By John Saulnier, FFB Editorial Director
We are saddened to report that André Dejonghe, the visionary entrepreneur who pioneered the frozen vegetable industry in Belgium and co-founded Pinguin NV in 1965 with brothers Georges and Frans, has died at the age of 91. Funeral services were held on January 28 at St. Bavo Church in Westrozebeke, where family members as well as friends, colleagues, former employees, associates and business competitors came to pay last respects.
Pinguin started out as a transport and trading business that specialized in supplying fresh-picked peas, beans and carrots from farms in West Flanders to the canning industry. One customer in Holland, however, was not a canner, but rather was engaged in freezing produce for a market that was slowing taking root on the continent.
Dejonghe thought, why not turn Belgium – which was already known as the “Fresh Vegetable Garden of Europe” – into a “Frozen Vegetable Garden” as well? The brothers quickly acted to make it so by tapping into the technical expertise of Herman D'hulster [who later went on to found Ieper-based Stevens Koeltechniek] and establish a 400-square-meter freezing plant on Romenstraat in Westrozebeke . This was the first factory of many more to come for a then fledgling company that was destined to expand significantly.
In the beginning, Pinguin was Belgium’s only processor of frozen vegetables. First-year output consisted mostly of carry-over peas sourced from a nearby cannery, and initial sales were made mainly to hospital kitchens and other institutions.
Within a few years enterprising André and his brothers had launched the Pinguin brand, though much of the volume was packed under private labels. In 1974 the business was organized as a limited liability company. Along the way to prosperity, others in West Flanders followed the leader and started up ventures of their own. Some, who even benefited from financial backing provided by the Dejonghe family, would evolve over time to become major competitors.
Pinguin grew steadily, and in 1992 the founders relinquished the helm to a younger generation. André’s son Koen would soon become production and technical director. Nephews Herwig and Jan respectively assumed the roles of general and commercial manager and financial and administrative manager.
In 1995 the Dejonghe cousins set up Légum’land Surgelés, a joint venture in France among Pinguin, local farmers and UK-based Fisher Frozen Foods.
Pinguin was listed on the Euronext Brussels stock exchange in 1999 through an initial public offering, and three years later the first of numerous acquisitions to be made over the next decade occurred with the takeover of Fisher Frozen Foods. In 2013 the Lutosa potato operation was divested via a sale to McCain Foods. The remaining business – which by then was under the control of majority shareholders Hein and Veerie Deprez, and included canned vegetable operations and other assets – was renamed Greenyard Foods.
Though the Pinguin brand remains available to foodservice customers, all members of the Dejonghe family have left the company and are no longer on the board of directors.
André’s son Koen is now managing director of Werkhuizen Deswarte, an Izegem-based construction and assembly company that provides tailor-made solutions for conveying bulk goods.
Herwig Dejonghe is still very active in the frozen vegetable business as managing director of Antarctic Foods, which specializes in carrots and corn grown in the Aquitaine region of southwestern France.
Jan Dejonghe is chief executive officer of Abriso NV, a producer of PE foam, air bubble film and extruded polystyrene products for the packaging and building industries.
Pinguin, which has been a unit of Sint-Katelijne-Waver-based Greenyard since 2015, officially changed its name to Greenyard Frozen in early January of 2017.
The business co-founded by André Dejonghe has come a long way in the past half-century. From production of only 123 tons of finished product in 1965, to over 400,000 tons packed last year, the Greenyard Frozen division today operates 10 production sites in Europe and provides employment for 1,597 people. Factories are strategically situated in five countries (Belgium, France, the United Kingdom, Poland and Hungary), and subsidiaries and sales offices span five continents.
André Dejonghe received numerous professional and social accolades during his highly productive career, including the Golden Ice Crystal Lifetime Achievement Award. He served as the director of a number of companies, was the first honorary citizen of Staden, and a member of Probus, Kiwanis and the National Guild.
Members of FrozenFoodsBiz.com team, like so many others who knew the founder of Pinguin, are mourning the loss of a true pioneer of the frozen vegetable business in Europe. This writer, who had the good fortune to have met him and conducted interviews some years ago, salutes the captain of industry one final time for a job exceedingly well done. Rest in peace.