By focusing on its strengths in table grapes, Sun World aims to help buyers develop their own points of difference by offering consistent and great tasting varieties throughout the year. The firm’s new CEO Merrill N Dibble explains more to Gill McShane in this exclusive interview with Produce Business UK
As the new president and CEO, we hear your plan is to “lead Sun World in its mission to be a world-class breeder, grower, marketer and licensor”. How exactly will you strengthen Sun World’s position?
Merrill Dibble (MD): The plans are to 1) optimise our table grape portfolio mix of red, green and black proprietary grapes through an aggressive land acquisition and planting strategy; 2) expand our variety development programme; and 3) expand our international licensing network.
Why are you focusing on grapes in particular? What was the impetus for divesting your pepper and strawberry farming and citrus packing/marketing interests?
MD: The decision to remove ourselves from the citrus, pepper and strawberry operations was driven by a desire to focus on what we do best and to be the best at it. Grapes have always been at the heart of who Sun World is as a company, especially when it comes to developing phenomenal proprietary varieties. Being a long-time leader in the category with unique varieties gives us a point of differentiation in the marketplace.
What does expanding your varietal development and licensing business entail?
MD: Our variety development and licensing efforts will continue to focus on grapes, as well as stonefruit. We are looking to expand our licensed production of proprietary varieties in our current markets which include Europe, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, Israel, South America and North America.
What impact will your strengthened varietal offer have on the supply chain?
MD: The new varieties and supply volume that we are adding to our portfolio will enable us to provide proprietary grapes from Sun World for 40 to 50 weeks of the year in key global markets with offerings like SABLE SEEDLESS® and MIDNIGHT BEAUTY® brand grapes.
What do Sun World’s current and upcoming varieties have to offer buyers in the United Kingdom (UK)?
MD: We see our relationship with the UK market as a reciprocal one. Longstanding Sun World brands such as SABLE SEEDLESS® and MIDNIGHT BEAUTY® are staples in the UK and are sourced from nearly a dozen Northern and Southern Hemisphere countries, including our own California farms.
We believe these proprietary grapes provide UK buyers a higher quality grape option and ability to differentiate themselves in the marketplace. And the UK buying community is critical to how these proprietary grapes are developed.
The UK is the single most important market worldwide to the variety development programme and to our licensees. We view the UK multiples as critical partners in assisting us with new varietal evaluations of Sun World grapes and stonefruit and, in fact, we routinely provide them with samples of new selections seeking their technologists’ input in advance of distributing them to our licensees.
Will your plans to improve the varietal offer positively impact on buyers in the UK?
MD: We plan to increase the global production of superior quality grapes such as AUTUMNCRISP® and ADORA SEEDLESS® brand grapes – our exceptional late season green and black offerings – in growing regions that supply the UK. By combining supplies available at different marketing windows from different growing regions, UK retailers will have the commercial quantities necessary to give consumers a consistent grape offering throughout the year.
What characteristics are you focusing on in your varietal development? Are you looking for better disease resistance, flavour, size, availability or shelf-life?
MD: Flavour is first and foremost a focus. As are other attributes that consumers are looking for when selecting grapes such as firm, crisp berries and full colour. Growing and shipping attributes are also incredibly important. We want high-yielding varieties that require less inputs and manual production practices, such as the variety sold under the AUTUMNCRISP® brand, which requires very little hand manipulation and produces tremendously large bunches and berries. We want varieties that are more disease resistant and we want varieties that have good stem attachment and strong storage capabilities. All of these criteria are important, which is why it takes the level of expertise you see at Sun World to be able to confidently release such a portfolio of varieties into the marketplace.
Do you have any new varieties in the pipeline? How will their particular characteristics suit the UK market?
MD: The two newest varieties in the UK market today are those sold under the AUTUMNCRISP® and ADORA SEEDLESS® brands. Consumers in the UK are very flavour conscious – and these two grapes can definitely meet their expectations in taste.
AUTUMNCRISP® is a green grape that has an incredible crunch – very true to its name. It’s one of the most flavoursome green grapes, with sweet, muscat undertones. Likewise, ADORA SEEDLESS® is incredibly sweet, as well as very large averaging 25mm in diameter.
Sun World will harvest its very first commercial volume of two new grapes in the United States this coming year. The first is STARLETTA SEEDLESS® which is an ultra-early black seedless grape that will harvest two to three weeks before MIDNIGHT BEAUTY® brand grapes.
It will be available at a time when there are virtually no black seedless grapes on the market, giving retailers a chance to increase sales in a segment of the category that continues to see positive growth and consumer acceptance.
Additionally, SONERA SEEDLESS® will make its debut. We describe this grape as a “seedless globe” because it shares all the positive characteristics of red globes as far as size and deep red colour, just without the seed. It also has exceptionally sweet flavour. We’re planting this grape so that it will be available from June to September and provide a more reliable and better tasting option to Flame Seedless and Crimson Seedless.
Why are breeding programmes like your own so important for markets like the UK?
MD: Breeding programmes like Sun World's provide retailers in the UK and elsewhere the opportunity to utilise unique proprietary varieties to meet their shoppers desire for consistently good quality and, when utilised, these varieties can give them a point of differentiation in the market versus their competition. The bottom line is that they can over-deliver on the shoppers' expectations, help build loyalty to a banner, generate traffic, repeat purchases and a basket ring for the retailers.
And are you seeing more and more growers and buyers become interested in your proprietary varieties?
MD: Growers around the globe are interested in our proprietary varieties because of the quality they have come to trust in us after almost 40 years in the business. They also know that they can plant with confidence, because at Sun World we are not only a breeder, but we are a grower ourselves. They see the investments we are making in planting our new varieties on the growing side of our operations, and they know that if we are getting behind these varieties in such a large way, they can too.
Sun World and a large number of its licensees were exhibitors at the first London Produce Show and Conference last year and they will be back #celebratingfresh at the event in 2015. Come and visit them to find out about the latest developments in person.
Register your place at www.londonproduceshow.co.uk