When Mayda Sotomayor-Kirk was appointed CEO of SealdSweet, we introduced her in this way:
She started in the produce industry as a receptionist, working her way through college. Then she fell in love… with an industry. And now Mayda Sotomayor has become the CEO of one of the most venerable names in the business
That was over a decade ago. Now, she is a global icon of the industry.
Many can talk about international trade, but few can tie it in with a personal story of redemption like Mayda.
We asked Matthew Ogg, Contributing Editor to Pundit sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS, to see what Mayda has in store for attendees at the Global Trade Symposium co-located with The New York Produce Show and Conference.
Q: So I understand you are in Arizona, how is everything going for you on your visit to Nogales?
A: Nogales is great. We’re inaugurating our offices here and the warehouse.
Q: So that’s a pretty substantial development I suppose?
A: I’m very happy. We had a strategic plan to grow our business out of Mexico, and we’re restructuring, hiring and growing our operations here. It’s exciting – I hadn’t been to the new offices until now. I’d seen them being built, but I hadn’t seen the finished offices yet. So I figured I better come out here before it got too late.
Q: Fantastic. Before we discuss developments like this one, I’d like to jump right in with some broader questions. With both early and later fruit, we are seeing a growing overlap from California with commodities you import like citrus and grapes. How is that changing the way you do business?
A: Good question. It definitely changes from product to product, and it’s true — there are new varieties, and there are technologies like Apeel that are extending the shelf life of products, and that’s definitely a concern. But one aspect of my talk at the New York Produce Show will be forecasts for growth out to 2030, and the extent that imported product will continue to increase even with those situations because the reality is that land in California continues to be expensive, with water shortages on the rise.
There are climate changes that are happening all over the world. California has a large basket of produce, but it cannot be sustained to feed the world, or to feed even the U.S. Product has to be imported in the counter-season into the U.S.
And there are products we can’t source domestically. I’m going to use the example of pineapples, because that’s the easiest one. 100% of pineapples are imported and that’s never going to change. It’s a high consumption product.
There have been significant changes before. For example, Spain used to export 50 million cartons of citrus into the U.S., but now California is producing them. So that completely changed the face of a whole industry, yet Spain’s industry hasn’t crumbled. In fact, they have increased the volume of this commodity to other countries.
Q: Would you be able to elaborate on the growth you’re forecasting and the factors driving it?
A: In this case, a lot of the growth revolves around the fact that trends for fruits and vegetables are around healthful living and convenience, not to mention population growth. The world is becoming international, and there are more fruits and vegetables that will be consumed in the future.
In 2002, there was $6 billion in imports, and in 15 years that grew to $21 billion in 2017. We have no reason to believe that growth will not continue.
Today consumption is flatter than the levels that are recommended. If we can only increase consumption per capita, and with the increase in global population and in the U.S. population — especially with the ethnic diversity the U.S. is going to be having — we can only expect that imports are going to increase.
In 2017, 55% of the fruit that was consumed in the United States was imported and 32% of the vegetables were imported. So that gives you an indication that more than half of the fresh fruit and almost a third of the fresh vegetables the U.S. consumed are imported today.
Q: That’s incredible.
A: It is. And as land values continue to increase and as populations continue to increase, and the demand increases for people to have year-round supply, we don’t have any reason to believe this trend will not continue to increase.
Q: And how do protocols play into that?
A: Protocols are set in place in order to protect local production and protect it from any unwanted pest or disease to come into the United States. It makes it difficult to import product, and growers must do more things to get their product delivered in the correct condition for the United States.
I think many international growers understand the protocols are in place, but it does in some cases limit the amount of product that can come into the United States. For example, if you have lemons and they have to go through a cold treatment protocol, even if they are admissible, lemons do not do well in a cold treatment environment at a certain temperature. Because the protocol exists, the growers, of course, choose to go to other places rather than come to the United States.
Q: So it’s about protecting U.S. crops from phytosanitary threats but also finding protocols — systems-based in an ideal scenario — so that you don’t need to do hot vapor treatment or cold treatment.
