“We will become the world’s largest health food company”

The new chief executive of Peruvian-based fresh produce multinational Camposol sees South America playing an increasingly important role in the future.

By Edward Vernon

The leader of this fresh produce multinational aims to supply markets with avocados and blueberries year-round, having made significant investments in Colombia and Mexico. The company expects to harvest the first cherries in Chile in 2022 and plans to also grow the fruit in Peru. At the industry level, José Antonio Gómez-Bazán sees an important consolidation in the coming years and says South America will become the world’s fresh food pantry.

“We work in the field to improve lives,” is how Gómez-Bazán defines the seal he wants to imprint on his management as the leader of Camposol, a position he has held since September 2021. After more than a decade in the organization’s executive ranks, he is now taking on this new challenge with a real affection for this company that has undergone a transformation over time, and with the conviction that comes from his experience in the fresh produce sector.

The son of a father who was in the navy, Gómez-Bazán attended the Naval School in Lima, the Peruvian capital, before studying industrial engineering and business administration at the University of Lima. Although he took his first professional steps in the IT and banking sectors, it was the fruit industry that captivated him. He started off at Chiquita Brands, where he joined the Global Management Development Program, allowing him to work in different areas of the company around the world. Those were years during which he got to learn about the industry from different vantage points.

He had been out of Peru for 15 years when he received an offer to join a relatively young fruit company in his home country. After taking his time to evaluate it, he was eventually won over by the vision of the Dyer family, Camposol’s owners. At that time, Camposol was a large asparagus grower with a canning plant and a small avocado business. Everything was sold to importers and distributors. Gómez-Bazán assumed the position of chief commercial officer and helped turn the company into what it is today, getting rid of the canned business and focusing on becoming a vertically integrated supplier of fresh foods.

Today, the company owns more than 18,000 hectares of agricultural land, producing blueberries, avocados, citrus, grapes and mangoes in Peru, in addition to avocados in Colombia, citrus in Uruguay, small volumes of cherries in Chile, and blueberries in Mexico. Between 2012 and 2021, Camposol’s sales grew at an average annual rate of 8%, and it has made significant investments during the last three years.

Currently based in Switzerland, where he led the company’s international business, he is now preparing to return with his family to the United States, where his two children were born.

In complex global times, experience and significant leadership are required to head a company with more than 20,000 employees and a presence in more than 40 countries. But Gómez-Bazán says that it was not difficult for him to accept the position of CEO. “I am confident that my team will be able to maneuver the company amid these challenging times, which I predict are going to continue for a few more years.”

The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

What are the main challenges facing the company?

Our main challenge today is to increase our volumes for customers we already have in the main markets. If we could have the avocado volumes we normally have from Peru, but in a 52-week window, Camposol’s business in this product would triple in size. And in the case of blueberries, it would double. A relatively large proportion of what we supply comes from our own farms. We are now focused on rebalancing that and having a third of our supply come from third-party growers.

What are your next steps?

We are going to continue to grow in avocados and blueberries. We are on our way to transform the business through new technologies that will give us sustainable packaging, which will maintain the quality and conditions of the product during long transits. We also want to deliver our nutritional and health value proposition through other types of products that we are exploring to incorporate into our portfolio. We do not sell fruit, we sell the attributes that come with the fruit.

What developments do you see in the blueberry business for Camposol and Peru?

We have been testing different varieties, both in Peru and Mexico. We have about 3,000 hectares of blueberries, which at some point will begin to be replaced. We are trying to find the right varieties that have good productivity and the right size and flavor profile for the market. We have some candidates that we are already trying to expand.

Peru entered the marketing window at a time when there were no blueberries and it could sell them at double the price. Today the Peruvian peak production is larger than the North American peak production, which is something we never thought would happen. It has already reached that point, and now we have to remain competitive for other reasons.

How are you going to maintain that competitiveness?

When you have already reached the point where your price has to be equal to that of Chile or the U.S. in order to sell, you have to have high productivity per hectare. If before your business produced 15 tons per hectare, now you have to think about having 25 tons per hectare. If before you had people who were paid by the day and harvested 15 kilos per person, you have to think about world standards of 50 kilos per person. And let them earn much more, but on the basis of productivity. In addition, you have to make sure that 95% of what you harvest is exportable. How do I work on the quantity and condition of the fruit so that this is achieved? How do I ensure that the supermarket, when it receives my product, has shrinkage of less than 5%, when with other countries it has 10% or 15%? What can I do to have packaging that helps me to use less plastic and as a result be more aligned with the demands of the consumer and the planet? Are there ways to reinvent the business and capture more value in a sustainable way?

What is Camposol doing in terms of sustainability?

Camposol was born growing crops in the desert, where there was no water. So we are used to treating water drop by drop. We grew up with a belief that the best way to control pests is not through chemicals but through biological balance. We also work with the community, with our workers. In the group we have a project of 10,000 houses for our employees, of which we have already delivered about 2,000. Our radius of action is about 100,000 families in Peru. We try to meet the needs that the government sometimes does not provide. It is not our role, but in some things where we can make a difference, we do. Peru’s agricultural export industry, and especially in the deserts where we have grown, has been the driving force behind significant social changes.

