Site icon Vision Magazine

The Admirable Life of a Berry Pioneer

Victor Moller

Victor Moller Photo: Mario Téllez / La Tercera

“I have always believed that big dreams are the engines that drive people, companies and countries to be great and successful.” These were words from the acceptance speech Victor Moller Schiavetti gave when being given the Chilean Institute of Rational Business Administration (ICARE) Entrepreneur of the Year award in 2007, one of the many recognitions he received throughout his lifetime. Hortifrut, the company he founded in the early 1980s, and which is about to turn 40 years old, started with his big dream, which became the organization’s slogan: “All Berries, To All The World, All Year-round.”

Moller died on Oct. 19 at the age of 79, and now rests next to his father, Victor Moller Bordeu in southern Chile’s Biobío region. He grew up in the countryside and followed in the footsteps of earlier generations, working there with reverence for the land and its people. He passed on this passion to Ana María Opazo, his wife of 52 years, and to his children.

Part of the fourth generation of the Moller family in Chile, as a child he would spend summers and weekends at the family farm in Negrete near the Biobío River. At the age of 16, he went to the United States to study agronomy at Oregon State University and later at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which his father, a former Minister of Agriculture, had also attended.
Spontaneous and very creative, he always had an idea mulling in his head and was contagiously enthusiastic, those who knew him agree. Nicolás Moller Opazo, his second eldest son, recalls: “He was very approachable and accessible to everyone, and he was a great storyteller. In his work he was extremely dedicated and very responsible. On trips he was always the first one up and the last one to go to bed. His style in business was to empower, instill confidence and be very demanding at the same time.”

His positive outlook on life and an uncanny ability to transform problems into opportunities were traits that defined him, says Nicolás, explaining that this is how Moller managed to reinvent himself time and time again throughout his career. His ventures did not always go as well as planned, but that didn’t discourage him. Today, Hortifrut is a leader in the marketing of blueberries worldwide, and the second-largest company in the berry category.

His student days in Oregon in the 1960s — a time when Americans consumed berries for just three or four months annually — and realizing the massive opportunity to supply this counterseasonal market, were perhaps what drove him to fully embark on the journey that would define him.

“Victor is absolutely the reason that people in the U.S. enjoy blueberries, blackberries and raspberries in the counterseason,” notes Brian Bocock, Naturipe Farms’ vice president of product management, who worked with Moller for more than 20 years. “No one was producing berries for the U.S. marketplace back then. Lots of people are doing it now, but at the time nobody, or very few people, were providing fresh raspberries and blackberries in the counterseason, and for sure nobody was providing blueberries. So Victor was a pioneer in that – the original pioneer who helped create this counterseason market. Today the blueberry category has grown exponentially during that timeframe. Since he started they are on the shelves 52 weeks a year in abundance, and at an affordable price for the consumer. Don Victor was a great man who will be sorely missed by the many people in the berry industry who worked with him and those of us lucky enough to call him friend.”

The beginnings

The road to build what today has become one of the world’s largest multinational berry companies was not without obstacles. But with grit and creativity, Moller continuously got back on his feet when the going got tough. His parents’ farm, which produced apples for export along with other products, was expropriated. They lost almost all of their land, which the family had owned for more than 150 years, and that led to a difficult period when the family had to start from scratch. Moller was not yet 30 years old at this time, and as soon as he married, he and his wife decided to cross the Andes into Argentina in search of new horizons.

They started with a dry-cleaning business in Buenos Aires, which would soon be replaced by a more innovative business, the first hybrid pig breeding company in the southern hemisphere. He later liquidated the business and returned to Chile in the early 1980s, buying back farmlands that had belonged to his family.

His first business venture was with Juan Sutil, his friend and the current president of the Confederation of Production and Commerce of Chile (CPC). The duo started with 45 hectares of asparagus before planting their first four hectares of raspberries. Sutil recalls: “We had moments of great joy with the business, and moments of great difficulty and failures. Victor Moller knew how to carry both with the same strength and dignity during all these years.”

These were the beginnings of Productos Hortícolas y Frutícolas de Chile SA (translated literally as Fruit and Vegetable Products of Chile), which started its operations in 1983 and a few years later became known as Hortifrut.

