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Harvest time

Vegetable processing giant Bonduelle North America continues to reap rewards by freezing out the competition


French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte’s armies in the early part of the 19th century needed to eat. After all, conquest doesn’t happen on an empty stomach. He decided to hold a contest with a hefty cash prize to find a method of preserving large amounts of food to feed his men. The winner was Frenchman Nicolas Appert, who had discovered that food would last longer if it were heated in hermetically sealed containers. Then Englishman Peter Durand patented canisters coated with tin. By 1815, the two inventions had been combined to create the canned food industry.

Nearly 200 years later, the French-owned company Bonduelle North America Inc. is a major player in Canada’s canned and frozen vegetable processing sector. It has 900 full-time employees, another 900 seasonal staff, and annual sales pegged at $630 million. Based in Saint-Denis-sur-Richelieu, Que., the company was born in 1987 as Aliments Carrière Inc. Growth came through a voracious appetite for acquiring other companies, including canning and frozen vegetable processing plants in Quebec, Ontario and Nova Scotia. Then, in 2007, French multinational Groupe Bonduelle swallowed up Aliments Carrière.

Bonduelle North America processes approximately five million pounds of vegetables each year, with as much as 95 per cent of them sourced in Canada. “Some things, like water chestnuts, don’t exist in Canada,” says Marketing vice-president Christian Malenfant. “If they do, it’s not in large enough quantities for our needs.” The company has established partnerships with about 800 farmers who occupy some of the most fertile land in Quebec’s Richelieu valley, the St. Lawrence River Valley, as well as near London and Windsor in Ontario. The farmers use Bonduelle’s seeds to grow produce for the canning and frozen vegetable giant. “We decide what to grow and how much we need,” explains Malenfant. That ensures supply for the company – and income for farmers. Peas, corn, beans and carrots are the most popular vegetables.

Fields are located within a few kilometres of Bonduelle’s seven plants – four in Quebec and three in Ontario. This reduces transportation time from field to factory, and increases the freshness and quality of the vegetables the company uses. “It’s in our interest to cultivate vegetables in Canada close to our plants,” says Malenfant, adding that it’s especially important for more finicky vegetables like green peas. “We have to get them to the plant right away because they can ferment during transport.” Peas are frozen within 40 minutes of being harvested.

The symbiotic relationship with farmers has helped Bonduelle meet the increased demand for locally grown food, particularly with its foodservice clients. “When we have foodservice contracts, that works in our favour since they want to use locally sourced products,” Malenfant says. “We’re proud of our agricultural partners. We have the processing equipment, but the farmers have the fields.”

Bonduelle takes a multi-pronged approach to sales of its canned and frozen vegetables, and sells to the industrial sector, foodservice and retailers. Foodservice accounts for 40 per cent of Bonduelle’s sales and continues to grow. Competition is stiffer in the retail sector, which accounts for 32 per cent of sales.

The company’s products are marketed to consumers under the Bonduelle, Arctic Gardens and Family Tradition brands. It gained rights to the Arctic Gardens brand with the 1987 acquisition of Bedford, Que.-based Snyder et fils. In 2009, Bonduelle bought the frozen vegetables division of Ontario-based Family Tradition Foods Inc. Arctic Gardens, which is carried by major grocery chains, now enjoys a market share of more than 50 per cent in Quebec, and a 15-per-cent share in Canada, says Malenfant.

Bonduelle also packages for the private labels of major North American food distributors and supermarket chains. This accounts for 85 per cent of sales, compared to 15 per cent for Bonduelle’s own brands. “It’s important to cover all the distribution channels because our production lines and packaging are very flexible,” adds Malenfant.

Malenfant notes that private labels and national brands complement one another. “Some consumers want only national brands while others want a private label,” he explains. “We also try to offer different products. We have different vegetable mixes that private labels don’t have.” National brands can also be used to entice new customers. “When we do advertising for Arctic Gardens, it’s to grow the category,” he says. “We bring new clients to Arctic Gardens, but it also helps the private labels.”

Although vegetable processing is Bonduelle’s bread and butter, it also produces canned soups, sauces and beans. This allows the company to maximize the use of equipment at its plants. “When you make frozen carrots or peas, it’s for a short period of time,” says Malenfant. “During the rest of the year, you can use the same processing plants in the off-season for canning things like chickpeas.”

Bonduelle had been exporting 30 per cent of its production to the U.S., mainly as frozen produce through foodservice networks. In March, it acquired three processing plants and a packaging centre for frozen vegetables in New York State and Wisconsin from the American firm Allens. This will help grow sales in the U.S. market and reduce risks associated with fluctuating exchange rates. “We want to increase our share of vegetables on the consumer’s plate,” explains Malenfant.

For their part, customers are increasingly looking for in-depth information about Bonduelle’s products. “Retailers and foodservice distributors are asking more and more for independent certification and for information about our packaging,” says Malenfant. But questions aren’t a bad thing. “Customers are increasingly asking us to be experts. We consider it a good thing because people are forcing us to improve.”