For over 90 years, P. Smets & Zn have been active as a fruit and vegetable wholesaler in Geleen in the Dutch province of Limburg. "We're heading toward the Royal predicate," laughs Loek Smets. He and his brother, Richard, run the company. When asked how the wholesalers lasted so long, Loek answers, "With good quality, good prices, and top service. You mustn't complicate things too much."
Loek Smets in front of the new building
This family business - Dad Pierre (75), is still involved with the daily purchasing - is, after all, successful. Two years ago, they added a new 6.000 m2 site for their office, cold storage, and barrel space. This is across from the old building. That still serves as a cross-dock location. "We were faced with a choice. Keep doing the same for another 20 years. Or do it right the first time."
With the corona crises, this extra space came at the right time. "Our total sales increased considerably. We sell 65% to stores, 20% to markets, and 15% to the hospitality sector. Sales to this sector and its suppliers, and the markets, dropped sharply," says Loek. "But sales to the stores doubled. That stockpiling behavior was strange. Like people were suddenly going to eat cauliflower twice a day. Now, the hospitality industry is slowly recovering, even though they're still cautious. The markets aren't going as smoothly yet."
The company immediately decided to close its warehouse entirely to clients. That was during the first anti-corona measures in mid-March. This 'internal lockdown' lasted about six weeks. "Every business must make their own decisions. But, it did surprise me that not more companies did this. I think we must take responsibility for our staff. We must create a safe working environment. A possible loss of revenue doesn't weigh up against the social responsibility of protecting your clients and personnel."
The old building
In those six weeks, clients could only order per mail, telephone, or via the webshop. They had to collect their goods at a preferred time. Not all the clients were happy with this decision. "We lost a few clients, who then returned," Loek says. Would he do the same if there were a second wave? "I think so. We now know how to handle it, even if it's challenging. But, you don't want to bring in the coronavirus, do you?"
Smets' clients can be found in a radius of about 150km from Geleen. So, they're in the Netherlands, Germany, and Belgium. "We're quite isolated. That has both pros and cons for us, as a fruit and vegetable wholesaler. In Venlo, people come to you; we have to go to the client. But clients who come here want a total package. We don't have any clients that come here for a single pallet of oranges. We then also offer everything related to fruit and vegetables. We can help everyone - from a Turkish store to a market stall or hospitality business."
They've gained many clients recently. Especially from the Walloon region in neighboring Belgium. "Stores there are often not used to getting their goods delivered to their door every day. There aren't many Belgian wholesalers who do that. Those who do are very expensive. Clients who chose us want us to take care of them," explains Loek.
"We can deliver wares to five different places a week if so desired. This service provision must be paid for, and people are willing to do that. Our geographic location's disadvantage is that there aren't many co-workers with fruit and vegetable experience to be had. We've been looking for a French-speaking salesperson for a while now."
Purchasing based on auction
The Smets, themselves, do most of the purchasing. Auction sales form a vital base here. A few adjoining computers have been set up in the new building for this. Dad, Pierre, does the morning purchasing at The Greenery and ZON. Loek, and his colleague, Jurgen, follow the BelOrta and Hoogstraten auctions. Richard takes care of national purchasing.
"There's a lot of talk in the sector about direct partnerships with local growers. But they often can't provide the volumes we need. This works perfectly for us," says Loek. Supplementary purchasing is done from other wholesalers. Another brother, Peter, works at Smets Food Trading. He's responsible for purchasing total import packages.
This wholesaler doesn't seem to generally get caught up in daily issues. "We're good at stoically plotting our own course. That's been a constant factor throughout the years. But, it's been going well for years, so why change our concept? We don't have to necessarily grow fast. We leave aggressive take-overs to others. We don't like marketing either. Almost all our new clients are thanks to word-of-mouth. Then we must be doing something right," Loek concludes.
The house-branded Shredder