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19/12/2017

"We introduced 'fast but good' instead of 'fast food'"

Vidal Maté. @trigolimpio_VM

Ebro Foods had revenues of almost 2.5 billion euros in 2016, profit of 167 million, EBITDA of 340 million, and 45 factories throughout the world, of which 36 are outside Spain and are responsible for more than 90% of sales; it also has debt of 400 million euros. As a world leader in rice, and ranking second in the world in pasta, not only is it the top Spanish agri-food company in terms of revenue, but it's also one of the most financially healthy, with a major focus on internationalization and constantly addressing the future from the standpoint of innovation and diversification, seeking out new niches for existing products and, at the same time, offering new organic products.

Once owners of leading Spanish companies such as Puleva, specialized in milk, and Ebro, in sugar, it took advantage of its first opportunity to divest them. In 2008 it sold Azucarera to British Sugar for 526 million euros, and two years later it offloaded Puleva to French company Lactalis for 630 million euros, using the funds raised for acquisitions in the rice, pasta and sauce sectors. It didn't give into temptation and enter the oil sector when it was a shareholder in SOS, currently Deoleo, when there was talk about creating a Spanish food multinational, and decided instead to stick with rice, pasta and sauces. Since 2001, the group has invested an estimated 2.7 billion euros, compared with 2.3 billion euros in funds raised from asset sales.

The listed company, which is run by the Hernández Callejas family, used to own the rice company Herba. It has remained one of the group's main minority shareholders, with Antonio Hernández Callejas as its chairman and the main force behind its development in the last decade.

Q.- What's the secret to making a company a leader in the food sector?

A.- There's no secret. It's simply about focusing the company's activity on sectors that are related and which offer the possibility of growing in the Spanish market, and especially in foreign markets. We are a leading Spanish company in the agri-food sector, but we're nothing compared with the large multinational groups with which we should be competing in the market. This has been the company's strategy for two decades, focused on rice, pastas and salsas, all of which has been done with a focus on innovation so as to meet the needs of all of its markets, from presentation formats to the flavors themselves.

Q.- The group owned two leading companies in the milk and sugar sectors—Puleva and Ebro, respectively—but it divested both to commit to rice, where it had a medium-sized presence, and pasta, which was a completely new segment for it.

A.- We sold off the milk company because, at that time, we didn't consider there to be scope for enough growth to become leaders, what with the quota system and production limitations in Spain. The same occurred with sugar—quotas and limited production. It wasn't possible to create a large group, as there was very strong competition from other companies in other countries.

Q.- What are the group's main tools for growing and gaining a foothold in new markets?

A.- We have always given a lot of importance to research and innovation, thinking of consumers. To that end we have two centers, one in Spain for rice and another in France for pasta, which receive approximately 15% of profits. In the group we've made a clear commitment to offering consumers what they want and creating new products.

Q.- How has this strategy affected your offer?

A.- In terms of product presentation, we have introduced new formats, mini packages to meet the new needs of new consumers, due to the evolution of families, and microwavable products as part of the Minute and Brillante brands. In terms of content, we have committed to working with healthy ingredients to offer consumers products such as quinoa, organic foods, chia seeds, gluten-free items, aromatic products, Sundari specialties, mixed grains and legumes from Brillante Benefit, and the new rice range Vidasania, by SOS. The focus is on premium products, where Garofalo's pasta really stands out. In short, we tried to make progress to be able to present consumers a selection that is "fast but good" as opposed to "fast food."

Q.- What's the next sector in which you'd like to become a leader?

A.- We hope to grow, and for several years the group has been working to position itself in the healthy food segment. It has been placing new products in different markets which had originally been sidelined or sold only in specialized stores and which today are available at major supermarkets. The next step in the process was to create the organic product division in 2016, as part of the company Alimentation Santé. To date, we have invested around 40 million euros with the acquisition of Celnat in France, a leader in organic cereals, and Vegetalia in Spain, a top company in the fresh food segment, including vegan products. Along these lines, we're going to offer organic baby good, through Bioalimentación Infantil de Andalucía, BIA, which has declared bankruptcy. We also sell special rices for sushi. 

Q.- What is the group's growth strategy?

A.- As part of our general philosophy of operating in related sectors, it's important to buy low and, in particular, buy companies that aren't too big and are in sectors with significant scope for growth in the future. There was a time when it was possible to make acquisitions paying 10-times a company's EBITDA. Today it's hard to find those kinds of companies. Acquisition-based growth is expensive, so we have developed a policy based on organic growth. The group's average investment in recent years has been 130 million euros, between acquisitions and internal growth. Along those lines, and based on our structure, we have new factories in the US, India and Thailand.

Q.- What percentage of sales come from outside Spain?

A.- Around 30 to 45 of the group's factories are outside Spain and, as a result of this strategy, more than 90% of revenues currently come from other countries.

Q.- Is there a way to ensure that a Spanish brand's offer is accepted in different markets?

A.- Even though the whole world talks of globalized markets, the reality is that each market has its own conditions due to demand, consumer preferences, flavors, aromas, etc. We always try to respond to those demands, and so far that has worked.

Q.- Ebro sells brand-name products?

A.- We defend our brands and, in the case of Spain, we don't private label any products. We do in other countries if required by the circumstances. We also can't ignore sales policies if they're common in other places, such as the US which, together with Canada, accounts for 50% of revenues.

Q.- Have any of your initiatives failed?

A.- I believe there were two product lines that didn't work, one of them in France.

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