October 30, 2014

Agribusiness

Seald Sweet Successfully Goes Global

Florida's most traditional citrus co-op is aided by an unlikely CEO.

Cynthia Barnett | 2/1/2010

Mayda Sotomayor-Kirk
Seald Sweet’s business has increased about 30% since Mayda Sotomayor-Kirk arrived in 2000, with all the growth coming from citrus imports and deciduous fruit. Citrus imports have grown from less than 1% of revenue to 36%; deciduous fruit from zero to 14% of revenue. [Photo: Betsy Hansen]
For more than a century, Florida’s citrus growers dominated America’s produce aisles in the winter, especially in the Northeast. Bright orange and yellow citrus displays went up in grocery stores around the first cold snap, and pent-up demand from consumers who hadn’t seen oranges, grapefruits and tangerines all year guaranteed the growers healthy sales and profits.

Global trade eliminated that seasonal advantage, however. Buying fruit from around the world, Wal-Mart, and then other grocery chains, began to stock everything from blueberries to navel oranges and watermelon all year long. The international cornucopia eroded Florida growers’ status with their grocery customers in two ways: New competitors from Spain to South Africa took market share in the winter, and the Florida growers had no fruit to sell during the rest of the year.

By the 1990s, Florida’s oldest citrus cooperative, Seald Sweet, had begun trying to enter the import business, buying fruit from various overseas growers and reselling it in the U.S. The initial efforts were spotty and by most accounts halfhearted — dealing with foreign farmers was an uncomfortable proposition for the ultratraditional leadership of the cooperative, a non-profit organization that let the Florida growers combine their marketing and sales efforts. “Growers are sometimes their own worst enemy,” says Frank Hunt III of Hunt Bros. in Lake Wales, a member of the co-op since 1928.

Sotomayor-Kirk Mayda Sotomayor-Kirk

Rare Sight: Sotomayor-Kirk is one of only a few women CEOs globally in her industry. “I think my passion for the industry comes from my heritage and my gut instinct for it from my gender.”

All in the Family: She married Mark Kirk in 1999 after meeting him at a produce convention. He helped raise her children, Michelle Sotomayor, now 23, and Carlos Sotomayor, 20. Carlos works for Seald Sweet as a citrus inspector in the company’s New Jersey operations.

For Fun: Since she spends more than a third of her time traveling around the globe, when Sotomayor-Kirk has time off, she likes to stay home and cook for friends and family and enjoy wines from around the world.
[Photo: Betsy Hansen]

What Seald Sweet needed was a real overseas partner. And in 1998, the cooperative’s growers agreed to sell a 50% stake to Hein Deprez, a Belgian businessman who ran a global produce company called UniVeg. Deprez, who’d been a customer of Seald Sweet, took the cooperative private and, with then-CEO Bruce McEvoy, set out to make the company a global player. “As much as they needed a global market, UniVeg needed a U.S. market,” says Deprez. “As a customer, we knew they had a very good reputation and market position for citrus in the United States.”

At a company whose historic leadership was all-white, all-male, all-Florida and all-citrus, Deprez’s and McEvoy’s first key hire was a shocker: A young, Cuban-American woman who admitted she didn’t know a navel from a Valencia.

Born in Cuba in 1962, Mayda Sotomayor-Kirk had moved to Miami when she was 3 with her parents, who were textile entrepreneurs. She started the University of Miami in prelaw — her father’s wish. But her plans changed when she took a part-time job at an import company, where she fell in love with the work of helping farmers in Honduras and Costa Rica grow and find markets for their melons and peas.

Upon graduation, Sotomayor-Kirk stayed on with the company full time, handling USAID grants to South American farmers. When the grants dried up in 1989, Sotomayor-Kirk had to look for a new job at a particularly bad time: With an infant and a toddler at home in Kendall, she was separated from her husband. She landed a position at Great American Farms, a former customer, and struggled with the 1½-hour commute to Pompano. “I remember crying all the way some days, just telling myself ‘I can’t do this. I can’t do this,’ she says.

Deprez
“There is tremendous
growth potential for us in the United States.”

— Hein Deprez,
part-owner
Seald Sweet

She found a mentor in the company’s entrepreneur-founder, Alan J. Levy. “Great American Farms was an incredible learning academy for me because Alan knew business so well,” says Sotomayor-Kirk. “He forced me to be smarter and raise the bar.”

Levy describes Sotomayor-Kirk as a “fast learner with a great personality, who had a way with handling the moods and personalities and cultures of many different countries very, very well.”

But by 2000, Levy was struggling with the same import challenges Seald Sweet’s growers had encountered. It was difficult to maintain quality and supply without an ownership stake in foreign farms. Sotomayor-Kirk says she was crushed when Levy came to her to tell her he’d decided to pull back on imports. Her job was over.

Sotomayor-Kirk landed interviews with Deprez and McEvoy, who offered her a job as Seald Sweet’s director of imports. She wanted the position but felt the co-op’s headquarters in Vero Beach was too far from her father, who had grown very ill. On the morning she was going to turn down the offer, he died — a sign, she says, “that my father had given me his final go-ahead.”

Tags: Agriculture

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