Delassus Group chairman Kacem Bennani Smires has reached 30 years in the fruit and vegetable trade. He spoke to Michael Barker about his time in the industry.
What was the state of the company when you took over?
Returning from the US after finishing my studies, I didn’t know what I was getting into. I must say that my father did not talk about his business. In 1985, I started my career in our Prim’Rose cut-flower company, and carried on for four years. I was shy and did not dare to change anything as I was mostly walking in the footsteps of my father.
Later, I joined Delassus Group and I learned the business. We were mostly buying fruits on the trees to pack and export, thus taking great risks in the final results. In 1995, I became CEO of Delassus, while my sister Zhor was already head of Delassus farms.
The group had few of its own facilities. The majority of products were either from affiliated producers or bought in. We exported everything. Citrus led the way, but it was a time when our import partners saw opportunities everywhere: tomatoes, strawberries, zucchini, green beans, potatoes, corn, peaches, nectarines and grapes.
Does diversification still figure in your strategy?
I never believed in diversification. I believe in specialisation, concentration, choice and focus. We lost a lot of time trying to do everything. I could not really speak and act in favour of specialisation until the 2000s. At 40, I freed myself and finally dared to defend my idea and put it into practice. However, 2003 marked the real turning point.
What happened in 2003?
Duroc, which included tomato farms, strawberry, zucchini and other failed lines, exclusively became a farm for cherry tomatoes. It took a lot of courage and confidence to make such a shift. At the same time we abandoned stonefruit to devote ourselves to our citrus and orchard.
This is the year when I also introduced GlobalGap to our farms. We were going to cultivate quality at all levels and certify it. We were the pioneers of GlobalGap in Morocco, both in citrus and tomatoes.
How far are you willing to go to see your idea become a success?
I’m not a person who likes change. In fact I’m pretty conservative. I like things done slowly but surely. Decisions are always group decisions taken, or mostly suggested by, the team. In general, once the idea is integrated, the change is done smoothly.
This conservative side sometimes tricks me and it seems like stubbornness to maintain practices or businesses that are clearly sometimes unprofitable. A subsidiary like Delassus France has been unprofitable for several years. It’s hard for me to shut this company down because I think about employees who would lose their jobs. It’s the family spirit.
What keeps you up at night?
We employ nearly 5,000 people. My concern is to ensure sustainability to continue to provide for so many families. Another issue is succession planning in senior management. My sister and I each have three children. Which of them will develop the passion for fruit and vegetables?
What will the future be for them? What is the future for the group? We work a lot on the development strategy of the group, our vision and culture. It’s hard to part with my collaborators who are ageing. Again – family spirit. It’s a problem for me. Luckily my sister Zhor is setting out to recruit the younger generation. Duroc is an example of balance between generations and experience. Citrus farms also experience the same trend.
Which of your existing partners would you say are the biggest or the most important?
UK customers are definitely my most significant partners. I am sincere in saying that because of the long history we have with UK retailers. I realise that all the progress that my team and I have made has been suggested or imposed by the English market: the last “suggestion” was to move the production of cherry tomatoes from six months to 12. It was a leap forward for Duroc since we now cover a substantial market share in the UK cherry tomato market.
Currently we are working on improving the living conditions of the workers. We support our English partners in their choice and they accompany us in this. I really appreciate their involvement and challenge.
What are the main hurdles still facing Delassus in terms of agricultural development?
I see two. Firstly, water. This resource will redraw the map of Moroccan agriculture in the coming years. We have adopted some water management methods which will delay this change, but it is inevitable. The second is labour. Today, it seems available, but the lifestyle of the rural population evolves towards more urban modes. The children will be educated.
What do you do to encourage this?
In 2008, I launched the Sanady Foundation. This is the accomplishment that I am most proud of. This is a non-profit organisation that fights against the dropping out of school of children coming from disadvantaged social backgrounds. We have set up an after-school classes programme that we first offered to the children of our workers, and also to children who are from nearby communities to our farms. The success rate is just fabulous. Moreover, it has become a successful social business as we invoice the classes to companies on a user-pay basis, which then provide the classes to the children of their employees.
I opened the foundation to other Moroccan companies and it has become completely autonomous today. In this way, I think Sanady will guarantee its sustainability. More than 5,000 children receive tutoring and extra-curricular activities. We want to ensure that no Sanady-supported child leaves school.
If you sold your company today, how would the conversation go?
What a nightmare! That’s what my sister Zhor said once. No way, there is no question of giving up Delassus. We live by taking on the challenges and celebrating our victories. The group has evolved so positively and we have put so much into it. Selling is not an option.
So what’s next? Where do you see the greatest potential for growth?
That is the real question. We are talking with our English customers at the moment. For tomatoes, we are expanding the varieties to meet consumer tastes. For citrus, we are looking for new varieties of easy-peelers that grow later than Nadorcott and I think we are on the right track. We want to remain specialised, focused and pragmatic.
How do you view Morocco’s current agricultural status and what do you envisage for the coming five to 10 years?
Morocco, thanks to the green plan launched in 2008, has made a real leap forward. Without this plan, I think that Moroccan citrus would have just ceased to exist for export. Morocco is a great sourcing option because it has renewed itself and specialised. Producers who have specialised in exporting have adopted good agricultural practices, and they are credible because they handle large areas using modern approaches as required by sustainable development. We are, for the most part, competitive and professional.