We received a simple document, titled Euro Fruits Impact Report 2017 that reminded us that it was the 25th anniversary of Nitin Agrawal’s founding of Euro Fruits and thus of the Indian grape export industry.
We knew instantly what had to be done and we soon were granted a great honor, as Nitin Agrawal has agreed to come to come to The Amsterdam Produce show and Conference and engage in an exclusive conversation with yours truly, to discuss the incredible story of the development of this industry from nothing to an industry that now regularly exports 187 million metric tons in a year.
Of course, we will go beyond that and try and identify lessons learned in these years that can be guiding stars for us all as we look to build our lives and our businesses in the years ahead.
To Americans Nitin is mostly unknown, yet he is the George Washington of the Indian Grape Industry and the story of his success is rich with potential for us all. This Pundit cannot remember when he was last as excited to be part of a public discussion.
We asked Samina Virani, Contributing Editor at Pundit sister publication ProducebusinessUK.com, to get some of the back story on Euro Fruits and Nitin Agrawal:
Euro Fruits Pvt. Ltd.
Q: As part of our preshow coverage we are highlighting exceptional leaders. For over 25 years, you have been the face of India’s grape export business; an exceptional leader who single-handedly designed an entire market value there. How did the story of Euro Fruits start for you personally? What was your passion to pursue this? It is true that you got into this by accident?
A: It was in the year 1992 when I was part of the family business. The family business was into oil and oil tankers, and that was the time I was involved in that business for a couple of years, but I always wanted to do something international. I wanted to travel overseas, do foreign business, so I started looking at studying wine and the manufacturing of sparkling wine.
In that process I went to Russia to study. We were looking for what were the best options possible for manufacturing wine and sparkling wine. I was studying this project with the intention of doing a joint venture with a Russian company, and we formed a brand called Rosinda. That project never took off. However, it just so happened that the particular project was covered by a newspaper in London.
After my study in Russia, I went to the UK looking for a partner for my wine, but it was not so easy. The day I was planning to come back to India, I visited the Indian Embassy as I had a friend there. I expressed to him my interest in searching for a partner for wine. He said “No, there is no such company I can refer you to, but there is one fax that we received from a UK importer called Mack Multiples, wherein they expressed their interest in buying grapes from India.” So, this friend of mine showed me that fax and asked me “Nitin, would you be interested in supplying grapes to this company?”
My first reaction was that it was not the kind of business I was interested in because, for me, exporting grapes from India was like packing a few cartons, putting it into an airplane and sending it. So I didn’t really find it very interesting at that time.
Nevertheless, when I came back to India and as I was collecting all my papers from my bag, I saw this fax again and just wanted to give it a shot. So without thinking much, I sent them a reply saying that I was in London, and I got this fax from them via the Indian Embassy and please let me know.
Immediately I got a response back saying that they know me and my company and that they would like to do business with me. I was a little bit surprised about how these guys knew about me. It so happened that they had spotted an article about my visit to Russia on the joint venture on manufacturing wine in India. I was not even aware that any such article had appeared. This is how we started exchanging some faxes, and then one day I got a message saying that their technical director Dr.Alan Legge would send me a list of questions and that they would like me to respond to that.
When I received this fax, there were some 16 questions asking about the variety and size of the grapes, the sugar content, the kind of pesticides used, food and safety standards etc. Frankly speaking, at this time, I had no clue about this, but we had a farm horticulturalist working for us. I showed that fax to him and he said he was in a position to make a reply to that. So, he gave me a reply to that which I sent to Mack Multiples without even understanding the contents of the thing.
Immediately, I got a response from Alan saying, “This is well done, fantastic. We are coming to India.” Now that was a real challenge for me to meet face to face. I picked up Alan, I took him to a nice restaurant close to the airport for a lovely Indian lunch, and Alan started asking me questions about grapes which I never knew how to answer because I had no answer to that. I was diverting his subject by talking about Indian food, Indian beautiful girls and everything else, but not about grapes because I knew nothing about it.
Then we went to my office and he gave me a little introduction about his company and that is the time I explained to Alan, “Look Alan, I know nothing about this company, nor the grape business, but we are serious family businessmen. We are honest, hardworking people, and we have no intention of misleading or cheating you, but we know nothing about the grape business.”
Alan said “I’m already in India so let’s go to Nasik, where the grapes are grown.” We visited some vineyards. He saw the kind of Indian vineyards on the way from Mumbai to Nasik, which was about 4 hours by road at that time. We were discussing about my family business, which is in logistics and the road transportation business.
