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David Geen is a details man. His customers are paying hefty premiums for a basket of cherries that he has guaranteed will be 99% perfect. The cherries are all the same size, they are firm but not hard, the stem is bright green and completely intact, there are no rain cracks or wind rubs. These are the most cherry-picked cherries on the market, so to speak, and it’s a market with significant growth potential.
David Geen, President, Jealous Fruits Ltd.
The upbeat, down-to-earth Geen, 50, is a fourth-generation fruit grower whose family has farmed in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley since 1903. His company’s edge lies in its ability to exploit the relatively short cherry season. While typical growers are flooding the market during late summer, Jealous Fruits Ltd. can supply high-end buyers with cherries far later, into early fall, by planting 12 late-season varieties and using high-altitude orchards.
Geen is also providing a premium product, and customers are happy to pay for it. Smaller cherries with a variety of imperfections can be picked up in a North American grocery store during cherry season for $15 for a 9-kilogram box, while the same size container of premium cherries in near-perfect condition will fetch $75 at high-end retail shelves across Europe and Asia. “Cherries have a seasonality to them which gives the crop a real cachet,” says. Geen. “So if folks see high-quality cherries in the market they don’t really look at the price. It’s an impulse buy.”
His overseas buyers want to lock in continuity of supply over an eight- or nine-week period. As a result, Geen is planting fruit that will ripen the first half of July. His season typically ends the first week of September. His typical overseas customer goes to a high-end grocery market every day and will eat the premium cherries soon after they are purchased. He sells 20% of his fruit to retailers in Canada, some to high-end retailers such as Urban Fare, while the second-grade fruit is sold to fruit stands.
The U.S. accounts for about 8% of his sales, Europe takes 15% to 20%, Britain an additional 12% to 14%, with the balance being sold in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Russia and Dubai.
The logistics of shipping fresh cherries from Kelowna to such far-flung cities are complex and precise. One of Geen’s greatest challenges has been fine-tuning his shipping schedule to ensure the fruit arrives in mint condition. That means shipping by air, for the most part, the day after the cherries are picked and packed. So if the fruit is harvested on a Friday, it ships on Saturday and is on market shelves on Sunday.
The company, which has tripled its revenue in the past seven years, has 300 acres in production and plans to expand that to 550 acres by 2014 to meet demand. In addition to its orchards, Jealous Fruits has a 30,000-square-foot packing facility in Lake Country, B.C., and 240 employees who harvest and sort about 180 million cherries a year. The fruit is sorted by camera for colour, size and any obvious defects, and then by hand for smaller defects.
“We lift and inspect every cherry,” he says. “This makes our process more laborious and adds to our costs, but when you’re aiming for less than 1% defects, you can’t do that running cherries four inches deep on a conveyor belt.”
The fruit is sorted based on customer preferences in each market. For example, Europeans prefer very dark, very sweet cherries. Some Asian customers want slightly less mature cherries, others want lighter coloured ones. One of his greatest challenges to growing the business has been finding and, more importantly, cementing loyal relationships with customers.
He accomplished this by getting out of the orchard to meet them. He travels to trade shows and brings partners to his farm to view the operation. His goal is to achieve geographical diversity within his customer base, but also to target customers with a particular attitude.
“We want people who will be loyal because they see the value in our product and are willing to ride with us through the ups and downs,” he explains. “Over the last four to five years we’ve been able to wean out the underperformers—the problematic ones—so now we have customers who are similar to us. They’re in it for the long term and we’re not going to screw each other over for a few nickels.”
The loyal customer is rewarded, Geen explains. “Our customers provide us with projections and our planting is based on that,” he says. “So if they say they want six pallets every other day starting at the end of July, we want to know they will stick to that and not phone up a week into it saying a competitor has them for cheaper.”
In return, Jealous Fruits makes sure its best customers get cherries beyond the regular season—giving them an edge in their local market. “Lots of people are calling us for cherries at the end of August, but we are not going to provide cherries to a customer’s competitors.”
As a result of his efforts to build customer relationships, many of Geen’s large Asian buyers send quality control representatives to visit his plant on and off throughout the growing season. These importers know the particular customer preferences in each Asian city and will help him sort the fruit to suit these tastes.
Sensitivity to cultural differences is key across the board, he notes. “You don’t want to have an overbearing, arrogant attitude. That would probably not be good anywhere, but particularly in Asia.”