Interview - Chris Mack, chairman, Fresca Group

Whether it's experimenting with new apple varieties or finding ways to stave-off disease, cultivating a profitable orchard is a time-consuming process that requires a lot of patience.

Every top fruit grower knows this - and so does Fresca Group chairman Chris Mack.

As a young Wye College graduate in the late 1970s, Mack worked as a grower on a top fruit farm in Essex. There, he learned valuable lessons about the industry that helped shape him into the successful businessman he is today.

His pragmatic approach to business is characteristically similar to that of many growers and, on meeting the man who oversees a group that last year reported a turnover of £325.2m, his down-to-earth manner is also similar to many growers in the UK.

Such traits are reflected in his sensible attitude towards the current economic climate. While he admits that times are tough, his experience tells him that where there is a will to survive, there's a way.

"We are facing a competitive environment that I have never experienced in quite the same way. Clearly when you look at business now we are facing huge inflationary pressures from just about every corner. Close to home it's very obvious that UK agriculture and horticulture is under pressure.

"The last time we were in this kind of situation was 1991. It's going to make life challenging for everyone."

He adds: "Labour availability is a big issue. The reality is it's already taken its toll on people where a number of crops are looking like they are going to be in short supply. A lot of people are not planting at all - or in the same volumes.

"And the devaluation of the pound against the euro does not seem to have been given the level of attention it has been given historically.

"(All of this) could significantly reduce the volume (of fresh produce) that's available. But we can only work with whatever the current framework is.

"The state of the economy at the moment will inevitably have an impact on consumer behaviour and buying habits. Ultimately the consumer will decide how they spend on fresh produce - we've seen big growth in both the premium and economy lines within the fresh produce category and expect the growth at both poles to continue. It's our job to cater to all these needs. But whatever happens in the economy there will always be a demand for fresh produce."

Mack points out that, despite the current economic outlook, there's still "real interest in local produce".

"The British-grown message is getting stronger all the time, and consumers are increasingly backing British farmers. What's interesting is the emergence of the locally grown message now. It's an even more specific message that poses new logistics challenges for companies like ours - to source regionally and manage supply with required quality levels and demand."

Mack says he will be considering the "locally grown" message when Fresca Group starts to sell the produce that will be grown at Thanet Earth.

Fresca is part of a consortium of mainly Dutch investors building seven giant glasshouses on the 89ha Thanet Earth site. It is still being constructed but is expected to become the UK's largest-ever glasshouse development.

While its salad crops - to be suspended from the ceilings in hydroponic rows - will never touch the Kent soil, one cannot deny that they are still grown in Kent.

So great is Mack's ability to recognise a business opportunity and act on it that Fresca, which started life as MW Mack - the wholesale business founded by Mack's great-grandfather in 1874 - has now grown to a group of 10 companies.

Based in Paddock Wood, Kent, Fresca Group sources, packs and delivers fresh produce to supermarkets, wholesalers and other sectors such as the food service industry. Some of its 10 companies, such as MM Global Citrus - a joint venture with Spanish citrus supplier Martinavarro and Primafruit, a supplier of grapes, stone fruit and kiwis - import produce for the UK market.

Others rely heavily on British growers to help them supply customers with their orders. Manor Fresh, a joint venture with Bakkavor/QV, focuses on supplying top-of-the-range potatoes to Marks & Spencer (M&S).

Mack says it pays to have a good relationship with customers, which is why Manor Fresh works so closely with M&S. "We have become a business that's much more integrated with our customers - more understanding of what they need and play a much more significant role in determining a retail strategy. So it's not just about procuring fresh potatoes for M&S - it's about determining what the best retail offers are."

He adds: "It has continued to be a pleasing industry to work in. There are limitless opportunities and challenges to work with on a regular basis. And there will always be profitable niches for things that are special and difficult to do. We still cannot fulfil the demand for some areas of organic, for example. Organic and local - now that's a fantastic message as well."

CV

1974-1976: Attends Wye College

Late 1970s: Works for top fruit grower Essex Fruit Farms in Chelmsford

1970s to date: Joins the business started by his great-grandfather. Works in the wholesale market. Works his way through the business, and eventually becomes chairman of Fresca, MW Mack's parent company.


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