Dirk Schulz, SFI Rotterdam:

“Disappearing reefer ships are the biggest change in 40 years of fruit import”

During the Amsterdam Produce Show, SFI Rotterdam’s team celebrated their 40th anniversary. The overseas fruit import company was founded in 1977 by Dirk Schulz, who learned the trade in Hamburg, Germany, in the 1960s, when fruit auctions were at their peak. As a result of the decline of the fruit import in Hamburg, Dirk, who was still young at the time, moved to Rotterdam to start an office as an independent fruit importer. Besides a branch in Rotterdam, SFI also still has an office in Hamburg. In 2011, Dirk’s son Jan-Marc and Peter de Jongh took over the company. “But I’m still in the office every day, as advisor and financier,” Dirk says.

Looking back on 40 years of SFI, he says the disappearance of reefer ships is one of the biggest changes for importers. “Back when fruit still arrived per reefer, you worked with other large importers. As a result of containerisation, every wholesaler can now import a container of fruit,” Dirk explains. The product range has also changed considerably over the years. “In the past we were very strong in citrus from Texas and Florida. Nowadays we’re a South American specialist, and the import of grapes, top fruit, plums and blueberries stand out in particular.”

The SFI team during the Amsterdam Produce Show.

Although new markets such as the Far and Middle East increasingly source their fruit in South America, he hasn’t seen SFI’s trade flows to Europe suffer. “For years we’ve been working with the same exporters, and we also do business directly with producers and exporters. We know all of our shipping agents personally, and we don’t work with agents. Because of this, we fortunately have a good reputation on the market. Our sales have changed within Europe compared to 30 years ago. Back then, Germany was good for 40 per cent of our sales, and both the UK and France for 25 per cent. Germany is still our largest market now, but we hardly do business in France and the UK anymore, while sales elsewhere in Europe increased considerably.”

When asked if it’s still as much fun as in the past, Dirk answers: “For an old fruit man such as myself it’s not as much fun as in the past anymore. Requirements of supermarkets, for example, that are impossible to realise, don’t make it any better. These parties have become all-powerful, which can also be said of the container shipping companies. Fortunately, the younger generation is better equipped to deal with this.” The experienced fruit importer has not forgotten how to race a car on the racetrack either. “That will always be my biggest hobby, I’m a true race veteran.”

Not any easier for Western importers
For questions about the future of SFI, Dirk refers us to the younger generation. Asked about opportunities and dangers for coming years, son Jan-Marc answers: “Our trade is constantly changing. Many European seasons have been extended, and people can often also continue the old European harvest from storage until the next harvest is ready. That doesn’t make it any easier for Western importers. Fortunately, we’ve also seen that there are still specialists, who will always want overseas trade.”

Schulz junior isn’t worried about extra competition form other continents either. “Personally, I welcome all competition from other markets, so that the volume available for the European market becomes smaller. China now buys considerable volumes of fruit in South America, but that’s good for the market. Before, the large volumes often didn’t have satisfying results,” Jan-Marc says. “Additionally, certain products are experiencing an enormous rise in volume again, blueberries and avocados, for example. New opportunities are definitely created because of this. The challenge is to recognise these trends on time.”

“I personally think it’s a disadvantage that the quality mark of fruit is apparently not as important anymore. Certain parties focus more on certificates than on the fruit itself, so that certain varieties and origins can barely be carried anymore. That’s not a good development. Fortunately, we have a good spread in our customer circle. Supermarkets are an important player in that, but luckily we aren’t dependent on them.”

“The majority of our customers are of supermarket suppliers,” Peter de Jongh confirms. “Although supermarkets are increasingly doing business at the source, they’ll never be able to import the entire volume themselves. During times of quality pressure or scarcity, they’ll always need flexible, independent importers to fill the programmes. That’s why we feel positive about the future.There’s only one way, and that is up. That’s why we’re currently orienting ourselves to see if we can expand our fruit import with product from South Africa.”

On Friday, the winner of the SFI anniversary competition will be announced. The person who guesses the amount of hp on the back wheels of Dirk Schulz’s Porsche (or is closest to it), will win an unforgettable race experience on the racetrack of Zandvoort.

For more information:
SFI Rotterdam
T: +31 (0)10 476 04 66
F:+31 (0)10 477 91 13

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