There’s strength in numbers (even for pickles)
«At a time like this, it is important to put our individualism aside» says Lorenzo Ercole, chairman of Saclà. Which explains how a company based in the Piedmont region found its way to the Persian Gulf
di Francesca Vercesi
For the last few weeks, the shelves of several grocery stores scattered throughout the Persian Gulf countries have stocked Saclà products, made by one of the largest producers of pickled vegetables in the Piedmont Region, created by entrepreneur Secondo Pinin Ercole.
The products are distributed by the Shura Trading & Hotel Supplies group which has its headquarters in the Al Yasat Tower of Abu Dhabi, part of the huge Al Mazroui group of companies that handles the products of about twenty other firms ranging from infrastructures to energy, from services to equipment for military and civilian aviation.
It is a group that pioneers the selection of Italian products, and also distributes other historical brands like Illy, Fiuggi mineral water, Rustichella d'Abruzzo pasta, the Florentine coffee brand Eureka and that has just reached an agreement to market San Benedetto mineral water as well.
The Saclà group (the name is the acronym for "Società anonima commercio e lavorazione alimentari"), was founded in Asti in 1939, and still has its headquarters there. It has found two ways to increase its business: internationalization and strategic agreements. In contrast with the international image of the Italian corporate world as unable or unwilling to form alliances, since last November Saclà has become one of the 13 Italian agrifood industries (another is Valsoia) that belong to the Almaverde Bio consortium, the leading organic food product organization in Italy.
The companies all have long experience in the organic foods sector, and as the chairman of Saclà, Lorenzo Ercole, points out «at a time of crisis like the one our economy is going through, it is important to put our individualism aside to achieve common goals. That is why we decided to join the consortium».
In December they even launched a new commercial.
«The sector has enormous potential it hasn't even begun to express, considering that the data show a clear disproportion between the future market for organic foods and the present one» comments Renzo Piraccini, chairman of Almaverde Bio, which expects to report turnover in 2011 in excess of 32 million euros.
The market for organic foods is still only about 3% of the total food expenditure for Italian families, which totals 1.8 billion euros, considering all the trade channels, of which about 480 million go through the modern supermarket chains. «The project of our consortium is to merge Italian business experiences that share strong local ties and the desire to make organic farming a possible and concrete alternative» continues Piraccini.
For the Almaverde Bio trademark, Saclà proposes sauces and pestos, vegetables preserved in oil and pickled, extra virgin olive oil, spreadable fruit, balsamic vinegar and balsamic glaze. In the meantime, the Asti-based company continues to focus on expansion abroad, enlarging its network of branches. It just reopened its American branch, near San Francisco. Now half its 130 million euros consolidated turnover derives from exports.
Northern Europe is the main market and it is here that the food processing company founded eighty years ago as a cannery for fruit and vegetable farm surpluses, maintains its leadership in various sectors. For example, it leads the pesto market in Great Britain (where the brand has been present for about twenty years, ed.note), that of canned vegetables in Iceland, sauces in Germany. While olives and pickles are its core business in Italy.
The private label market is another strategic opportunity to compete abroad: important chains like Tesco, Sainsbury and Mark & Spencer already distribute Saclà products (pestos and sauces, in particular) under their own label. «The label is fundamental, now more than ever, to link our name to the great tradition of food products made in Italy. Top quality and recognizability are what enable us to take the right steps, even in a market context like today's» adds Ercole.
The group has always tried to innovate: it has been supplier to the Italian army and distributed products under rationing during the war. It was the first company to launch family-sized packaging and transparent jars, moving on later to high quality pickled vegetables for luxury restaurants all over Europe.
In the Seventies Saclà launched its Acetelli, a line of pickled vegetables characterized by lesser acidity. In the Eighties it started marketing the long-life condiments for pasta (pesto, concentrated tomato sauces) that would become fundamental, a few years later, for the development of its foreign markets. In the Nineties, the company consolidated its position in Italy, becoming the leader in the sector of pickled vegetables, olives and vegetables preserved in oil.
In the same period, Saclà expanded on the foreign markets with an offering of different products from its mainstays in Italy: condiments for pasta, mainly long-life pesto and UHT tomato sauces. «We switched from cans to glass in the Sixties and in 1970 we changed the brand name slightly: Sacla became Saclà. The company continues to be healthy and give good results: profits before taxes are around 10% of the turnover, in line with the other companies on the market» says Ercole.
What about your relations with the large distribution chains? «It's not easy. We work well, but there is a point I'd like to stress: food is too cheap here, and this is because all the emphasis has shifted to the price policy. The concept of brand loyalty has changed and often people end up choosing a product on the basis of the cost, and not who made it».
We find it difficult to safeguard our position on the supermarket shelves with adequate prices. «I can tell you that we're lucky because through the foreign markets we've found a way out that repays our efforts» continues Ercole. «We work hard to maintain quality high and invest in the latest equipment and modern plants: in the last three years we have invested 12 million euros. We also have seven people working in the sector of research and development» continues the manager.
Rodolfo Garatti has always been his right arm, while Laura Ronco is his financial director and Andrea Granato and Roberto Gheritti the sales directors; the general director is Sante Vassura. The company, however, continues to remain a family business, despite the fact that a number of top positions are occupied by experts from outside the family.
The next to take the reins will be Lorenzo's only daughter, Chiara, third generation of the Piedmont family. Currently she is in charge of purchasing and marketing. Her time will come, but not yet: she is still young, and her dad still has a lot of ideas to put into action before he's ready to retire. Starting with a new agreement, that may not be far in the future.