Interview with FRUIT WORLD TALKS Mayda Sotomayor, Seald Sweet &UNIVEG Logistics America
The United Fresh Conference in Chicago has a unique feature: The Reception Honoring Women in Produce is held each year in conjunction with the United Fresh convention and expo. The event recognizes the contributions of all women working in the produce industry, and selects one individual to share her personal experience of service.
As usual the room was packed when five female leaders answered questions and offered their view on the state of the industry which is still dominated by male leadership. According to the female CEOs things are changing for the better. We had the chance to talk to Mayda Sotomayor of Seald Sweet &UNIVEGhttp://www.univeg.com/en/ Logistics America. Currently the CEO of a 100-year old company, Mayda’s first fresh produce connection happened after she graduated high school and began studying for her law degree. Mayda worked at the same time as a receptionist for a firm in Miami that dealt with ‘US AID’ and provided funding for growers in Central America.
Mayda didn’t complete her law degree, but instead focused on the produce business with Great American Farms. During her twelve years at Great American, she soaked it all in…the art of negotiations and innovations in partnerships, as well as what hard work and dedication can bring to your personal and professional evolution. After Great American Farms announced its closing, Mayda set out to find a new direction, a task which eventually brought her to Vero Beach, Florida where the story turns to Seald Sweet. Mayda was interviewed by CEO Bruce McEvoy and offered the position of Import Director. Right out of the gate, Mayda was faced with a company that was transitioning from a regional grower cooperative to a privately held international entity. “The acquisition from parent company UNIVEG in 1998 created an opportunity for category expansion for Seald Sweet,” she continues. “With UNIVEG’s vision for Seald Sweet as a gateway into North America, this partnership enabled us to grow globally and diversify our product base and strategy. Today our core business continues to be the citrus category, but we have also expanded with other divisions such as deciduous fruit including grapes, pears, and apples. We look to where UNIVEG is the strongest in the global arena and continue to diversify our portfolio.”
Fruit World: „Where are we standing concerning female leadership in the Fresh Produce business?”
Sotomayor: At least in the United States you can see more female leaders now. You can see more young women getting into the business. Typically, it was not a business for women for a reason, I think: It is so time-demanding, travel-demanding, stress-demanding. And traditionally women are the keeper of the family. Therefore, it is not a business that women would naturally come into. But now you see more and more younger family businesses. You see more interest in the fact that our business is about heath and the impact that food is having in our culture. You see more women starting to get interested in that – as opposed to 9-to-5 jobs like banking. I think that it becomes more attractive as women are less tied to their home. When I started in the business – it is about 30 years ago – you did not see any women at all. Today there were a few women that have been in the business for a long time. I think it is a huge improvement that you see that many young women in the industry. The fact that now we have woman CEO at Greenyard Foods is fantastic.
So when you entered business it just meant that women have to work harder to prevail?
You do have to work harder because you need to be taken seriously. I started in this business by coincidence. And once you are in this business it is hard to let go. And when you enter you have two choices: You can be a ‘worker bee’ or you decide that you want to do more. And I asked the question to my bosses: What else can I do? And I learned from others. I learned what the person behind me did and what the person in front of me did. And by learning you grow. But you have to have a thick skin. There were times when you cannot cry if someone treats you bad. And that is hard for women. Women take it personally. I have stories where I had buyers hanging up on me. This was 30 years ago! Buyers would not buy from me because they said women don’t belong in this industry – and that was the mentality back then. ‘You need to be barefoot and pregnant – and not call me’. And I called this buyer every single day. I went to the bathroom and cried and then again I called him every single day. And luckily one day this buyer was on vacation – and I received an order from somebody who was replacing him. I got an order for a full load of French beans – and then he had to start buying from me. But a lot of weird things like that happened. You had to show some extra stubbornness. And there is an important difference between men and women: If you ask a man if he can do this job he would raise his hand and say: Of course I can do this job. If you ask a woman if she can do this job she will not step in if she is not 100% sure. If a man is 50% sure he would step in. It is a well-known fact that women are much more cautious then men about committing to a certain task. I was lucky enough that I had necessity – I had children. And I worked hard.I cannot stress how important it is to go up to somebody and ask: What can I do now? I remember that I didn’t have enough for me to do and I was risking to lose my job. So I started opening envelopes – and stuffing envelopes. When I had extra time I would stuff the envelopes, all the invoices. I was able to look at the invoice and I could see what company we were selling to, at what price – just by stuffing envelopes! It was a menial job but in my time that I was not busy and I learned what we are currently doing. It seems to be a stupid thing. I did this work for one month and I learned so much more than I would have on a spreadsheet. I learned who we bought from and who we sold to.
What perspective do women have that men don’t?
We do the shopping for the family, we are the family keepers. This is why we have a completely different perspective.
Greenyard Foods (Euronext Brussels: GRYFO) is a global market leader in fresh and prepared fruit & vegetables, as well as growing media. The Group is the business combination ofPinguin, ranked #2 in frozen, Noliko, ranked #5 in canned fruit & vegetables in Europe,UNIVEG, ranked #2 in fresh fruit & vegetables worldwide and Peltracom, ranked #3 in growing media in Europe.
Greenyard Foods has operations worldwide and serves a global customer base including most of the leading retailers in Europe. The Group counts more than 8,000 staff active in 25 countries worldwide, with a pro-forma combined turnover of 3.9 billion EUR in the fiscal year ending on 31 March 2015.
Greenyard Foods’ history goes back 50 years with its frozen division, Pinguin, building a small factory in Westrozebeke. Its international expansion started in 1995 with the acquisition of operations in France and UK. In 1999 Pinguin was listed on the stock exchange. Noliko, the canning division of Greenyard Foods joins the group in 2011. It started 50 years ago when farmers from the Belgian province Limburg set up a local factory to process their harvest. In 2011 Greenyard Foods also extended its presence in Poland and Hungary.
In 2015, both UNIVEG and Peltracom join Greenyard Foods. UNIVEG was founded in Belgium in 1987 by Hein Deprez. In 1983 he started producing mushrooms, followed by washing, cutting and packing of vegetables. This period saw the first contacts with the large supermarkets, setting a pattern that has been followed ever since. The period 1990-2014 saw the steady internationalisation and growth of the UNIVEG Group, with the acquisition of various agricultural operations and the takeover of companies in the chain of processing, logistics and distribution. Peltracom has been involved in the horticultural sector for 30 years.