We think this is an ecosystem that has to be balanced, and in fact our purpose as a company describes very well what we do in terms of sustainability. We work to improve lives — to improve the lives of our workers, of the community, but also of our consumers, who have access to healthy products.

A look at the industry

What is your vision for the global produce industry, and what role do you see South America and Peru playing?

We are seeing a world that is growing exponentially, and it is important to keep in mind that population growth is not slowing down. The critical point is how much the world needs and how much it can produce. And here there is a huge gap in terms of food.

The fruit business is transporting water in the form of fruit, it’s as simple as that. The countries that have water, land and people to produce the fruit are here in South America. Peru also has the advantage of having many irrigation projects to develop. Today there are more than 200,000 new hectares and almost 90,000 hectares to be improved, so there are 290,000 hectares that can be added to the Peruvian agricultural export boom.

How is the current political, economic and social situation in Peru impacting the domestic agricultural industry?

Twenty years ago Peru was exporting $100 million in fruit products, and today we export $6 billion. It has grown continuously and it will not stop, unless there is a catastrophic climatic or political factor that affects it.

The country is going through a complex social process. When the pandemic arrived, economic activity stopped a little, and it became evident that there was a lack of state services such as health and education. Today this absence has been the catalyst for social movements that echoed in the population, because there is a real need. This Covid effect has been exacerbated by the disruption in the supply chain, as well as the war between Russia and Ukraine, which has driven up the price of fertilizers, fuel and freight. This confluence of events makes life more expensive. Inflation will likely be with us for several years, and this will put more pressure on society.

Looking ahead for this sector, in which area of Peru do you see the greatest future growth?

In the north of Peru there is great growth potential thanks to the irrigation projects. If expansion goes ahead, Chavimochic III – which is a dam that helps to capture excess water during the rainy season – will bring another 50,000 hectares of agricultural land into production. Arequipa also has an interesting project on the drawing board. And, incredibly, there are other development projects, smaller projects of individual entrepreneurs in the mountainous Sierra region, where export agriculture has begun to develop. This significantly expands Peru’s productive window, with growers going to the mountains and the jungle. Peru may become a year-round avocado supplier.

Breaking myths

What is the seal that you want to stamp on your leadership?

In a sentence it is: “We work in the field to improve lives.” This implies that we are a team, we come to transform, and there are no impossibilities. We will become the largest health food company in the world. We have the capabilities, the resources and the team to achieve it. We have to think big.

I have been fortunate to spend the first half of my career developing what Camposol is, telling the world what we do, and I have had the opportunity to sit down with the CEOs of Walmart, Costco and other large companies, who not only listen to us, but invite us to participate in their strategic conversations about where food is going. Alibaba’s Jack Ma and his CEO, Daniel Zhang, also invited us to China for a week to talk about the future of food. Harvard University wrote a case study on Camposol – this rare, unique company that farms in the desert. Camposol transformed the desert, planted avocados where they supposedly didn’t grow, brought blueberry plants where they supposedly didn’t work, and sold directly to every major supermarket in the world when everyone said that if you’re a grower you can’t do that. We continue to bust myths.

What plans does Camposol have in regard to mergers and acquisitions?

We already have sufficient scale to make important acquisitions that add value to the company quickly. We have the means to access the stock market and leverage ourselves in a purchase transaction without any problem, and we have the option to make an important transaction that could impact the business at the distribution and production level. We think there is going to be a lot of consolidation in the industry, especially with this crisis where there is no fertilizer, transportation has doubled in price, and the markets are complex. I think there are going to be various companies that are probably going to have difficulties, and we are going to be able to approach them and offer them an attractive deal.

What are your plans for Chile?

We have our cherry hectarage, that was our first step to understand how the business works in Chile. We are very happy with what we have done. This year our first volumes of cherries will probably be produced. We have always seen Chile not only as an important source of supply, but also as an interesting market.

We do not intend to put more cherry volume where it already is, but to learn from the cherry business, because we think we can expand the business in Peru. We are learning our way in Chile, with the good cherry players the country has, and with the good technical quality there to see if we can replicate something in Peru.

How do you see the industry evolving in the coming years?

It will get bigger, and I think there is going to be a lot of consolidation. I see the industry managing its own destiny in terms of logistics. I think the banana distributor models that existed in the past, which involved their own ships, will come back. The consolidation that will take place will open space for many large companies to think, ‘How can I join with another company?’ or, ‘How can I, with the scale I have, enter this business?’ There will be more vertical integration. I think this global uncertainty and these constant changes are going to make many companies want to control their destiny much more, so that the executives have more control over the things that really impact the business.

I see South America becoming the fresh food pantry of the planet. The continent is going to supply fresh food to all the big northern markets. I also see the industry generating employment and sharing much of the value it creates with its workers. Agriculture shares a lot of its value with its workers; often 30%, 40% of the cost of the product is labor, and to the extent that more market value can be captured, this can be shared.

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