.
We've also got some strong long-term partnerships with some high-quality U.S. growers, and we're developing relationships with Latin American growers in Chile and Peru where we can select the right varieties and then have the right quality systems to make sure that all of those growing regions go into a program that supports a 365 supply.
That's our goal. So it's a step towards that as we move through this year and through next year. We will be investing in orchards ourselves and investing in partners and then building our front-end capability in-market with brands and retail relationships.
FFP: On T&G’s blueberry business, what can we expect to see from there over the coming years?
GE: We're working with Fall Creek in Australia and a number of different genetics developers around the world, focusing on our growing timings and quality and also our transport and storage capability. But the most important is the eating experience for consumers, making sure that we understand the basket of genetics that are out there, and working directly with these genetics houses to develop that portfolio.
So the furthest down the track we have is Fall Creek in Australia, but we think that the blueberry category requires a number of different genetic forms in a number of different growing regions in order to achieve that consistent supply, and I think there's a whole number of industry participants that are trying to do the same thing at the moment.
I think you'll see us continuing to work with genetic development houses and on the back of that developing growing programs which then support our retail programs. Again, we're in the build-out phase, which will take us through this year and next year.
The great thing about grapes and blueberries is that the growing cycle from decision to fruit in supermarkets is probably about two and a half years, whereas apples it's seven-plus years to get full maturity, so the development cycle is a lot shorter.
FFP: And on the apple business, what have been some of the key factors behind the success of brands like Jazz and Envy, and what new developments are there this year?
GE: We're very lucky to have a program with Jazz and Envy where they're both Northern Hemisphere and Southern Hemisphere, so we get 365 availability in all markets as well a large and high-quality grower pool. It's quite rare where you've got such a large volume of product that is also so uniform in its quality. We put a lot of work into making sure that we work with growers who only supply the right quality, and that makes a big difference in the market. We’re also blessed that the genetics are really, really good.
We're feeling positive about Envy in the U.S. market. We recently did a deep-dive sensory study of taste profiles and we were delighted to find that Envy came out as the number one preferred eating apple in the United States, which is a huge opportunity for us.
We've also identified the opportunity for Jazz as a premium snacking brand, and we've launched a product called Jazz Snackers, which is a snacking apple in a convenient form. We’re investing more in that brand which is being sold into a number of Asia markets - Thailand, China Vietnam, Singapore – and it's had huge success. It reinforces the fact that if you can start with understanding the consumer need and then work back and get your offer right against that, then you can really start to open opportunities. There's a number of brands that we see in this space around the world that we see doing a good job on that.
FFP: Also speaking about apples, earlier this year T&G became the first company to trial Abundant Robotics' autonomous apple harvester on a commercial crop. What was your experience with that, and to what extent you do you think it will be used in coming seasons?
GE: We're relatively early in the development of that robotics equipment and our parent company BayWa has got an investment in that organization which helped bring the two together. It's fair to say that it is early stages, and so we see the picking at a high quality but low speeds. As we all know it's difficult to predict the speed of the technology application, so we're not betting on any particular time frame for that. But with the costs of labor continuing to increase and the availably of labor continuing to become very scarce, we know it's a bet for the future that will come.
In saying that, there is also a lot of semi-autonomous processes that can be applied in our industry which we're also doing - things like automated picking platforms which assist pickers to stand at the right height and pick easily using conveyors and aggregation systems. We're investing in a lot of that in the short-term, which helps actually to double our labor productivity as well.
So, it's almost a short-wave of innovation coming, and then we see that robotic picking as a longer-wave bet for the future. That same type of technology in our packhouses, fully autonomous and semi-autonomous is also coming through.
FFP: Finally, much of your international business development is focused on the Asian and North American markets. Do you have plans to expand into any new regions around the world?
GE: I’ve been spending time with the international team on this topic. The world’s a very big place and you’ve got to be very careful where you put your resources and focus. There’s always the question of should you try and start developing new markets, or nurture developing markets, or go on in key markets, and we think we're going to focus on some key markets where we've already got a strong foothold, and make sure we've done a really good developing those brands with the retailers and having a great 365 program.
With the scale of these markets throughout Asia as well as the North American market, that's going to be where most of our new resources go, but there are always going to be export opportunities to developing markets that we will characterize in an export sense rather than in a market development sense. So, we're spending quite a bit of time characterizing those different markets.