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Danny Deen, Denimpex:

“Only do what you’re good at”

This summer, Bram Deen passed away at the age of 84. In 1955 he founded Denimpex, which supplied products to the processing industry. Over the years, the Dutch fresh produce company from Amsterdam switched to overseas import and supplier of supermarkets under guidance from second generation Danny and third generation Joey Deen. “Above all, we are a family company. Because of this, we can quickly respond to changes on the market. We don’t have to plan meetings, but can change policies within five minutes,” Danny Deen says.

What was Denimpex like during the early years?
“My father supplied to the processing industry much more. In the past, everyone had tinned and preserved foods. Products such as cucumbers, gherkins, blackberries, cherries, asparagus, celeriac, white and red cabbage were shipped to the industry in large numbers. Our sales were mostly focused on the British, German, Scandinavian and Yugoslav markets. For example, we supplied many pickled gherkins to the British market, they used to be given when you ordered a beer in the pub. We had a market share of 80 per cent there at the time. Competitors were J.H. Wagenaar and Nic Breuers.”

Why the switch to fresh produce?
“I joined the company in 1987, after I gained experience with Jacob van den Berg in Rotterdam in the citrus import, and my brother gained experience with various companies including Frankort & Koning, Aartsenfruit, SFI and Remus in the meantime, and he also wanted to rejoin the family company in Amsterdam. It soon became clear that the opportunities in industry weren’t as significant anymore because of changing eating habits that switched to fresh daily more. The auctions came up with the idea to get every office equipped with an expensive clock, so that the entire gherkin industry disappeared from the Netherlands and Belgium. Fewer and fewer people bought preserved fruit and vegetables as well. Because of that we became more and more devoted to import and supplying to supermarkets and the export to various overseas export markets.”    

How did that happen?
“Because we already did a lot of onion trading, my father started an onion packing station called Remus in Dinteloord. At first so we didn’t have to be dependent on other sorting companies for the gherkins, but Remus soon became self-exporting. The Dutch onions were only on the market from August to March then, and we started our own company called Aratra BV in Egypt, which imported onions and potatoes from Egypt to Europe. We were the first in the Netherlands with Tasmanian onions from Vecon, and with Van Dijk we were the first to import onions from New Zealand to the Netherlands. With Jaap Wiskerke we started growing in southern France. In 1988 my father retired, and over the years, we started supplying supermarkets more and more.”

Did more types of fruit soon follow?
“Outside of the Dutch season there was a lot of room for import product. We started importing apples, pears and grapes from Australia quite soon. South Africa, New Zealand, South America, Israel and Egypt became more and more important countries of origin later. As a product specialist, we followed the seasons year-round.”

When did the Chinese adventure start?
“That was also in the late 1980s. At the time, it still felt very much like the wild west. There were the state companies and some exporters without permits, allowing us to import a lot of product via Hong Kong and Singapore. The company Shandong Foodstuffs Import Export was the first and only Chinese export company to be granted an export permit for garlic, and we started directly importing from China with that. That lasted until 2006, when the manager of Shandong Foodstuffs I/E started his own company.  Fortunately we had made a name for ourselves in China by then. We are now working with a Chinese company that sends its entire production to us and various other Chinese exporters. Besides garlic, we also get ginger, chestnuts, pomelos and pears from China, and the entire range at that. For example, we supply garlic in as much as 12 different kinds of packaging, from 10 kilograms loose to 100 grammes in net packaging, and from individual to peeled, it’s truly the entire range.”

Are the import volumes from Europe under pressure because of increasing demand from other markets?
“Definitely! In the past, Europe was the most important destination for China. Now we are in seventh place as an EU destination. Countries including Pakistan, Japan and Indonesia have become much more important. And I expect that Europe’s importance will only decline further. In 1988, it was predicted there would be a period in which China would change from an export to an import country, and that’s happening now. Ten years ago, we were the first to import pomelos. Back then the season was from January to March. Nowadays, the season starts late August, but export isn’t interesting to the Chinese anymore at all because local prices are much higher. The same is true for Chinese apples, which we haven’t imported in seven years for this reason.”

