Fruits of success

Giancarlo De Nadai has created one of the world’s most successful fruit production and selling companies, which today holds 15% percent of the Gulf market. In his first interview, he looks back at his journey to the top, and explains why the welfare of his employees is more important than profits
Fruits of success
Unifrutti Group president Giancarlo De Nadai says the company puts the welfare of its employees first
By Anil Bhoyrul
Sun 01 May 2011 01:50 PM

Giancarlo De Nadai doesn’t like giving interviews. In fact, to be precise, the 68-year-old president of the Unifrutti Group has never given one before in his entire life.

“I suppose I’ve not needed to. I’m not really sure about this one,” he says.

So far, with little hype, zero publicity and sheer hard work, De Nadai has done pretty well. The figures speak for themselves: Unifrutti, headquartered in Dubai for the past three years, is now one of the world’s biggest fruit production and selling companies. Seventy million cartons of fruit produced a year; 22,000 hectares of farms around the world and 7 million cubic feet of vessels to transport the products to every location on the planet. In the GCC alone, Unifrutti commands a hefty fifteen percent of the market: bananas, apples, oranges, plums, pineapples…whatever you are eating, chances are De Nadai has had a hand somewhere down the line, a big enough hand to land a few billion dollars in revenue each year.

“We are lucky in that we have not really suffered at all in the recession. If anything, people eat more fruits during tough times,” says De Nadai.

While the company may be enjoying the fruits of success, it has been no easy journey. The original fruit company was started by his Italian father, who had built up a sizeable empire long before De Nadai was even born. Unfortunately, much of the production was in Eritrea, where De Nadai himself was born. In the mid-seventies the country became entangled in a civil war with neighbouring Ethiopia. One of the outcomes was a nationalisation of the fruit industry, effectively destroying everything the family had built up.

“This caused a big setback. Eritrea was producing and exporting to Europe vegetables, bananas and fruits and all of this was destroyed. Not only did we lose the production but the source of supply,” he says.

By then De Nadai himself was on board and helped rebuild the business almost from scratch, and by 1981 Unifrutti was trading again under its own name. “The idea of regaining our identity with a company that has both superior standards of morale and products,” De Nadai says.

He soon did that, opening up farms in Chile, the Philippines, South Africa, Turkey,   India, Pakistan and Spain. Fruits produced from these countries are today shipped all around the globe under the Unifrutti label, though he also has a number of big partnership and packaging deals, including with US-based Chiquita. But again, it has not all been plain sailing. De Nadai’s biggest fruit production facility is based in the Philippines, where today he has 7,000 direct employees and another 6,000 direct staff. The company has also invested $60m in The Wharf of Davao, in a joint venture with Chiquita — a facility it has since taken full control of.

He initially decided to launch a production facility in the country because the banana supplier Unifrutti was using proved unreliable. However, De Nadai first found himself battling against former president Ferdinand Marcos and the cartel structure that existed to protect the big local families.

“We had to fight against a cartel at the time of president Marcos they had issued a law where the production of bananas was limited. We went against the law. We started planting and they could not prevent us from exporting, it was just too unpopular to do so.”

But if that wasn’t enough of a challenge, De Nadai had also located his farms in the south of the country, where forces loyal to the Islamist separatist group Abu Sayyaf have long been fighting a civil war.

“It was not easy because the Muslim area there was unrest, there still is. Abu Sayyaf and the liberation fighters are there. But we had good relations with everyone. The problems are still there but when you are doing good for the people it is recognised, they don’t fight us,” he explains.

“Doing good” is an understatement. Realising the depth of poverty in the country, De Nadai implemented a scheme whereby five cents from every box of fruits sold was channeled directly into paying for the tuition fees of his employees’ children. That scheme still runs today, and has also been repeated at his farms in India.

“We are not just running after money, we are running more to the welfare of our employees. Of course all of the companies must make money, you need to be positive in your trade. But money is not everything, you have also to take care of people. A company is about the people. You don’t need capital or money, you need people to progress,” he explains.

Elswhere, Unifrutti has funded the building of schools close to its farms in South Africa, and has several other welfare-related programmes on the cards. “This is something we are very serious about, because I strongly believe that a company should do good for the people. The Philippines is a poor country so the school fee is not as expensive as Dubai or Italy! With a little you can do a lot,” he says.

The Philippines is where the bulk of his products are produced, with 50 percent of that production sold to the Middle East and 50 percent going to the Far East. Unifrutti is also now trying to crack the lucrative Saudi Arabia market.  “It’s a bigger market for us with 30 million people there. We were the main dealer with Abbar & Zainy. But with the change of generation in the companies, our relation went sour and we lost the Saudi market. But we are restarting. We have some presence there but are trying to expand it again,” he explains.

So what does the future hold for Unifrutti? The company is jointly owned by De Nadai and his four brothers and sisters, and he does not rule out an IPO at some stage in the future. “We are thinking that we should convert into a public shares company to give everyone a share, but it’s not easy to convert. It could be a good way to raise some money and grow faster but when you do it by yourself you are free to decide things in a moment,” he says.

As for De Nadai himself, he is a fruits man at heart. He describes reading the company’s balance sheet as the “ugly” part of the business.

“You have to enjoy your business, you have to think together with your managers to create and invent something new... my heart is in agriculture, in producing. If you start gardening and you put a seed and see the plant grow, you get affection for what you are doing. It gives you great satisfaction,” he says, adding: “When I finished high school I was intending to study electronics. When I told my father, he said ‘does this help to sell apples?’ I realised then he wanted me to follow him in the business.”

So is he surprised at the staggering success of the company?

He says: “The growth is not a boom, it’s a progression so I cannot say we planned to grow so much, but I’m not surprised. I have never got bored of what I do. My father was right: I didn’t even know what electronics was… The best advice he gave me was don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Whoever doesn’t do anything doesn’t make mistakes. Be very proud of your mistakes, but don’t ever repeat your mistakes.”

Judging by the company’s track records, De Nadai has made few mistakes along the way – and has certainly not repeated any of them.

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