Interview with Andreas Schindler, CEO, Don Limón – Pilz Schindler GmbH, Hamburg
On the occasion of the tenth anniversary of your Don Limón brand, you said that you were “stitching agriculture together” with development aid in the tropics and that you are no longer a fruit merchant.
Our company has departments that deal with fruit import. So we have a kind of bird’s-eye view on fruit trade.
Is that what you mean by a “holistic view” of the fruit and vegetable supply chain?
We are producers, we are packers, we are importers and wholesalers. Our company has its origins in production. My grandfather brought fruit and vegetables to the market in Hamburg and we are now back in production. We intend to understand all of this. If you want to be successful, you have to know in detail how the business works. In my father’s generation, goods were bought and sold. But in today’s world, everything is more complex. The consumer wants to know what is in the fruit and what should not be there. Many people believe that trade means calling someone to order something which is then delivered. But there is also the human factor: Who produces the goods? Under which conditions? I have a degree in social studies, so for me the person behind the product is important. And then there is the question: which varieties shall we plant? If we know what our customers want, we producers can make the right decisions.
In the fruit business you have to be very flexible. How do you acquire the expert knowledge necessary for demand-driven production?
Most of our traders have graduated in agricultural sciences. One of our employees was born in Bangladesh, studied first in his home country and then at the University of Stuttgart-Hohenheim. He is ambitious and an expert with a background in agriculture. Another employee is Mexican and has expertise in food processing technology. In other words, she knows how a packing house works and she knows about microbiological problems. And finally, these employees are salespersons, they sell goods. Our goal is to know more and understand better. You see, the production sector deals with variety evolution. We don’t do it ourselves, but we are involved. Then chemistry comes in. Another point is purchase of land and political issues such as local subsidies. When you talk to dealers here in Europe, they ask you: “Why should I care about all this?” What we want is to be part of a continuous learning process to understand the supply chain from plant to consumer. We are like architects of a house. The plumber only knows how to lay pipes; the roofer cannot build a foundation. But as an architect, you should have an idea of all these trades. We want to learn everything ourselves and apply it together with our partners. For example: our packing house is located in Honduras and it is surrounded by small farmers with their fields, who learn how to run their farms efficiently as part of a German development cooperation funding project.
This job was done by the banana companies in Honduras and other Central or South American countries.
That’s right, we copied the model. We don’t want to pursue high politics with secret services and the like. We want to do honest business; we want to achieve an economic and social impact. We want to produce something good, and we all want to live off it. Basically, we do nothing more than what my father has done for decades: we buy and sell fruit. But we proceed academically. We want to understand what we do and why we do it.
Marketing is also very complex and versatile. You cannot study marketing and logistics, it means “learning by doing”. We are now launching a project in Ghana with the Potato Center, which is also supported by the Gates Foundation to produce goods for local food supply. There are two worlds that are normally considered separately. If you have a field planted with yams, six out of twenty yams are suitable for export. The remainder can be sold locally, it can to be used as animal feed or for processing.
Do you own land in countries like Honduras?
We lease land and are very close to it, so that we virtually own a part of the land. The point is that we also want to stabilize the land issues in the long term. In Mexico and South Africa, we are already one step further – here we are co-owners.
Where do you stand when things get politically difficult there?
We are partners of large estate owners. We are financing partners, so of course we are also involved when something happens there. It’s complicated and complex. The countries where we are active are often unstable countries, and we strongly believe that we are moving things forward as we work there. We have been involved in Mexico for ten years, and when I see what has happened in these ten years, I can say that there has been visible progress.
In which other countries are you active or want to be active?
We plan to be present in Dubai from next year. Right now we are selling cardamom in the region, and Don Limón Shanghai is also on the agenda.
You’ve been in contact with China before.
Yes, but that didn’t work. We are currently organizing our export business to Asia together with our South African partners. We see that we can address a social stratum with purchasing power there. We organize this from South Africa, similar to the Americas: our office in Guatemala serves the US market. From there Mexican limes are sold to the USA.
When you are active in a country and you have launched a project with the help of development aid and it is moving forward, do you then withdraw and dedicate yourself to other projects?
No, absolutely not. We intensify our cooperation. For example, we are now building a cold store in India. In Mexico, where we have been working for ten years, we are also pursuing the project further, as I have already explained. We are also investing more because we are on firm ground.
Mr. Schindler, they call you Mr. Don Limón in the business. What, or rather, who is behind it?
In 1952, my grandfather founded a trading company focusing on mushrooms at the wholesale market. I was trained as a fruit merchant at Atlanta – today Greenyard – and then focused on international business. Ten years ago – in September 2007 – the identity of Don Limón was created. We never thought it would grow this big. Don Limón is experiencing a continuous boom. Our global vision is becoming more real from day to day. Latin America is making progress, South Africa is picking up pace. Table grapes from India had a difficult year in 2017, but we see increased interest from our customers. Don Limón is not a brand among brands. Don Limón is the force that gives our shops, wherever they are, their spirit. As I’ve said Don Limón and we are a network of people, producers, buyers, co-workers and owners who learn, understand, improve and develop jointly.
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