Berry News

Western Innovator : Executive boosts berry production

Source: CAPITALPRESS.COM | January 7, 2017

Hector Lujan worked his way up through the ranks of Reiter Affiliated Companies by helping to greatly expand its berry-growing operations in Central Mexico. He is now the company’s CEO.

Hector Lujan enjoyed working on his family’s farm in Baja California as a boy, but his main interest going into college was finance.

Soon, however, he merged his two interests, and his work in Central Mexico helped establish berries in North America as a year-round fruit and led to his hiring as chief executive officer of the world’s largest berry producer.

Mexico expansion

A native of Tijuana, Lujan ran Mexico operations for the Oxnard, Calif.-based Reiter Affiliated Companies, bringing in experts to teach growers cultural practices that improved the quality and yields of winter berries. The resulting availability of Mexican strawberries, raspberries and other berries helped build demand for the fruit during their offseason in the U.S.

“We grew up having summer berries — they were a seasonal item,” said Lujan, who became Reiter’s CEO on Jan. 1 and lives with his family in Santa Barbara, Calif.

“Berries are, I would consider, the most delightful fruit you can find in the supermarket,” he said. “Today people are growing up seeing berries every day. It’s great. It’s a very delightful fruit that kids pick up as candy. It’s healthy candy.”

Having earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration at the Instituto Tecnologico de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey, Lujan worked several years in the financial sector before joining one of his former professors at Bionova Fresh. The company was a subsidiary of the holding company Grupo Pulsar, and Lujan managed its farming and marketing operations.

One of Lujan’s tasks was to defend Mexican growers’ interests amid a U.S. tomato dumping investigation in the 1990s. But he went from competing against U.S. growers to joining forces with them by going to work for Reiter in 2002.

Largest producer

With acreage and investments in the U.S., Mexico, Portugal and Morocco, Reiter is the world’s largest multi-berry producer, growing Driscoll’s proprietary varieties of strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and blackberries year-round, according to a news release.

Reiter is a pioneer in farming. The company established the first U.S. private primary health care clinic for farmworkers and collaborated with the University of California to implement obesity and diabetes prevention programs for workers.

“I was very impressed by the company’s culture … their commitment to agriculture, how they ran their business and the people engaged” in it, Lujan said.

Lujan began as vice president of Central Mexico operations for Berrymex, a subsidiary, and within three years his territory had expanded to include all of Mexico. It was then that he helped growers improve their practices.

Mexico expansion

Northwestern Mexico “had been an exporter forever” and knew how to meet the standards of foreign trade partners, but “Central Mexico had not,” Lujan said. Farmers there grew for domestic consumption, for which both rewards and investments were small, he said.

Lujan’s team taught growers that the more they put into their crops, the greater the reward could be.

“We were getting people to believe you work the ground well, you work the ground deep and you build up a strong plant and get strong yields and great fruit,” he said.

Reiter now has more than 100 contract growers in Mexico in addition to its own farms, and demand for winter berries has exploded. In 2014, the U.S. imported 355.9 million pounds of fresh strawberries valued at $374.7 million, nearly all of which came from Mexico, according to the USDA’s Economic Research Service.

Mexico’s strawberry production overlaps with Florida, whose industry has raised concerns about competition. But fresh-market strawberry production in Florida has shown no signs of decline over the years, according to the USDA-funded Agricultural Marketing Research Center.

In 2013, the annual per-person consumption of fresh strawberries in the U.S. reached a record high of 7.9 pounds, according to the ERS.

Lujan moved to the U.S. in 2011, he said. He continued to run Mexican operations as well as those in California and wholly owned farms until 2013, when he became Reiter’s chief operating officer.

His promotion to CEO comes as former CEO Garland Reiter moves to the role of executive chairman.

Lujan’s work has “allowed him to establish a great depth of knowledge and business acumen for our diverse international business,” Reiter said in a statement.

Immigration, trade

As a Mexican citizen helping to run a U.S.-based company, Lujan arrives at what could be a crucial time for agricultural labor and trade, as President-elect Donald Trump has vowed to curb illegal immigration and renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement and other trade deals.

Lujan believes public attention on these issues could finally produce a comprehensive immigration reform package, he said. He hopes that Trump’s use of the H-2A work visa program gives him an appreciation for the value of imported labor, and that his business background will lead to better trade with other nations, he said.

“I don’t think this administration or any administration would go counter to the opportunities driven … (by) free enterprise,” Lujan said. “And I think that the U.S. is looking to reward or create high-value jobs, and … people want their food.”

Agriculture “is very positive for both countries,” he said. “We need to work together to bring affordable food to the populations of both countries.”

And he hopes that as future generations grow up enjoying berries on a year-round basis, per capita consumption — and thus demand — will continue to rise.

“I’m excited,” Lujan said. “There’s excitement within the company. We have a lot of challenges, but we have a lot of great people. We’re starting the year after having a really successful previous year. 2016 was a good year for us, and we’re carrying that momentum and really looking at a really positive outlook.

“I’m energized by that, and I think the company’s energized by it, too,” he said.

Hector Lujan

Occupation: Chief executive officer, Reiter Affiliated Companies

Residence: Santa Barbara, Calif.

Family: Wife Beatriz, four children