After the visit he just went back, and for a few weeks I had no communication with him. One fine afternoon, I got a call saying “Nitin, congratulations. You have been appointed as our exclusive supplier of grapes from India.”
I was a little bit surprised and asked Alan, “What made you take this decision knowing the fact that I know nothing about this business?”
He had three points, which changed my life.
He said “Nitin, at first you almost tried to mislead us and give us a different impression, so you will always have that guilt feeling and will work with more honesty with us. Point number two: You know nothing about grapes so you will never argue with me. You will do exactly what I tell you and that is a very important point for me. The third point is that you are currently in India in the transportation and logistics business, which is extremely important for fresh produce. So it will be very helpful for me to have your expertise and your knowledge on logistics which will be helpful in making the grape business successful.”
On all this I only made one promise to Dr. Alan Legge, who is my guru, ”You have nominated me as your supplier. Be my teacher and I will be your best student in the world.”
I’m glad about what I told Alan, my guru, my teacher, my mentor. I have proved it. I have proved to be one of his very good students.
As a mark of recognition, just a few years back, we invited Alan to India to show what his student had been able to achieve in the past two decades.
This is the story of how we started this business. We learned this business. We started on a very small scale. Alan came to India, taught me A, B, C about the grape business, which we learned. We did a few containers successfully to Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencer way back in 1993. After that, my wife and I went to the UK, we worked in there like packhouse workers, just to understand the fresh produce business, and that is how the Euro Fruits journey started.
Q: You established the first state-of-the-art produce packhouse in India, which in 2017 was rated as one of the best in the world by the European supermarkets, USAID and USDA officials and Indian government agencies. Can you explain a little bit about this?
A: When I went back to the UK after the first few containers were exported in 1992, we saw a state-of-the-art packhouse at Paddock Wood, and I was so impressed with it. That was the time I made a commitment to Alan that I would make a replica of that packhouse in India.
That time in India, no one knew what a grape packhouse was, but I came back with that dream, and I actually implemented the dream with a lot of issues and a lot of hurdles along my way. However, we were strong enough to face everything, and we set up a packhouse in Nasik, which went into operation February 1, 1993. Even today, it is rated as one of the best grape packhouses in India.
Q: How did your packhouse compare to others in different countries?
A: While setting up this kind of infrastructure, we also travelled to all the leading countries like Australia, South Africa, Chile, Italy, Spain and Greece to see how the grape packhouses in the other parts of the world looked like. We collected a lot of ideas from them, and we wanted to create an infrastructure that is absolutely on par with the international standards.
We are very glad that today, when a lot of European supermarket clients visit our packhouse, they rate Euro Fruits packhouse as one of the best grape packhouses in the world. This really brings a smile on our faces. We really feel very happy.
We also feel that our hard work and efforts have been rewarded. We are a company that is 100% responsible for our clients. We respect every client’s views, suggestions and comments. Also, we try to implement every smallest, single suggestion from our clients to keep them happy. That’s the motto of Euro Fruits.
Q: With the packhouse technology in place, were there any other advancements you implemented to raise the standard of working? For example, the standard of labor?
A: For Euro Fruits, gender equality is of utmost importance, and we have always regarded and respected our women workers in our packhouse. We are very glad to inform you that we are one of the companies in India that recognizes the great contribution from the women workers.
We pay them, we reward them substantially for the great, hard work and effort they put in and we are very proud that we are able to recognize their efforts by making them have highly advanced positions in our packhouse. We have implemented gender equality with great success in our packhouse and have set a kind of different standard in the country on this. We recognize all our women workers. We respect them a lot.
Q: Are you looking to expand to other markets?
A: I must tell you that Euro Fruits is a company built basically to serve our European supermarket clients. We are currently exporting to the UK and Europe. Included in this is Scandinavia, which is also a very important customer for us.
We currently supply to the UK, Norway, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Holland, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, Austria, Russia etc. We have very good relationship with all our customers. We are also growing into Eastern Europe now. So Europe continues to be our very important market.
However, in the past few years, we are also growing into other markets. For example, South East Asian countries like China, Taiwan, Thailand, Hong Kong, Malaysia etc. So this is the area we see a lot of growth coming along.
Q: Do you have any visions to extend your grape variety in the future? If so, what would need to take place in the Indian legal system.
