José Antonio Gómez Bazán, chief commercial officer of Perú-based Camposol, believes South Florida is poised to increase its share of fresh produce imports – once alternatives for product treatment can be in place. In an interview with the American Journal of Transportation, which caught up with him as he was preparing to fly from Lima to Miami, Gómez shares his thoughts on this and other aspects of the perishables industry from the perspective of the world’s No. 1 asparagus exporter and a major supplier of such other products as avocados, sweet peppers, grapes, mangos and mandarin oranges.
How is Camposol evolving to respond to challenges associated with shipping numerous fresh products worldwide on a year-round basis?
When Camposol got its start in 1997, it was as a grower and processor of asparagus and peppers. Product coming out of our fields was processed in jars and cans and shipped to Spain mainly.
Little by little, we turned into being a fresh company and developing our capabilities. Right now, we move more than 10,000 containers [a year] to more than 50 countries. About 70 percent of that volume is fresh, with 25 percent being processed and the rest frozen.
We also have commercial capabilities in Europe and in the U.S.
We started five years ago in the European market, where our sales coordination office has grown from one person to 16 people, with sales of $100 million a year to customers throughout Europe, including Russia, Greece, Germany, Poland, France…
In the U.S., we opened our Florida office two years ago. We have five people there, and it’s growing.
In Perú, we’ve got a supporting team of people helping coordinate all the different products going to different customers.
One thing very particular to this business – the fresh business or the fruit business itself – is that it’s very difficult to differentiate one from the other. In the end, an avocado is an avocado and a grape is a grape. You can tell that one is a little bit better than the other, but, from the standpoint of the customer – the retailer, supermarket or food service – what really makes a difference is the service level.
Service in this business is pretty simple. It’s pretty much being consistent in your deliveries in quantities, times and qualities. If you are able to consistently deliver 52 weeks out of the year the quantity that you promise, the quality that you promise, at the time you promise it’s going to arrive, that’s the service level that retailers and food service companies want.
That definitely has a huge logistics component that is not just producing the product, but coordinating with all the different stakeholders throughout the supply chain, including shipping lines, Customs agents, tracking companies, warehouses et cetera.
It’s been a long journey. We have some experience, and we have a great team of people.
What role have recent advances in refrigerated transport technology played?
There has been a tremendous structural change in the industry.
Many, many years ago, most of the produce moved from one country to another in refrigerated cargo vessels, taking pallets into their hatches and moving thousands of pallets that were pulled one by one.
Most of those specialized vessels were owned by big players in the produce industry that owned the whole supply chain – Chiquita Brands, Dole, Fresh Del Monte. These guys were the ones that pioneered the industry of moving fresh cargo from one continent to another, and they developed the technology that was needed, with dry ice in cargo vessels to keep bananas fresh.
Thirty or so years ago, the container industry started to develop an alternative that was different from the reefer cargo vessels and, at the same time, more convenient.
In the last 10 years, the technology makes it very easy for anybody to book a container onto a vessel. Right now, it’s as easy to book a container from San José or Limón in Costa Rica all the way to Antwerp in Belgium as it is going to Expedia and booking your ticket to go from Miami to New York.
Definitely, technology has made the whole business easier and more transparent in terms of tariffs and accessibility to the logistics platform.
That’s a major structural change, because, after Maersk and the other shipping lines made available thousands of refrigerated containers, companies like Chiquita, Dole and Del Monte became pretty much brokers.
Now, as a grower, we can move our product pretty much anywhere. We can just pick up the phone or jump on the Internet and book a container, and next morning the container is here and soon it’s on its way to Hamburg, Germany.
Many other technological advantages have happened within the container industry. We have different technologies that allow us to transport fruits or vegetables longer distances. For example, there’s controlled atmosphere and even packages that help you to modify atmosphere and extend the shelf life of the product.
With these technologies, every year comes with a new breakthrough. We are able to ship blueberries from Callao, Perú, to Hong Kong, a 35-day transit, something we thought before was not possible. We ship grapes to China or fresh mangos all the way from Perú to Japan, stopping in Los Angeles, and that’s almost a 40-day transit time.
So technology has played a huge role, not only making transportation more accessible but also more reliable and helping to reduce the decay of the fruit and extend the green life on the shelf of the products.
What advantages are you seeing in the new pilot program that allows clearance of cold-treatment perishables through South Florida ports rather than the traditional routing of such shipments through Philadelphia and other U.S. Northeast ports?
It makes no sense going to the Northeast. It’s a lot of extra fuel being burned on the ocean side and on the trucking side, so it makes no sense. There’s more age put on the fruit, and the consumer ends up paying more money for a worse product, which makes no sense.
In the pilot, we’ve been working with the Florida Perishable Trades Coalition and PortMiami and Port Everglades. It’s around two specific commodities – grapes and blueberries – that the pilot has allowed us to arrive into these ports with a cold treatment protocol that controls or reduces the risk of having pests introduced into these areas.
