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Ties that Bind

Ties that Bind

Found family.

This is a unique connection—and one you can most certainly discover in this industry if the place you work for values you as one of its own.

While you can find this popular trope in books and stories across literature and industry, found family denotes a group of individuals who come together to carry out a common goal. It often represents hope, belonging, but it’s also a dynamic I find easily applies to business.

My own experience with the produce industry is, admittedly, limited, especially when I’m in talks with people who have known this arena since they were born. But, my expertise lies in the stories behind these individuals, finding the connection at the center of their passion. This is why, after ending a Zoom call with GR Fresh, I knew that the company’s members had this unique bond.

Valuing its own? Well, this found family certainly does.

Given its start as a family company in 1943, the association isn’t hard to make. Founded by Juan González Reyes almost 80 years ago, the company boasts both third-generation family members and newcomers who have helped propel GR Fresh to excel in the domestic market.

For over seven decades, GR Fresh has been consolidating as a company, expanding its vision across Mexico and the United States. Currently, it has production units in Chihuahua, Sinaloa, Sonora, Coahuila, and Durango, Mexico; as well as distribution centers (DC) at the main national supply markets and on borders like McAllen and San Antonio, Texas, as well as Nogales, Arizona.

But what has truly made the grower/packer/shipper a stand-out in the produce industry is its connection to its people. Innovation has been the driving force behind the team, and its drive for success is shared by all.

“When I got here in 2014, we were quite a different company than we are today,” Tony Incaviglia, Vice President of Sales and Marketing, begins. “When the core of the team at McAllen, Texas, really took shape, the path for growth in sales, category development, and facility expansion was set.”

The team he refers to is Miguel Ángel González, Chief Executive Officer; Juan Fernando González, Grupo GR Chief Executive Officer of Growing Operations; Antonio Villalobos, Executive Vice President; and Luis Webb, Vice President of Operations, all of whom proverbially sit across the table from me as we discuss just how much the company has grown in such a scant amount of time.

This group has been essential to building out GR Fresh’s operations in the United States.

“In 2016, we started to see some real growth on the sales side, and by the next year, we were further developing those relationships that were going to help us grow,” Tony says. “Conversations surrounding our new warehouse in McAllen, Texas, began to happen, and our team grew from roughly seven or eight to over 50.”

The new distribution center Tony alludes to is nearing completion as I write these words—and should be concluded by the time you read them—and is a project crafted in the GR Fresh vision. Headed up by Luis, the final warehouse will feature 110,000 feet of cold storage and sales offices to ensure that the company’s customers receive the freshest produce.

“It’s a very important goal for us because it increases our operating capacity, improves our efficiency to market, and continues our mission of guaranteeing high-quality products,” Tony notes.

"When the core of the team at McAllen, Texas, really took shape, the path for growth in sales, category development, and facility expansion was set."

Tony Incaviglia, Vice President of Sales and Marketing, GR Fresh

Team-wise and operation-wise, GR Fresh has scooped up a veritable bounty of growth. Over the years, the company has further diversified its offerings, laying the groundwork for category expansions that have made it an even more valuable supply-side partner.

One such expansion is its recent Western-veg program, which has taken root over the last two years. Adding categories such as lettuce, celery, broccoli, cauliflower, and carrots, GR Fresh is building out new programs the same way that it builds relationships with retail partners: through trust. It’s this element of the GR Fresh operation that immediately called to mind my idea of family—that mutual respect and value will win out. Family begets family, either way.

“Two thoughts enter my mind when talking about building customer trust, and that’s offering a level of customer service that is second to none while remaining transparent,” Tony imparts, noting that the level of customer service a company provides has a major impact on loyalty and retention. “Those customers are true partners with us, and they’re the only relationships that are going to allow us to build that program. As a company, we need to grow with purpose and commitment and develop the right relationships with the right partners. As we develop those relationships, all our commodity categories, along with the Western-veg piece of our operations, will expand along with it.”

Miguel interjects to recall how, roughly 10 years ago, GR Fresh was only distributing its own products and has since branched out to include a family of growers that allows for this product portfolio expansion.

“We saw the necessity of year-round supply and why we needed to offer more items that we didn’t already have—like our Western-veg line. Through our grower partners, we’ve been able to secure year-round programs and provide a wider variety of items to our clients. On the selling side, that has made us even closer to the end-user and eliminates middlemen. That has allowed us to become an appealing supplier
to retailers.”

GR Fresh’s commitment to its retail and foodservice partners is not only to be appealing, but to be the best option overall. With year-round programs that it controls from the ground up, GR Fresh has expanded from its core list of products—tomatoes and dry veg—to introduce fruits, such as avocados, limes, and pomegranates to its list of programs.

“With our new facility, we’re also able to handle a variety of different packaging needs for our customers, like value-added packs and custom packs. The other piece of that is the logistics and transportation, a division we started a little over a year ago. This has allowed us to provide service to deliver to selected retail and foodservice DCs or retailers within the U.S. and Canada. We have control over the whole logistics piece of the puzzle,” Miguel remarks.

As Tony had mentioned at the beginning of our call, it’s not all about being the best possible solution for clients—but also for the company’s growers.

“We do all of this to be cost-effective and profit-effective for our growers. At the end of the day, if we don’t have the growers, we’re not able to do everything else. If it’s something that doesn’t make sense for the grower, then we won’t do it,” Miguel says emphatically.

"Good agricultural practices, such as sustainability, food safety, and social responsibility—those are the three pillars that GR Fresh rests on."

Juan Fernando González, Chief Executive Officer of Growing Operations, Grupo GR

Across the board, the team members have more than just produce industry drive running through their veins. It’s determination and love for what they do.

“We have skin in the game,” Tony adds, and it’s this grit that drives the point home. “It’s our blood and our sweat that’s in that ground. For my job, the return back to the grower families is the most important element of what I do.”

Growing practices have allowed GR Fresh to up this commitment to its grower partners, a point that Juan Fernando speaks to.

“Good agricultural practices, such as sustainability, food safety, and social responsibility—those are the three pillars that GR Fresh rests on,” explains Juan Fernando. “Our main social responsibility focus specifically regards our temporary workers. We are focusing on better living conditions, access to health services, and encouraging personal growth by providing education and the opportunity to finish high school.”

Perfecting its growing systems has come in the investment of protected agricultural systems such as shade houses, hydroponics, and advanced nutrition electronics to provide the effective use of fertilizers.

Another element that adds to GR Fresh’s commitment to protecting its people is Agro for People, the company’s own internal social responsibility program that aligns with the United Nations Global Compact.

“We are proactive and monitoring ourselves. We’re constantly asking ourselves how we can improve the lives of our workers. As Juan Fernando mentioned already, we have the high school education element, and we’ve added programs for best driving practices within our own transportation companies in Mexico and the U.S., and providing extra sources of income for our temporary workers to take with them back home,” notes Antonio. “If we don’t have growers picking our products, we don’t have an operation.”

Juan Fernando adds that sustainability makes sense not only for its people, but for GR Fresh as a company.

“The other piece of sustainability is the importance that we grow using practices that are sustainable in the long-term. We need to make sure we take care of our ground and our water so that our environmental impact is effective for future generations,” he explains.

GR Fresh has multiple pieces that back its continued expansion. As a fully integrated company with a strong research and development (R&D) program, a mind on sustaining the future, and a host of grower partners, the McAllen-based operation has made its growth a family affair. This isn’t just an outcome of the organization itself, but an intention to bring value to both its people and its customers.