Amsterdam Produce Summit 2018 preview: Robinson Fresh accelerates European growth

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Photos courtesy of Robinson Fresh

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Robert Walsleben, the European Director of Robinson Fresh, calls the alliance with Chile's Verfrut, 'a value proposition for our customers that neither one of us could do individually.'

Since entering the European market five years ago, fresh produce solutions provider Robinson Fresh, a division of global logistics giant C.H. Robinson, has significantly grown its footprint in the region. Having recently entered into a strategic alliance with Chilean fruit producer Verfrut, Robinson Fresh — one of the sponsors at the 12-14 November Amsterdam Produce Summit — continues its mission to deliver customer-based solutions to a growing number of produce clients across the Continent. PBUK speaks with Gary York and Robert Walsleben about the added value of integrated supply chain logistics.

“Six years ago, we made a commitment to the European region to grow our business and to connect with multiple channels – retailers, importers, exporters, wholesalers, and other companies – to grow relationships throughout Europe that would benefit our growers throughout the Americas,” explains York, Vice-President of Sales and Marketing at Robinson Fresh.

“We were a natural fit to expand internationally given our logistical capabilities globally, our brands, our technology platforms and our existing footprint in Europe at the time. Today, we have offices across dozens of countries in Europe, with over 1,400 employees.”

Since then, the firm’s business in Europe has accelerated, says Walsleben, the European Director of Robinson Fresh, who is based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. “We are growing our footprint in Europe significantly, and at a fast rate just due to customer demand,” he reveals. 

In 2018 alone, the volume of produce moved by Robinson Fresh across Europe is rising “very rapidly”, according to Walsleben. Company policy means he’s unable to share actual figures, however.

“Volumes are growing in all of our strategic categories, particularly in tropicals – which, for us, involves pineapples, melons, avocados and limes,” Walsleben explains, adding that the majority is sourced from Central and South America.

“In the sweet potato category, which we consider to be strategic in Europe, we are one of the top importers of USA-grown sweet potatoes, and we’re becoming a top grower of local sweet potatoes in Spain.” 

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Gary York, Vice-President of Sales and Marketing for Robinson Fresh 

Working with Chile’s Verfrut

Added to that, in February (2018) Robinson Fresh announced a strategic alliance with Chilean group Verfrut to introduce premium temperate fruit to its European portfolio.

Ranking among the largest fruit growers in South America, Verfrut produces table grapes, apples, stone fruit, cherries, pears, kiwifruit, clementines and organic bananas across almost 4,000 hectares (ha) of owned orchards in Chile, and more than 2,000ha in Peru. 

Under the deal, Robinson Fresh is now the primary supplier of all Verfrut produce into Europe, including the UK.

With the second Verfrut-Robinson Fresh season just getting underway, York describes the growth as “exceptional,” while Walsleben predicts a doubling in sales for 2018/19.

“Our relationship with Verfrut began in the last Chilean and Peruvian season (starting October 2017),” comments Walsleben. “One year into that and our volumes have grown dramatically.”

As the new season (2018/19) with Verfrut gets underway, Walsleben says the growth curve is continuing as customers demand more, and Robinson Fresh’s geographic footprint expands further into central Europe.

“The programme has been very well received,” Walsleben says. “This year, we’re getting all of our repeat business back, and adding new customers.”

Through this strategic alliance, the two companies say they are combining Robinson Fresh’s expertise in cold chain logistics with Verfrut’s high-quality fresh produce to provide a more integrated fruit offering for European buyers.

As one of the world’s leading produce and logistics providers, Robinson Fresh offers a multitude of fresh solutions – from consumer and category insights and marketing support, to category and inventory management.

Verfrut, meanwhile, is recognised as the largest independently-owned grower of table grapes in Chile, and the second largest in Peru. 

“We’ve been in a relationship with Verfrut for many years, primarily in North America,” points out Walsleben. “What we bring in terms of value, combined with their high-quality, great products, provides a value proposition for our customers that neither one of us could do individually.”