APHIS [Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service], part of USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture], has a very strict protocol about not bringing in fruits or vegetables that are susceptible to flies, for example, below Parallel 39 [39 degrees north of the equator], pretty much below New York and Philadelphia. That’s why the majority of our cargo goes there, because there’s this rule that says we cannot arrive with a container below this parallel.
I understand that that was a rule set many, many years ago, when controls were not so strict, when growers were not that developed, and the end risk was higher. But, with all the advances in shipping technology, that risk has been reduced to a minimum.
This new protocol allows us to arrive with a cold-treated container that’s been set close to 32 degrees Fahrenheit, almost down to freezing point, for more than 16 or 17 days. The protocol guarantees that everything in that container is dead.
The protocol is fine, it’s great and helping us, but it’s a little bit strict. That container needs to be declared that it has finalized the cold treatment and this has to be transmitted to the port 24 hours before that container gets into the port, meaning that the shipping line will be responsible for monitoring the cold treatment during transit time and making sure they will transmit that information to the port 24 hours before the ship arrives. That is somewhat challenging, because shipping lines normally do not control what’s going on in containers during transit time.
In Philadelphia and New York, if the container arrives with any problem, such as if the cold treatment was not finalized correctly, you have alternatives. Either you can discharge the container at the port and choose to run another cold treatment at the port, meaning the container will stay there another 16 or 17 days, or you have the option of fumigating the fruit, where it goes to a fumigation chamber and in a few days is released. In Miami, you don’t have that option yet. The protocol says that, if the shipping line doesn’t transmit the information correctly and confirm that the cold treatment of that container has been finalized successfully, the shipping line is not allowed to discharge that container from the vessel. So that container will go to wherever the vessel goes – to Europe, back to Central America, anywhere.
The risk, therefore, for a grower to put a container, given that cold treatment could fail, without having a Plan B on a container that costs more than $150,000 in the case of blueberries or more than $50,000 in the case of grapes, is pretty risky.
So we are looking for an alternative. One is that the Florida Department of Agriculture [and Consumer Services] and APHIS allow us to discharge the container at the port and complete the cold treatment. Nothing, not even air, is going to get out. That container is tightly sealed.
The other option is that the port – Miami or Port Everglades – could construct a chamber where you could bring your container in to fumigate. We have manifested our intention to invest the money if it’s required, if they need some private investors.
If we get to finalize the cold treatment at the port and if we get to fumigate the container in a special condition in Miami or Port Everglades, I believe the amount of fruit going into Florida – not only for the Florida market but other markets – is going to jump through the roof and increase significantly.
The natural entry port for us is South Florida. It’s the closest. There’s a lot of trucking capability going up north.
But right now, because of this little detail about Parallel 39, we have a little bit of a problem.
With Camposol having established U.S. headquarters in Pompano Beach, Fla., how has your familiarity with South Florida from your nine years with Chiquita, last as general manager for Florida, before joining Camposol in July 2011, helped?
That helped a lot, because I was very familiar with South Florida, both ports – Miami and Port Everglades – and some of the customers in the Florida area. That, basically, was a jumpstart and probably one of the main reasons we chose Florida to be home of Camposol.
But, on top of that, the logistics options to get into Florida from Perú are many, so it’s kind of a natural house for our products.
There are a lot of tropical products arriving into Florida, like bananas, plantains, pineapples and melons, most from Central America, that get discharged in South Florida and get trucked up to New York, Philadelphia and Canada. That offers a logistics highway that is very convenient, whether you choose to take a train, go by truck or LTL [less-than-truckload].
The experience with Chiquita helped, but it also helped that South Florida is a natural hub for our products.
How do you cope with all the travel demands associated with your work?
Probably the best answer will come from my wife, but, yes, I travel a lot, 200,000 to 300,000 or more miles a year, once or twice a month into the U.S., at least once every two months into Europe and at least four to five times a year in Asia. In the U.S., it includes Walmart in Bentonville [Arkansas], Safeway in California and H-E-B in Texas.
I have a great team that supports me, and my family helps me a lot. My wife sometimes travels with me, and my kids, too.
We live in Florida, but we also have a small place in Lima. We move back and forth depending on how many weeks I’m going to spend in each of those places.
When you do get time at home, how do you like to unwind?
I try to spend time with family. I enjoy taking my daughter to school in the morning and cooking breakfast on weekends.
When we’re in Perú – my wife’s from Perú and I’m from Perú – I also have a small field with some plants. I like spending time with my avocados, my mangos, my pecans and apples, pears, coffee – I have a little bit of everything.
In Florida, we go to the beach and go out, but trying to spend as much quality time with my family is the most important thing when I’m not on a plane trying to develop the company business.