Clint Lewis | CEO of AgroFresh

“You Win in Global Ag Through Scale and Diversification”

AgroFresh is progressively expanding its leadership in post-harvest solutions through strategic acquisitions like Tessara and Pace International LLC, and by enhancing technologies and sustainable supply chain management.

by Ellen Uribe
AgroFresh CEO Clint Lewis
This article was published in the June/July 2024 issue of Vision Magazine North America.

AgroFresh has bold plans for the future. Originally founded in 1996 as part of Rohm & Haas, it became part of Dow Chemical when the company acquired Rohm & Haas in 2009. The Philadelphia-based organization was then spun out of Dow as a standalone company in 2015. As a leading provider of post-harvest solutions, the company’s offerings include next-generation digital monitoring, plant-based coatings solutions and its flagship 1-MCP product SmartFresh, which helps maintain produce quality, extends the shelf-life of fruit and helps to reduce food waste. 

At the helm of the company is CEO Clint Lewis, who started in the role in April 2021. In April 2023, Paine Schwartz Partners (PSP), which had been a minority shareholder, closed a take-private transaction in which it acquired the remaining interest in the company. AgroFresh has since made high-profile acquisitions, including Tessara, a South African provider of post-harvest packaging solutions to control decay in table grapes and berries in July 2023, and Pace International LLC, a company based in Wapato, WA, previously a subsidiary of Valent BioSciences, a Sumitomo Chemical Company, in March 2024.

Lewis has over 30 years of experience in the life sciences, pharmaceutical and agribusiness industries, having previously held senior executive positions across both human health and animal health at Pfizer and Zoetis. In this interview, Lewis discusses AgroFresh’s vision to extend its leadership in the fresh produce industry by expanding its portfolio of post-harvest solutions into new crops and countries through strategic acquisitions and partnerships, as well as the company’s efforts to help its customers sustainably manage their supply chain. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

It looks like you’ve had a busy first few years as CEO of AgroFresh. How has the experience been for you?

It’s been exciting—and it beats the alternative. Imagine being in a company where you have nothing to do and there’s nothing interesting going on. We are working hard to deliver on our vision: to be recognized as the leader in the post-harvest segment of the fresh produce industry. Aspirations are great and rhetoric is nice, but it’s incredibly exciting when you can demonstrate tangible actions in the steps that we’re making to support our customers in their journey to produce the highest quality and freshest produce—and to do so sustainably.

How does your experience with those sectors in which you have previously worked inform you in your role now?

There are many points of connection or similarities. Similar to my experience in ‘animal agriculture,’ you have farms, producers and various forms of processing production. Whether we’re referring to human, animal or crop health, they’re all life sciences—and their business models at their core are very similar. These are industries that are focused on innovation and technology, addressing areas of unmet need. On the agricultural side, when you think about it, there are a lot of similar trends: population growth, people’s need to eat, less arable land for farming, a lack of natural resources, such as water, and the increasing impact of climate change all create an innovation premium to help producers to grow more with less and recognize the need for technological support and advancement. I’ve been privileged to work at companies that sit at the nexus of those agronomic forces and trends and who are market leaders in their own right, investing in new solutions that address areas of unmet need. I would add that while I’m a city boy by birth, you’re not going to find a city boy who is more passionate about global agriculture.

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How does the acquisition of Tessara fit in with AgroFresh’s growth strategy?

What people should know is that the way you win or be successful in global agriculture is through both scale and diversification. If our vision is to be recognized as the global leader in the post-harvest space, it implies a few things. For one, you have to be global. We are the market leader today and part of our capabilities as the market leader is our global reach and scale. Even before the Tessara acquisition, we commercialized our products in some 50 countries around the world. Clearly, Tessara takes us to that next level and continues to build scale in some of these emerging markets like China, Peru and Egypt. Our strategy for growth is also around diversification in both crops and products that can address post-harvest freshness risks at every step of the supply chain. 

The acquisition allows us to further expand our footprint in China, further expand our footprint in the Middle East and South Africa and also expand our footprint in Latin America. It is also a great example of diversification because it expanded opportunities for us to move into high-value crops that are also highly perishable, like table grapes and berries, as well as flowers. 

Can you provide some indication of the size of Tessara compared to AgroFresh?

In round numbers, I would say the acquisition was roughly about a third of the size of AgroFresh. It’s not only important in terms of size and scale. This acquisition was also strategically important because it helped to expand our portfolio of solutions into high-value crops such as table grapes, but also enabled us to further penetrate in key markets such as China, South Africa and Australia where Tessara held leading market positions. 

How did the transaction with Paine Schwartz come about? And what opportunities does this now open up for AgroFresh?

Paine Schwartz Partners is a private equity firm specializing in sustainable food chain investing. But well beyond their financial resources, they have deep sector expertise in global agriculture. They only invest in global agriculture, ag-tech and food. They are also very committed to investing in companies that have a clear impact in sustainability. This also makes them good thought-partners for us as we advance our strategy. Ultimately, the board decided that taking the company private with Paine Schwartz was the best way to facilitate growth.

And let’s talk about the partnership with Pagoda in China. How did that come about? 

We have been in the China market for more than 20 years, and the acquisition of Tessara made us a much more important player in China. Pagoda saw in us the global leadership in post-harvest innovation, and they recognized the opportunity for growth in the market. Our focus was really: How do we take technologies that exist and have proven themselves well in developed markets such as the U.S. and Europe and then work to generate the data and support to get those products registered in China? Pagoda has a vision to be the leader in quality fresh produce for China. They saw, and understood in their model, the challenge of maintaining high quality and freshness as their produce goes through its own supply chain. 

Can you provide some color as to the significance of the acquisition of Pace International for AgroFresh?

The acquisition of Pace enables us to take another important step towards our vision—to be regarded by customers as the near- and post-harvest partner of choice. Pace has a longstanding history of providing excellent technical service and packline product application equipment—and we are excited to bring the combined portfolios, technical expertise and services of both companies to customers in the North and Latin American markets. Now, AgroFresh can better address the complete needs of customers across a broad array of crops at every step in the fresh supply chain. This further solidifies our leadership position in important crops like apples, citrus and cherries.  

It seems like the company is bullish on its future prospects and strategy. Do you see that continuing over the next few years in terms of these announcements of acquisitions and partnerships?

I would agree with the bullish characterization. We are committed to continuing to ‘play offense’ as it relates to executing our strategy. There are a lot of activities underway to continue to expand our global scale and reach and to further diversify our business in terms of products and services, the variety of produce we support, the segments of the post-harvest supply chain we address and the customers and channels we serve. With ever-elongated and complex supply chains, the pressure to maintain quality and freshness on produce moving between the farm and retail is becoming that much more challenging. Moreover, the need to produce food more sustainably has become a big focus and an imperative for retailers, consumers as a whole and by government agencies. Helping our customers address these challenges is at the core of our mission and our capabilities. I think it’s very important that AgroFresh is seen as helping our customers ‘win’ and to ‘win’ with their customers.