Which countries are the most important production countries for the future for you?
“That naturally depends on the seasons, but for us, China, New Zealand, Egypt and South America will remain important import countries no matter what. For a few years now we’ve had our own office in Brazil. We want to supply the entire range of products we are strong with. That’s why we now also import product from Thailand. We even import onions from nine countries, including Japan. Last year, this trade wasn’t very interesting because the Spanish and Dutch onions were cheap, but all that could change in the coming season.”

Do you believe in a total range or in product specialisation?
“We’ve always believed in product specialisation combined with a brand policy, because the customer has to be able to rely on continuity in quality and supply. We are now entering a phase with the fresh produce sector in which everyone does what they’re good at, and that’s a good development. For us, it’s mainly ginger, garlic, onions and citrus. For example, we’ve been working with certain suppliers in New Zealand for 35 years. That way, you can really build something. The uncoordinated companies all drop out, although that happens quicker in some sectors than in others. For example, with import onions we’re the only one left on the market with Mulder Onions and Van der Lans, but with a product like garlic, you regularly see opportunistic importers on the market, which is incredibly disruptive for the market. They never last long, but someone importing five containers can ruin much for someone importing 100 containers. In some product groups, such as Indian and Egyptian grapes, there are still too many suppliers, unfortunately. I think that in future the number of importers will drop, and that everyone will claim a certain speciality. The same is true for export. In recent decades many packing stations started exporting. That was also the case in the past, and over time that will change again to supplying experienced exporters.”

Don’t you expect more competition from overseas producers who start sales offices here?
“That happened in the past and it will continue happening. For example Outspan, Jaffa or Agrexco. All countries have had growers who have tried their luck here, but in the past 20 years, no offices were founded that are still around today. They often close before they are even up and running. Someone from Egypt or China starting here doesn’t have a network, after all, but in a short amount of time they can severely disrupt the market. That’s why it’s much better if they let the professional importers do their job.”

Can importers still make a proper profit?
“It’s not a life of luxury. The margins in this sector are under a lot of pressure. You’ll have to keep your costs very low and have plenty of volume to make a decent profit.”

Wouldn’t it be more attractive to you to open your own cold store?
“I don’t know, because Denimpex has been located in this building in Amsterdam since 1955, Our strategy has always been that we work closely with various cold stores, which all have their own speciality. Import onions, garlic, ginger, grapes, apples, pears, dates and citrus can’t all be sent to the same cold store, after all. Quality inspectors have been trained or instructed to be our eyes and ears. With a product like soft fruit, you might always have to be on top of things, but our method is fine for our products. It also fits our philosophy to let people do the work they’re good at. Our company only has eight employees in the Netherlands and one in Brazil.”

Who are your customers?
“Our customers come from all over Europe. Approximately 50 per cent is wholesaler, 40 per cent is retail and 10 per cent is export. We also have customers in Australia, West Africa, Brazil and Russia.”

What is the biggest threat to you?
“The biggest threat is being involved in a food scandal you don’t know about. Look at what’s happening with fipronil in eggs. The vegetable sector had the EHEC crisis in 2011, and the onion export was recently threatened with the abolishment of sprout inhibitor MH. The question is what the next issue will be. The Russian boycott has affected various companies in the sector, yet everyone managed to find new sales markets in a relatively short time. But food scandals like that can damage the entire industry.”

And what are the opportunities?
“We mostly want to keep doing what we’re good at, but as a small office, we can quickly shift gears. That’s also how we went from industrial processing to the import sector, and we continue actively looking for opportunities. For example, our customers are demanding more organic products, and we are also researching which products to add to our assortment. In 1990 we imported a large amount of avocados from South Africa. Unfortunately we didn’t really go through with that at the time, but you never know what might happen!”

More information:
Danny Deen

Publication date: 9/21/2017


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