“There needs to be a relentless focus on the consumer,” Robert Colescott, Founder and CEO of Southern Specialties, tells me when I ask him where his priorities lie. “Anticipate and respond to consumers’ needs, tastes, and preferences, and then find the niche that allows you to grow.”
And diversify, he adds. French beans, white asparagus, star fruit, watercress… Produce companies don’t just follow the trends, they can help make them.
“If you don’t believe me, look at someone like Frieda’s Specialty Produce, and, since we are here, listen to our story,” Robert smiles.
The year was 1986. Guatemala was in the middle of a Civil War and the New York Mets won the World Series. The relevance? Robert suddenly found himself, metaphorically and literally, up to bat.
“Both headlining events had to do with my career at the time. I’d been drafted by the Mets organization fresh out of high school and was entering my third year playing in the Minor Leagues. Once the baseball season was over I would return home just in time to start the peak import season, working for a company responsible for growing specialty produce in Guatemala,” Robert tells me.
Essentially, Robert was being groomed by the owner of the company so he could contribute "sweat equity" towards a partnership in the near future, which ended abruptly in a WTF moment. Disaster. The owner, his future business partner, uprooted to another part of the country and bankrupted the company.
Robert didn’t speak a word of Spanish, and wasn’t prepared or experienced with restructuring a company out of bankruptcy at just 23 years old. While the business looked to be falling apart to most, Robert sought to reestablish his footing by focusing on a little known sector of the industry at the time- specialty produce.
“My goal was to create a company that could thrive in a competitive market and could provide solutions to customers in the form of cost savings and convenience with ‘one-stop shopping’ for their procurement departments,” Robert tells me.
Robert was able to partner with a German agronomist who retired from United Fruit (a banana company) and had decided to make Guatemala his new home. Robert managed to persuade a few other suppliers to conduct business based on an agreement to recover a large portion of debt from the previous company.
“All others would only do business on a cash advance basis. Welcome to the import business!” Robert laughs.
In 1990, Southern Specialties was born.
Growth in specialty produce from Guatemala, primarily for foodservice and wholesale terminal markets, began to boom as the fledgling company gained traction. To keep the momentum going, Robert not only looked to introduce new items to the retail trade, but also to diversify growing regions to support the company’s year-round programs, and further vertically integrate the company’s business model to manage cold storage and logistics.
"We owe many thanks to people like Frieda and her awesome family for further educating buyers and consumers about specialty produce. Their role in marketing has been instrumental to the success of so many in this business and from all of us foodies,” Robert tells me.
Expansion of the company’s resources became a necessity, and after ten years of having his nose to the grindstone, Robert’s brother-in-law, Tommy Bagwell, and a key supplier from Guatemala decided to invest.
“Tommy and I both believe that you should never mix family with business, but after several years being together, and discussing typical growth issues, he insisted on providing additional seed money to help grow the business,” Robert says. The investment gave Southern Specialties enough horsepower to expand from three to fifteen categories and increase their SKU’s from twenty to over two-hundred.
“We started new operations in various countries in efforts of diversifying our growing regions for year-round supplies and today we are established in ten different countries,” he notes.
As Southern Specialties’ business has continued to grow and opportunities were presented to the team, the company decided to expand its offices and opened sales distribution facilities in McAllen, Texas, and Los Angeles, California.
“We focused on reducing food miles by shipping product direct to a distribution center closest to end customers versus having product consolidated in Florida and then sent back across the United States,” Robert adds. “Customers soon realized they could reduce their driver time and countless hours procuring product by centralizing their business utilizing our consolidation service.”
In 2000, convenience packaging began to pick up steam, but Southern Specialties was only accustomed to packing and selling bulk produce. Robert and his team identified the company’s core competencies and decided to invest in processing equipment which helped the company achieve another milestone, the creation of “Southern Selects” and “Today’s Gourmet” brands for consumer packaging of snow peas, sugar snap peas, baby vegetables, French beans, and asparagus just to name a few. The company saw opportunities not just in retail and price clubs, but also the foodservice trade. By packaging these products in larger bulk formats to foodservice operators it allowed for extended shelf life, easier inventory or portion controls at the restaurant level, and acted as additional protection for food safety or contamination.
“Additionally, around this time we decided to rebrand our company logo and changed our motto to ‘Let’s Grow Something Special.’ This relates not only to specialty produce but growing relationships, programs, healthy and tasty products, and building a business model that generates value to all involved throughout the supply chain from farm-to-shelf or farm-to-plate,” Robert tells me.
Getting consumer brands and packaging off the ground was no easy feat, to say nothing of moving into the value-added arena. Enter Vice President of Business Development, Charlie Eagle, who worked to develop the vision, brands and to generate retail demand.
“The new packaging allowed us to build brand recognition with the retailer and the consumer, and it also gave us the opportunity to educate consumers with various preparation methods, health benefits, recipes, and nutritional highlights,” Charlie tells me. "Our values, growing practices, growing regions, the people behind the brand, are what drive the success of this business.”
“I truly appreciate all of Charlie’s years of loyalty and dedication to growing our company. Without question, our company is where it is because of his valuable input, knowledge, and experience,” Robert says.
“The magic formula here is figuring out what stage of the evolution a given product is in, and figuring out when it’s right for our company to use its business model and customer relationships to produce a product that is much higher in volume and lower in cost,” he says. “Some would call it commoditization, but we constantly look at our business and ask, ‘where are these new items on the playing field? And when is it the right time for us to start a new activity? When is the right time to go after a new type of customer? What about services?’ We have many more choices than we could ever execute on. We’re not constrained by capital. We’re constrained by, ‘how many of these things can you actually achieve with a high degree of success and profit?’”
Today, more than ever, our industry is changing at an incredible pace, Robert tells me. He speaks of demographic shifts, time-constrained consumers looking for convenience, budget-oriented shoppers, consumers looking for indulgence with unique foods, food miles, food ethics, ethnic foods, an aging population, baby boomers, and now the presence of millennials.
“There are so many factors that challenge the way we present, produce, and create value,” Robert says.
When I ask Robert how he defines his place in the company, he responds that he sees himself as the Chief Energizer Officer. “I like to loosen things up a little by reminding people they need to have a sense of humor.”
Robert hates organizational charts or titles, and that shows in every aspect of the company. “We’re all on the same level. I’m equal to the receptionist who I refer to as the ‘Director of First Impressions’- we just have different responsibilities. We do need to take our jobs seriously-but not ourselves,” Robert tells me. “It is something that hard work and plenty of hurdles have taught me over the years. It’s a part of maintaining a passionate environment. Keep your people focused on what matters most during that hour, day, month, or quarter.”
For a leader that found himself at the helm of a ship between the Guatemalan Civil War and the New York Mets’ World Series win, I have more than a little faith that this company can weather any storm.
“There’s a world of flavor out there,” Robert tells me.
And today, it’s easier than you may think to taste it.