A: Currently for Euro Fruits, the biggest initiative and challenge is to look into new varieties, which is a very complicated situation in India because of the intellectual property laws. We have had several rounds of discussions with the Government of India to change the systems, and gradually I see something happening in the near future.
We are talking to a lot of nurseries and breeders around the world, and we are looking into the possibility of producing a few new varieties in India in the coming years. I repeat, it is not going to be an easy job. It is going to be very tough. However, that is where the fun is. When the going gets tough, the tough one gets going. That is where Euro Fruits is committed, and we are going to make all efforts to make this venture successful.
Q: Sounds like you are really pioneering the way in India. Are you involved with any other sustainability or CSR initiatives over there?
A: For Euro Fruits, sustainability and CSR are extremely important initiatives. We are also very active in our corporate social compliance. We fund an English primary school, which started 10 years back in India, giving free education to our farmers’ and our workers’ children.
This school – an English Medium School – was basically the first of its kind. Initially, there was a lot of resistance, and no one wanted to send their children to our school. We tried pushing them and convincing the parents and the children to come to the school for their own better future. The response was initially very poor, so what we did was to introduce a big park and garden in our school, with a lot of playing equipment like slides, see-saws, a merry-go-round etc.
This became a big attraction for the kids; it was like a big park for the nearby villages. Every evening the kids would come and play. Initially, we allowed everyone to come, but gradually we told the children that if they wanted to use the park, they must also come to the school and study. That is when a lot of kids started coming to the school.
Today, I am very proud to say that we have 250 students and they all speak fluent English. I must here say big thanks to my wife and my two lovely daughters who really supported me for this venture. Today, this school is really growing, and we feel extremely proud of the fact that we are able to spread the message of free education.
Q: Does your philanthropic arm extend in other areas as well?
A: We are also associated with a lot of hospitals and medical centers near our packhouse. We assist a lot of needy patients. To date, Euro Fruits must have helped more than 10,000 needy patients who could not financially afford to get the best medical treatment. Euro Fruits helps such needy patients who are from backward financial positions and who cannot afford to get the best medical attention. Euro Fruits is very lucky and fortunate to be able to do this and we will continue to do this. This is our commitment.
I would also like to share an emotional experience on this. About 3 years back, one of the harvesting laborers started crying profusely. I was really surprised that he was crying so much. He came to my office and started narrating the story about his one-year-old son. It was his first child and how that small baby had a hole in his heart.
Doctors had almost given up that this child cannot survive unless someone sent him to a big hospital immediately. At that time, the cost of the operation was very expensive; one that he could never afford. He had approached government officials and NGOs for financial assistance. No one gave him a single rupee for his medical treatment. That is the time I decided to come forward and help him.
I told him that he should be assured that we would take care of 100% of the expenses for his son’s operation. Three weeks later, he was operated on, and we paid for all the expenses for the operation. I’m very glad to inform you that that boy is now about 4 years old and a very healthy and strong child.
We feel so happy that this is one of the real contributions that Euro Fruits has been able to make for the society. This is a contribution beyond words. We convert it into action. It’s not that we want to get any acknowledgment or applause for this, but this is a very genuine story about how Euro Fruits really works for the betterment of the society. We are so proud that we are able to do this.
Q: What will the next 25 years look like for Euro Fruits?
A: Our only dream, desire and ambition is that every year Euro Fruits continues to do good work for our suppliers, our farmers and, of course, our customers. We want to see a smile on the entire value chain; that everyone associated with Euro Fruits feels very happy. For us, our integrity is of utmost importance. We value our reputation a lot, and we only dream and desire that Euro Fruits should be regarded as the most professional, the most honest, the most integral company in the world.
Euro Fruits cannot be compared with some of the other big producers or players in the world. We are a very small company. But in terms of our reputation and integrity our dream is that we should be regarded as the most important company in the world.
Q: Finally, you’ve also mentioned your passion for the people in the fresh produce global village. Do you have any stories or anecdotes of this?
A: My personal feeling is that this business is all about people. It’s all about connecting people. I think this is what is the passion for Nitin Agrawal. I love meeting people. I travel across the globe. I meet a lot of people. Whether we do direct business with them, or we don’t, I feel like staying connected with them anyway.
I make an effort to always stay in touch with them, either via WhatsApp or email or phone call and try to greet them. This is my biggest passion. This business is all about people. That is what drives me. I always say that the fresh produce business is like one small village in the world. It is a fresh produce village, where we all know each other.
