New CEO at Aviko Set to Assume Helm in September

Royal Cosun has announced that 51-year-old Piet Hein Merckens will become the new chief executive officer of its Steenderen, Holland-headquartered Aviko BV unit, as well as well as made a member of Cosun´s executive board, effective September 1.  He will bring a lot of management experience from the international food industry to the job, having previously been employed at Procter & Gamble, Sara Lee/DE and Royal Wessanen.

RoyalCosun-LogoMerckens will succeed Martin van de Ven, who has been ceo since 2008 and worked for Cosun since 1985, serving as an executive board member for the past 14 years. He will continue to support his successor for some time after September, in part to ensure success of the company’s new french fry production activities in China.

No newcomer to manufacturing in the PRC, Aviko has been producing potato flakes in the northwestern province of Gansu for more than six years. More recently it began making fries at a facility situated approximately 200 kilometers from Beijing. The Chinese-managed joint venture operation is targeting the country’s growing quick service restaurant sector, paying special attention to the needs of local chains.

Ranked as the No. 2 potato processing company in Europe with a market share exceeding 22%, Aviko has been increasingly seizing opportunities further afield. Shipping frozen, chilled and dehydrated products to more than 110 countries from factories in the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Poland, Sweden and China, the company is  fourth globally in terms of volume sales. Employing 1,600 people worldwide, it typically processes 1,700,00 tons of potatoes per annum.

“While most of our business, perhaps as much as 75%, is generated in Europe, gains in volume growth are coming from markets beyond the continent,” Dick van der Aart, marketing manger, told “Expanding in Asia, South America, the Middle East and elsewhere, we fully expect to become an even bigger international player in the years ahead.”

The company continues to grow in Europe through its emphasis on added-value offerings and investment in companies that produce such products. Earlier this year it acquired a majority stake in Amberger, a Bavarian family firm that specializes in potato salad and other chilled items for the foodservice market. Elsewhere, it has invested in a chilled potatoes business in Sweden.

“Despite the high raw material prices [last year], potato specialties were again very successful in Europe,” according to parent company’s Royal Cosun’s 2013 Annual Report. “The chilled and frozen segments performed particularly well. Potato specialties such as purees, gratins and meals have higher added value. The ready meals introduced in 2012, Kokkerellen, and Raspatat by Rixona, also sold well. Chilled and frozen products are now a mature segment in the supermarket and foodservice channels, and have promising growth opportunities.”

The Kokkerellen [which is Dutch slang for “Easy Cooking”] chilled range in Holland offers consumers a mix of potatoes, vegetables and “a little bit of magic” in the way of a prepared blend of herbs and spices featuring garlic, sesame seed, pepper and other ingredients.

“This major innovation of ours in the domestic retail market was initiated to further stretch our brand in the chilled sector because the frozen segment has been relatively flat,” said Van der Aart. “Available exclusively under the Aviko label, it fulfills a desire among consumers for something that is easy to prepare yet extra special at the same time. This allows those preparing meals at home to add the finishing touch.”

The company has also successfully introduced mini-gratins for the foodservice segment, featuring recipes such as Asparagus with Parmesan Cheese and Jerusalem Artichoke with Parsnip.

“In Europe,” noted the annual report, “Aviko invested a great deal in regional brands to meet consumer demand for local identification. In Sweden, for example, we introduced a series of fresh gratins with ready-made sauces under the Alstrømer brand.”

Still, even with an estimated 50% share of the world market for chilled fries, frozen product sales account for most of Aviko’s business. In northwestern Europe, however, where the chilled sector is still growing, the company continues to seek cross-selling opportunities to expand sales both within and beyond its distribution base.

Aviko is by far the overall leader in the Dutch market for processed potato products, and is a very high profile player in Germany’s retail and foodservice sectors as well. Its business is growing in the United Kingdom too, where penetration of the hotel, restaurant and catering (HORECA) segment, in addition to the pub trade, is ongoing.

AvikoTigerFries-UKAviko’s colorful Tigerfries, a combination of Superlongs and Sweet Potato Fries, have been a roaring favorite among kids in the UK.“Even during the height of the recent economic downturn in Britain, we have seen pub and restaurant operators upgrade and improve their french fry business by giving  customers more choices in products. A good example of this is Sweet Potato Fries, which are served as side orders, meal accompaniments, or even as a dessert with sweet dips,” said Van der Aart.  “Also popular have been our Superlongs. When combined with Sweet Potato Fries they are presented as Tigerfries. This colorful menu offering has been well received by children.”

The veteran marketing manager, who had been with the 52-year-old company for 26 of those years, has seen it develop tremendously during that time in terms of product lines, production output and efficiency gains.

“Surely the biggest change has been our evolution toward more added-value offerings. Today this is no longer only a marketing topic, but a commercial reality,” said Van der Aart. “While commodities may still be the wheels of our business, it’s added-value concepts that are driving the way forward.”

Starting with the humble french fry, Aviko’s way forward has branched into many directions – from Hash Browns, Spicy Jackets Wedges, Duchesse Potatoes, Pom Noisettes and Croquettes, to Asparagus and Potato Salad with Goats Cheese, BBQ Chicken with Potato Skewers and Cole Slaw, to a wide assortment of Creamy Gratins and more, the list goes on and on. – JMS