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Progressing with Verfrut

Under the deal, Walsleben singles out a broader product portfolio as the No. 1 value advantage for Robinson Fresh customers. Verfrut, meanwhile, benefits from the interface between Robinson Fresh and its customers, as well as the management of its supply chain and operations. 

For European buyers, two important components of the Robinson Fresh-Verfrut alliance are a shorter supply chain and, as a result, enhanced product quality.

“The quality of the product coming from Verfrut is already very high, and our collaboration in the supply chain can only improve that,” Walsleben suggests. 

“We can provide customers with better cycle times of delivery, which, in this business, is critical as it improves product quality and gives extended shelf-life to the retailers.”

From here on, Robinson Fresh plans to strengthen its alliance with Verfrut in terms of increasing both the volume and product portfolio on offer.

“The relationship is growing,” states Walsleben. “It’s very symbiotic; Verfrut’s [fruit] categories are ones in which we haven’t been heavily invested in the past for Europe. 

“Last year, we had a large focus on grapes, apples and pears. This year, we will continue to grow those lines, but we’re specifically focusing on more stonefruit – nectarines, peaches and plums. We’re also bringing Verfrut cherries and kiwifruit from Chile and Peru.” 

Looking further ahead, Verfrut has ambitious plans for expansion, too. 

“Their goal is to continue to grow production in South America and to be more significant in the global market place, and we’re Verfrut’s sole provider in Europe to help them accomplish that,” Walsleben continues.

“This year, for example, Verfrut is producing organic bananas [in Peru], and there are plans for more.”

Going deeper into Europe

Geographically speaking, Robinson Fresh sees growth potential across the entire European continent, including the UK. Central Europe, in particular, is earmarked for opportunities, since consumers are demanding more unique products that are imported. 

This is where Robinson Fresh believes its focus on adding value to complex or imported products, such as tropicals, comes into its own. Currently, the group is working with major retailers in Central Europe on improving supply chains for imported produce vs. the more traditional channels.

Indeed, Walsleben reveals that a whole other dimension of the Robinson Fresh business continues to evolve around temperature-controlled logistics within integrated supply chains. 

“Over the past one to two years, we’ve taken a different approach to how supply chains are moving into newer markets, for example, Central Europe,” he explains.

“In addition to our normal temperature-controlled offer that we have with all of our products, we’re working to essentially re-engineer supply chains for end customers, which will help to improve efficiency of the supply chain, productivity from a cost perspective and, obviously, quality from a freshness perspective.” 

In a nutshell, Robinson Fresh claims it is offering buyers a value-added service from the consumer all the way back to the grower. 

“It’s fair to say that the product is only one component of our value; temperature-controlled logistics and other services are all part of the portfolio,” Walsleben says. 

York concurs, describing Robinson Fresh as being akin to an all-star sports team.

“We have great growers who produce products that are desired by consumers and consumer-facing employees in Europe that can manage the supply chain, the logistics, increase the frequency of deliveries, increase the freshness of that product and drive transparency throughout the supply chain, ultimately lowering the cost to the consumer and providing a fresher product,” York explains.

It’s an approach that Robinson Fresh operates not only in Europe but also globally. It’s also why York sees “tremendous opportunities” for the expansion of Robinson Fresh throughout the world.

“The fresh fruit and vegetable industry is seeing a growth of consumption into new products all the time, and at various rates,” states York.

“Being a global logistics and produce company like we are – and having a dynamic technology platform and producing produce all around the world – is certainly an advantage. 

“As consumer taste profiles continue to evolve, we’re pretty optimistic about the future and our space in it,” York concludes. 

Robinson Fresh is sponsoring The Amsterdam Produce Summit 2018 on 12-14 November. 

On the final day of the show (Wednesday 14 November), the firm will host an Industry Tour of its Amsterdam headquarters.

For more information, email [email protected]
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