The king of berries

Moller concentrated on the production of raspberries and on how to get them to the United States. Given the delicate nature of the fruit, it was vital to transport the product correctly so that it would arrive in optimal condition at its destination. In 1984, the first shipment of 9,000 boxes arrived. However, the local distributor withheld the payment, and Moller received nothing. He had to sell part of the farmland to cover the losses, but it also helped him to rethink the structure of the business to make it work successfully. One of his first decisions was to open an office in Miami and for himself to take charge of overseeing the receiving and marketing of the fruit. In his business model, and given the fragility of his berries, he contended that control of the whole process, and his presence in the field, was essential.

Nicolás says that although he and his siblings were still children at the time, they worked every summer on the harvest, which was arduous work. “The raspberries were harvested from November to March, from Monday to Monday. In the beginning they were transported in buses belonging to Lit — a local chain — from the field to Santiago’s airport. There was no technology. He had to invent everything from scratch.”

Moller looked for new ways of doing things, from innovating in fruit harvesting and distribution, to developing new packaging and post-harvest techniques. As explained by Moller himself in the book Atrevidos (meaning ‘The Daring Ones’) by Manuel Fernandez: “What I designed was an integrated business model from genetics to the end customer, without intermediaries, so as not to run risks of unexpected things happening.”

Nicolás explains that his father started in a corner of Chile but quickly realized that this business was going to be global. “Berries were not a priority for distributors. But raspberries are very perishable, and, if you don’t give them the 24/7 attention and focus they require, you can’t be successful. He concluded very early on that he had to market his own berries, and he co-founded marketing platforms such as Naturipe in the U.S. and Euroberry in Europe,” he says. “It was a broad dream of vertical integration, and as there was nothing, we had to do everything — genetics, nurseries, fields, import, export and distribution.”

Then Moller added blueberries to his product mix, which would position Hortifrut together with its partners as a global leader and the largest producer of organic blueberries in the world. Strawberries and blackberries were added later. To maintain a prominent spot at the forefront, product quality was crucial, and he was always clear about the role of genetics and investing in research and development. A people-centered culture also characterized his vision, which encompassed the customers’ point of view as well as the employees’.

In Sutil’s view, Moller contributed to innovation in the sector not only in terms of production technologies, but also in terms of marketing and how to approach the end consumer. John Shelford, strategic advisor to Naturipe Value Added Foods who also served as president of Naturipe Farms, says: “Victor Moller was a great visionary. He was always willing to give up the short term to gain in the long-term. He was a master at seeing into the future, understanding that sometimes you had to hold out for two or three years of low returns to earn a 10-year return. He certainly captured my imagination and the imagination of others along the years.”

A common vision

After stumbling a couple of times, Moller learned the importance of working with the right people who shared his values and vision. He created a berry business that was built on strong relationships and supported by strategic alliances in production, genetics, varietal development, distribution and marketing.

How to manage these alliances and often cross-cultural relationships in a positive way was a challenge. In one of many conversations, Gustavo Yentzen, publisher of Vision Magazine, recalls asking Moller how he managed to avoid differences with his partners. “His answer stuck in my mind,” he says. “He told me: ‘When two partners see the same point on the horizon, they will always get there together. They may have disagreements in the day-to-day, there can be differences. But if they have the same goal, they will move forward as one.’”

Many agreements were reached over the years, helping Hortifrut to become what it is today, a company that supplies large volumes of berries to consumers worldwide and year-round. To be able to sell all four major types of berries in the U.S., Hortifrut joined forces with Naturipe Berry Growers and Michigan Blueberries Growers. The consortium was initially called Global Berry Farms, and has been known as Naturipe Farms since 2000. Over time the organization created a network of producers in countries such as Brazil, China, Spain, Guatemala, Mexico, Peru and Uruguay. In 2012 Hortifrut listed on the Santiago Stock Exchange.

“To create alliances, the company’s slogan was very useful. That attracted and created enthusiasm… That was my invitation: to conquer the world together,” Moller said in Fernández’s book.
A born leader and a tireless entrepreneur, Moller set the bar high. Always looking for new challenges, he was convinced that the best was yet to come. As berry consumption soars to new heights around the world, it is worth remembering a phrase he coined: “All holding hands, no one in front, no one behind, all together with a common flag, behind the same dream.” A dream in which berries are the protagonists.

Exit mobile version