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"Veerle Deprez of Univeg: "It never occurred to me that I'm often the only woman in meetings"

The fruit and vegetable sector is undeniably dominated by men. The commercial department in particular. But women do exist in this business. Case in point is Veerle Deprez, currently heading Univeg. “I have great admiration for women who have managed to climb the corporate ladder.”

Veerle took her first steps in the trade some 26 years ago, when she (along with her brother Hein) took over a wholesale business in sliced mushrooms and vegetables. "We figured it would be a rather modest affair,” she ponders. “Our ambitions were limited to this one takeover, wishing to transform the company into a modern 'performance' supplier of mushrooms and processed vegetables. The idea was for the business to carry out wholesale distribution in Belgium. But gradually you want to have control over the supply of raw materials, leading to vertical integration and eventually production. And that meant looking abroad, first to Southern Europe and later overseas.” 

Today, Univeg is active worldwide, dealing in fruit and vegetables, convenience, flowers and plants, logistics and transport, chalking up a turnover of more than EUR 3 billion and employing 4,500 permanent employees. Having withdrawn from the work floor over the years, Veerle now oversees the company. Does the fact that she’s a woman play a part in her daily activities?

"It never occurred to me that I'm often the only woman in meetings,” she says. “In any case it never really bothered me as far as I can tell.” Veerle explains that this probably has to do with the fact that she grew up in a family with two brothers and a sister. She does notice though that women at the top are still in the minority. She has a lot of admiration for women who are CEOs of companies. "For example, I was very happy when Marleen Vaesen accepted the position of CEO at Green Yard Foods. There are still some examples of women who can stand their ground within Univeg: women like Irenke Meekma, managing director of Bakker Barendrecht, but also Mayda Sotomayor, CEO of Seald Sweet ".

There’s not a lot of advice she can give to other female colleagues in the sector. “I wouldn’t know how to combine the corporate responsibility with having a family for instance, not having children myself. But you might ask men the same question.” According to her, each has to decide for themselves how to deal with male colleagues. "But with a healthy dose of diplomacy, emotional intelligence, and respect for each other, you can get very far." 

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