The fresh produce business is very interesting; it is very challenging because no two seasons are alike. Every year we have a different challenge, and a different situation. The best part is to live and accept that kind of situation. The fresh produce business is very dynamic. It is never boring and that is what keeps us going. This is my biggest passion. I love my business.
Q: Is it true that everyone who works at Euro Fruits is called a Euro Star? How did this come about?
A: Yes, that’s a unique thing about Euro Fruits. There are no designations. There are no managers. There are no general managers. There are no assistant managers. We feel that all are performers. They are all my stars. That’s why about 8 years back, we changed all the designations and we called everybody only a Euro Star.
We feel Euro Fruits is a galaxy and all the employees are stars. So that is why we call everybody a Euro Star. Some are shining less; some are shining more. However, all are stars. Everybody has one title: Euro Star. I must tell you I’m the luckiest person in the world to have such a fantastic team that is dedicated, loyal, honest and hardworking. We are like one big expanded family.
I just want to tell you one last thing: Whatever accomplishments we have had, whatever we have achieved, I feel I owe the life I have lived and the very existence of Euro Fruits to Dr. Alan Legge. If it is was not for him, I would not be in this business. And if I was not in this business, tens of thousands of people who are getting their employment and bread and butter because of Euro Fruits would not have gotten this.
So Alan, I really want to once again thank you. Thanks a million times for what you did for me. We are ever grateful to you for putting your trust in us. I’m really happy that we could meet your expectations, and thank you for being so patient in teaching me everything about this business. I owe everything to you, Dr. Alan. You are great. You are my superstar.
Thank you and Have a Grape Day.
We’ve invited many of Nitin’s friends and associates to the event, including Dr. Legge, who sent this note:
Thank you very much for your interesting message, and I certainly have been aware of your broad range of activities including the valuable contributions as the Perishable Pundit for many years now. I finally retired last year after 55 years in the various parts of this incredibly fascinating and diverse industry and have been fortunate to meet so many great characters, including the cast you mention in your mail.
I would have loved to have joined you and Nitin in Amsterdam, particularly as I am very proud of the business Nitin and his Team have created and especially its ethical basis which in no small way has contributed to its success across the years.
Unfortunately, current health problems preclude my attendance, but I wish you all well, and especially the Conversation that you will have with Nitin. I could have certainly spiced up that Conversation with my clear memories of our first season of grape exports together, where we overcame every obstacle that was thrown into our path — and there were many! Nitin might tell you about the differences between our Mark I Packhouse and the Mark II — which we constructed in 48 very hectic hours!
Thanks again for your very kind invitation and wishing you all the best for what I am sure will be a great produce show
We all, of course, wish Alan a speedy and complete recovery and thank him for his note.
Even in his absence, though, we think his wisdom shines through even here.
What makes success? It is very tempting to think it is a mathematical formula, quality product, plus excellent service, fine logistics, etc. And, of course, all this is required. And nobody doubts the many years of hard work put in by many people. Dr. Alan Legge and Chris Mack in the early days, and Tim Reincke and Eric Bruckner at Timerfruit in the Netherlands, countless “stars” in and out of Euro Fruits.
Yet, our experience is that great success always has something more to it, some point of differentiation that allows a Walt Disney, a Henry Ford, a Steve Jobs and, yes, a Nitin Agrawal to create what had never been there before. We suppose Walt Disney would have called it pixie dust.
To us it is both intriguing, insightful and instructive that Dr. Alan Legge, while certainly mentioning the sweat and effort, identifies a different factor as the pixie dust that has made Euro Fruits and Nitin Agrawal a success. Dr. Legge writes: I am very proud of the business the Nitin and his Team have created and especially its ethical basis which in no small way has contributed to its success across the years.
How did this precisely happen? Was it the ethical basis that persuaded Europeans to support the project? Did it inspire the vendors, employees and customers to loyalty? Or did it in some unknowable way infuse the project with meaning and importance that made it succeed?
We hope you will join us in Amsterdam to celebrate with Nitin the 25th anniversary of Euro Fruits and the Indian Grape Industry, to understand its ethical basis and help us all be better and more successful as individuals, in our companies and as an industry.
Come be part of this historic moment. Come to The Amsterdam Produce Show and Conference.
You can register here.
You can request a hotel room here.
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Looking forward to seeing you at The Amsterdam Produce Show and Conference.