A: Or fumigation. One of the worst protocols that exists today is fumigation — it limits the shelf life of the commodity, and you’re putting methyl bromide onto a product so it creates the inability to import that product in an organic way. There goes any type of organic commodity.
The systems approach for sure is the best way to go both for the consumer and for the availability of these products in the United States, so long as it’s science-based. We definitely don’t want in any way to have any pest that comes into the United States that can hurt domestic production. We are a domestic grower and we definitely don’t want to see that.
Q: And now you’re setting up this office now in Nogales aimed at bringing in more produce from Mexico. How do you feel about the protocols for Mexican fresh produce?
A: NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) has been very good for produce out of Mexico. NAFTA has for sure helped the production and not only economically, but also there are very limited protocols that are needed. For our protocols, you have to pass inspections, but the vegetables that come in from Mexico are either with a systems approach or free entry.
Mexico really is our backyard in a way, and we look at Mexico for growth in really producing not only the wide fruit basket but also the vegetable basket that we need. I’m sitting in Nogales, and I can see vegetables across the street. There’s proximity to the United States and the ability for Mexican growers to produce to a higher standard and in a sustainable way.
One of the best things that happened was when the LA Times did a news story a few years ago on child labor and the way things were grown. What it did was even though it brought attention to these issues, it also meant that a lot of growers who were already doing things in the correct way actually became stronger because they were in a position of having all the ethical practices in place. They had the certifications and they came out stronger.
Q: You’ve spoken about the increased diversity in the United States. Setting up the new office in Nogales, do you think that you’ll be expanding from your core product lines into more fruits and vegetables aimed at the Hispanic market?
A: Yes. We’ve just gone through a strategic plan, and one of our goals is to have a wider basket of commodities, and second is to get as close as possible to our retailers; to have an intimate relationship with our retailers. And that could potentially be changing.
Now we’re going into a whole other world where we feel the future of the commercial side of this business is to be more open, transparent and as business is very complex – the business in the very near future, if it’s not already changing, is where an importer needs to be more than just an importer.
Our goal is to be more of a liaison, a connector of sorts, trying to be the bridge between the grower and the retailer, and to add value but try to have that be a much more direct and transparent relationship.
It’s not a relationship of us importing and us selling it, but for the retailer to have more of a direct relationship with the farm and for us to be more of the bridge that unifies it together. That’s what we’re doing, and that’s how our business has grown in Europe.
We have examples where this type of value-added solution has worked, and we have many examples where our retailers are flourishing, our growers are flourishing, and we do more of that connection. We want to bring that type of value-added commercial-providing into the United States. That could be a whole presentation in itself.
Q: It certainly gives a lot of context about your business and where it’s heading. Seald Sweet is a major importer in certain commodities, but no importer can afford to be a monolith and stand still. You need to keep moving and changing and stay up to pace with the times.
A: One of the things I feel is just being an importer and selling to a retailer — while it is and has been an important aspect of our business — is not sustainable. It’s not a sustainable practice.
We feel that the world is getting smaller with communications and technology; we need to solve the problems of the retailers, and solve the problems of the grower, and try to connect them as directly as possible and as transparently as possible.
That’s the only way that the grower is going to know what the market is doing, to understand and know what the consumers want, and the retailers are going to have the assurance that the product is being grown for them under the right conditions in the right way with sustainable practices.
Logistically we have knowledge of world markets, and we have knowledge of business and governments, so if we can combine these three pillars of knowledge and we each play our role well, we feel, and have seen successfully in Europe, how this actually does work. It creates prosperity.
Our goal is that little by little we want to introduce this. We have a saying in our company, and I think this is really an important one that was brought to us by our founder and CEO Heinz Deprez, who says, “We need to provide our retailers with product as close as possible and as far away as necessary.”
So, we provide them with product sustainably as close as possible to them, and as far away as necessary so as to not have a break in supply. That can be done with a partnership between the three different pillars.
