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Alma Llanera: The GR Fresh Story

AT 14 YEARS OF AGE, Juan González Reyes had his eye on a single prize—his very first four-ton truck. The truck was used, but that didn’t matter to Juan. He had worked tirelessly to save up for her and gave her a name as beautiful as the family legacy she would help jumpstart: Alma Llanera, or in English, “Soul of the Plains.” And while Juan knew much about the value of hard work even at his young age, what he didn’t know was that his descendants would one day be thinking of him as a bit of a soul of their own plains—the plains that would provide their families with fresh fruits and vegetables for generations.

Don Juan González in 1950

Juan would go on to found Grupo GR in 1943, and there, he would continue to prosper in the Mexican produce industry for the next seven-some-odd decades. Now, Juan and the other members of the founding family are looking forward to expanding the presence of their GR Fresh brand in North America—but not without first reflecting back on their rich history. Within that history, Juan’s grandson Antonio Villalobos and I find that “soul of the plains” and “steward of the land” have much the same ring to them when it comes to growing fresh produce.

“Over generations, Grupo GR has truly established itself as a steward of the land under the guidance of my grandfather, Juan González Reyes,” Antonio, Executive Vice President, tells me as we begin to look at the common thread that ties together the company’s past, present, and future. “Our presence in Mexico is unprecedented, and we are ready to continue to share our goals and vision throughout the United States and beyond. As we look to the next stage of growth, our aspirations are to branch into niche areas where demand has been accelerating. This means we are evolving our program to meet the needs of our organic and value-added customers, expanding and developing our relationships with our retail and foodservice partners, and also improving the welfare of our workers while maintaining our family legacy.”

"Our presence in Mexico is unprecedented, and we are ready to continue to share our goals and vision throughout the United States and beyond."

- Antonio Villalobos, Executive Vice President, GR Fresh

Clearly, maintaining that family legacy is an integral part of GR Fresh’s identity. For Juan, the inspiration came from seeing both his parents strive for excellence in their work as local shop owners and in agriculture. Today, Juan’s children Cecilia, Juan Fernando, and Miguel González are leading the new era of Grupo GR, with Juan’s grandsons, Antonio and Luis Webb, taking charge of GR Fresh in North America. With these next generations, it’s not difficult to draw the same connection to those who came before them.

“Our family has grown up watching my grandfather work hard in the pursuit of his ideas and in the face of adversity. In this way, Juan has transmitted a great legacy to his children, being a clear example of perseverance, passion, and the responsibility it takes to advance a company that is one of the best in the country. His children and grandchildren are proud and admire Don Juan González Reyes, the Founder, inspiration, and guide,” Antonio says.

GR Fresh Tomatoes on the Vine

As you probably gathered from the anecdote about Alma Llanera, Juan started his career in the fresh food industry early, tending to one of his father’s stores by himself and transporting goods to market as a child. But whereas your father’s story of walking five miles in the snow to get to school might be more myth than reality, Juan really did have to travel on foot across the region to make his deliveries, walking for as long as seven hours a day. Despite obstacles like these, he continued to trek forward, using his parents’ perseverance as inspiration.

"Our family has grown up watching my grandfather work hard in the pursuit of his ideas and in the face of adversity."

After meeting the woman who would become his wife and the mother of his 10 children, María Elena Rubio, Juan and his family decided to settle down in Gómez Palacio in Mexico’s state of Durango. It was also during this time that he started making his first produce pickups and deliveries in Mexico City, Monterrey, Sinaloa, and Torreón, transporting locally grown tomatoes, grapes, and melons. Slowly building up his business to include vegetables from Culiacán and Los Mochis, brokering fresh produce deals by phone, then acquiring a facility in Torreón’s Alianza Market, Juan’s vision of Grupo GR began to take shape.

Don Juan González Reyes in 2009

And as Juan continued to expand that vision to include his own fresh produce production, as well as inking partnerships with growers in other regions, he invited four of his brothers to join and help grow the business. In commemoration of this coming together of family, the company adopted a new logo that highlighted GR’s now-signature five-pointed crown—a shining point to represent each González Reyes brother.

Time went on, and Juan and his brothers solidified Grupo GR’s place as a major player in the Mexican produce market. The next mission was to do the same stateside, starting with the acquisition of warehouses and a new sales office in McAllen, Texas, in 1994. Thus, what would later become the GR Fresh brand was born. GR was among Mexico’s first growers to open operations in McAllen and capitalize off of the recently opened Federal Highway 40, which greatly expanded opportunities for trade along the route from Mazatlán to Reynosa. Fast and ultra-modern, the highway cemented McAllen as a near-unequalled distribution point for fresh produce out of west Mexico.

"We are always looking to improve our business in a way that allows us to adapt and establish more advanced production and marketing processes...We are always looking to improve our business in a way that allows us to adapt and establish more advanced production and marketing processes."

Now, with four distribution centers in the U.S.— in McAllen and San Antonio, Texas; Los Angeles, California; and Nogales, Arizona—GR is focused on using innovation and technology to build on its profitability and maximize yields. Antonio notes that just some of the projects the company has currently in the works are fertigation, crop management, protected agriculture, and tomato grafting systems, as well as integrated pest and disease management, variety testing, and a biotechnology laboratory.

“GR has made a name for itself by constantly innovating and updating,” Antonio explains as we talk about the company’s transition into the marketer of Mexican produce we know in America today. “We are always looking to improve our business in a way that allows us to adapt and establish more advanced production and marketing processes. And as we look to expand and meet the demands of an international market, we are also focusing on making sure we have the most comprehensive certifications in safety, social responsibility, and quality.”

From left  (clockwise): Tomato packaging facilities in Mocorito Sinaloa; rows of tomato plants; Don Juan González Reyes in 2009; and  Juan González Reyes and family

Meeting international demand is no easy feat, and to do it, Juan and the GR team have relied heavily on the highest-quality grower partners throughout North America. To make sure each of those partners feels valued and has the tools they need to continue supplying GR with top-tier fruits and veggies, the company has developed its own social responsibility program: Agro for People. With the program, GR looks to create shared value for each and every person that works for the company, as well as their other partners and the international community at large. It was important for GR that Agro for People be developed under the strictest guidelines of both the United Nations Global Compact and the Mexican Center for Philanthropy.

“With Agro for People, we are committed to leaving a livable world to future generations, and to that end, produce and market healthy products while operating in harmony with nature, especially in relation to the safety of our products. We have great pride in being a company that has persisted over these past 70 years, and as the third generation of the family enters the company, we want to grow together with the many other families that work with us,” Antonio says.

"With Agro for People, we are committed to leaving a livable world to future generations."

Juan’s same spirit of duty and perseverance echos in Antonio as he says these words, and it’s that spirit that also compels GR to continue to trudge through the monumental task of taking on the greater North American market. But, thankfully, it's a task the team is more than prepared for. Juan keeps a watchful eye on the company as it continues to grow, still to this day coming in early every morning to monitor markets and harvest quality, Antonio tells me.

The GR Fresh Transportation Unit in Gómez Palacio, Durango

“Having more than seven decades in the market has helped us to have the necessary experience to break down any hurdle that comes our way,” Antonio says. “We know that expanding is a great task, but the experience we have and the team that we work with make us stronger every time we face an obstacle, so we have the confidence that there is nothing that can stop us.”

With that image of Juan trekking across the Mexican soil seven hours a day still fresh in my mind, I have no doubt that Antonio is right to say the GR team is an unstoppable force.