APS 18 preview: Cool Fresh future-proofs business by establishing ‘creative incubator’

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CoolFresh students after winning a food trip to South Africa.

Dutch fresh produce importer-distributor Cool Fresh International (CFI) is once again thinking out of the box and into the future. This time, the innovative firm, which can trace its roots back to the 1950s, has established a unique learning environment involving both students and employees. The ‘Cool Fresh Academy’ is designed to future-proof the Rotterdam-based business, one of the featured sponsors at this year's Amsterdam Produce Summit (12-14 November,) by bringing futuristic ideas and breathing new life into CFI.

At a time of great uncertainty, coupled with great opportunity, Hugo Vermeulen, Managing Director of Cool Fresh International, believes the secret to any company’s future success lies in its ability to become a learning organisation in itself.

“Constantly scanning the macro and micro environments, and taking corrective action for every deviation observed has become part and parcel of our survival kit as we move into one of the most exciting times in the history of food,” he tells PBUK

Although many companies have adopted a ‘wait-and-see’ approach, most fresh produce companies, like CFI, are busy observing the latest industry developments, such as blockchain technology and artificial intelligence. 

What makes CFI stand out, however, is who the company is putting in charge to research these important innovations and future market trends. Rather than relying on its senior employees to do the work, CFI has created a unique learning environment encompassing students from far and wide. 

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Nic Jooste (above) talks with students in the Cool Fresh programme.

Futuristic thinking

“We believe that once the new generations of IT-oriented boys and girls move into the traditional business domain EVERYTHING changes, and fast!,” Vermeulen exclaims.

“To accommodate such changes requires an open mind, plus the ability to pitch one’s thoughts 15-20 years into the future, and then to look back to the present. This so-called ‘back-casting’ is imperative for future scenario building.

“It is our contention that young people of 18-25 years of age can do this much more creatively than, say, a 50-55-year-old.”

Nic Jooste, CFI’s Director of Corporate Communications, Marketing, Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and Training, concurs with Vermeulen’s thinking. 

“My own generation [Jooste has just turned 60 years old] simply has too much historical baggage to be able to look that far into the future,” he suggests. “Constantly looking over one’s shoulder at past successes is a great limitation, and effectively prevents one from looking into the future.”

Jooste adds that senior employees are much more inclined to reason from the perspective of the fresh produce company; having been accustomed to continuously solving problems in the supply chain. 

COOLFRESH8“Students think much more aggressively from the perspective of the consumer – more importantly, the new generation of consumer,” he points out. “Where we see problems, they see opportunities. We see trucks, they see drones. We see a human being behind a computer, they see artificial intelligence as ‘nothing weird’.”  

In line with this thinking, in 2016 CFI developed an internal focus on training, similar to an in-house academy or creative incubator, which the company informally calls the ‘Cool Fresh Academy’.

By bringing on board final-year students as interns, and by giving these youngsters complete freedom (with no work responsibilities) to conduct research into the issues that are likely to impact on the future activities of the company, CFI says it is constantly filling its intellectual database with ‘futuristic thinking’ created by the next generation of employees.

“The main challenge is to enable our students do their research without imposing any restrictions on their thinking,” Vermeulen notes. “At the same time, we are also exposing them to our daily ‘business-as-usual’ trading activities, according to the traditional methods. This gives the students an opportunity to identify issues that they would want do differently.” 

CFI’s research projects

Over the past two years, CFI has worked with individuals and multi-disciplined groups of students who have conducted research into a wide range of issues.

Topics have included:

  1. The future consumer behaviour that could be expected from Generation Z and Generation Alpha;
  2. A fresh look at the supply chain for pineapples from Ghana, and table grapes from Mexico;
  3. The future expectations of retailers on issues relating to sustainability; and, more recently,
  4. The impact that m-commerce [commercial transactions conducted electronically by mobile phone] could have on the Business-to-Consumer (B2C) market. 

Of course, while the specific content and recommendations of the studies are fairly confidential (some of the learnings concern new projects currently underway at CFI), what the firm will disclose is that it has upped its game in terms of how it is positioning itself.

“In the past, we saw ourselves as an importer-exporter, and today we see the company as much more of a ‘connecting factor’ in the supply chain between the grower and the consumer,” reveals Jooste.

Overall, Vermeulen says the experience has been very positive for CFI. “Seeing the interaction between our highly-experienced traders on the one hand, and the free-thinking and free-spirited youngsters on the other hand is highly rewarding, and, at times, very entertaining!”

Going forward, CFI reveals to PBUK that the next topics to be researched by the Cool Fresh Academy are the emergence of new thinking in terms of blockchain, artificial intelligence, user experience and big data.

Recruiting creative thinkers 

COOLFRESH5For any other produce business interested in student research, Jooste points out that all colleges and universities in The Netherlands allow companies to be listed as a potential provider of internships.

Most recently, CFI has recruited interns from the Rotterdam Business School, and specifically those studying international business and language courses.

“Having been involved in this approach for three years now, CFI has also enabled a situation where word of mouth amongst students provides us with a steady flow of applicants,” Jooste adds. 

“It is easy to get interns on board – the challenge is to provide a creative and stimulating environment for them to think freely about our industry!” 

At the same time, CFI has learnt that company employees must be on hand to provide input based on their knowledge of the fresh produce industry. “What we should NOT do, is to prescribe to students WHAT they should do, or HOW they should do it. Just let them fly,” Jooste points out.

As for choosing which interns to recruit, in general CFI finds that those who tick all the boxes tend to be studying courses like commercial economics, international business and languages. That said, personality is also fundamental to the decision-making process. 

“If we were to base our decisions on preconceived ideas, we would be failing ourselves,” Jooste is quick to point out. “We’d rather ‘take it as it comes,’ and evaluate students more on the basis of their ‘can-do’ attitude and ability to think out of the box.” 

If internships are unsuitable, however, Jooste sees other ways to get creative thinkers to support business research. Recently, he says “a great Dutch futurologist” told him that every company should give its workers at least 25 per cent of ‘non-functional time’ during which they can free up their mind to think. 

“It certainly helps if an employer brings on board a specialist who understands this new thinking,” Jooste notes. “Somebody who can assist with identifying the challenging topics that employees can think about, specifically from a creative and out-of-the-box angle.” 

Industry-wide action

CFI’s student-led approach to learning has also resulted in the company being the initiating partner in the Dutch Markt Match (Market Match) programme, which brought together 200 students 17-25 years old from eight universities to participate in a two-day, idea-generating event.

Held on 4-5 October 2018 in the Maassilo, Rotterdam, some 40 teams comprising five students each worked in a high-pressure environment to create new concepts for the world of fresh produce through true innovation.

The initiative, organised by the Rotterdam Food Cluster, also had the backing of Bakker Barendrecht, 4Evergreen, Greenport West-Holland, GroentenFruit Huis, Hessing Supervers, Hillenraad Partners, Koppert Cress, Rabobank, RedStar, Rijk Zwaan, Provincie Zuid Holland and The Greenery.

Cool Fresh International will be present at The Amsterdam Produce Summit 2018 on 12-14 November to share more details about its Cool Fresh Academy approach.

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