Q: Your presentation in New York is going to touch on your experience over the years, and looking back 36 years ago when you started in the fresh produce trade, could you have ever imagined the sorts of changes that are taking place?
A: It’s very interesting. When I was preparing for the presentation, I looked back at pictures and I saw some of the packinghouses that I visited, and I was flabbergasted. Now knowing the technology and the resources and what growers internationally are doing, it’s really breathtaking to see how this business has advanced and grown. Never would I have thought the traditional way of doing business was ever going to change, and this was just the way it was.
In reality, growers are becoming more and more technology-savvy; they’re understanding more and needing to be more part of the market, and retailers are consolidating while becoming more knowledgeable of what’s happening in the market. And with 55% of fruits consumed by imports and 32% of vegetables, this is becoming a much more sophisticated industry.
With that, we also have to think differently. The traditional way of doing business is changing. Never would I have thought that today we would be sitting around a table with a grower and a retailer and planning six months ahead of time, looking at new varieties and consumer trends, and what can be planted and when and the timing, and just be so transparent and so open.
It’s very gratifying to see how this industry has evolved. I’ve been very fortunate to be a part of it and to have seen such differences throughout the years.
Q: You’ve visited so many countries in the process and had adventures along the way, and in our chat when we were arranging the interview, you mentioned how you’d even needed to travel by camel at one point. Is there anything that comes to mind that shows how much the industry has changed?
A: I don’t think there has been a bottle of wine that I have not had a glass in every country I have been in. There have been endless dinners and people who I’ve known all over the world, and my best friends are people I’ve met in the industry. I have growers who are lifelong friends and will always be friends; I had situations where women weren’t allowed to eat with the men, yet I have a picture of me eating with them because I’d had to ask for permission.
That was another thing. You have to remember 36 years ago, women were not the norm in this industry, so whether I was a trendsetter or just crazy, I got involved and luckily so. I visited more countries than I ever thought I would have done, I’ve had more passports because I’ve run out of space; not because they expired. And I’ve kept them all.
I have seen things and lived the most incredible human experience of seeing people — the workers, the laborers, the farmers, and the commitment they’ve had.
I’ve lived the Cinderella life, and it has been due to this industry. My degree was going to be in law. I had a scholarship to go to Law School; I cannot imagine me being a lawyer. I can’t imagine myself being anything else than what I am.
Q: And your life began in Havana, Cuba. What was your story of building a life in the United States?
A: In 1967 Fidel [Castro] had what was called the Freedom Flights, so people who did not want to be part of the new regime or revolution could leave. My mother, my brother and I left. My father wasn’t able to leave yet, and we got on a plane — my mother for the first time; she had $50 in her pocket, and we came to this country.
Luckily, we were received and my aunt was here. We lived with her, and my parents made a life. My father came later on and he really didn’t think we were going to stay here very long. He didn’t think that the revolution was going to last. My mother and father unfortunately passed away without ever seeing Cuba again.
But my parents did succeed. My parents created their business here and unfortunately never got to see me become CEO of a company, but I know they would have been very proud of me living the true American Dream.
They always instilled in us that incredible sense of gratitude to the United States — we would have had to stay in a Communist country that we did not believe in. My parents didn’t get the chance to go back, but because they did what they did, it gave my brother and me the opportunity to live in a free country, and their sacrifice is today what we live.
Just recently we produced The Amsterdam Produce Summit, and we featured Maarten van Hamburg, general manager of Bakker Barendrecht, a sister Greenyard subsidiary. We did a piece on the system that Greenyard has in the Netherlands as the sole supplier of most produce to Ahold in the Netherlands. You can see that piece here.
We share in Mayda’s voice the idea that American industry might move in this European direction.
One advantage of working for a global giant such as Greenyard is that it opens your eyes to different ways of doing things.
I think we can count on Mayda to open all our eyes to a future yet unknown.
You can register right here.
Look at the website here.
Mayda’s life, from refugee of Communist Cuba to the pinnacle of the produce industry today, is an inspiration. Come SOAR with her, and all of us at The New York Produce Show and Conference, into a brighter tomorrow.