If the 1960s was defined by flower power and the 1990s by girl power, the future is all about plant power. At least, that’s the dream of Alpro boss Bernard Deryckere
If the 1960s was defined by flower power and the 1990s by girl power, the future is all about plant power. At least, that’s the dream of Bernard Deryckere, CEO of Alpro. And he believes he can double its current turnover of £231.2m (€280m), to £462.3m (€560m) in pursuit of it.
Such a whimsical world view sounds incongruous with Deryckere’s corporate training, within the likes of Unilever and Henkel. And perhaps it shows in his refusal to be drawn on a timeframe for hitting his ambitious target, claiming it’s “too dangerous”. But Alpro has more than tripled in size since he took the reins in 2001, as it’s rolled out its cleverly market-specific soy-based innovation across Europe. And with the financial backing of US-based Dean Foods (who acquired it in 2009), he’s convinced Alpro can pull it off. But how? What makes him so confident?
On the one hand, the extension of the brand into nut-based milks, in January, is no big deal: it continues to position Alpro as a dairy-free alternative, though Deryckere outlines some of the other “enormous possibilities” as including hazelnut desserts and ice creams and soy-based cereal bars. On the other hand, the new brand slogan - to ‘feed your curiosity and enjoy plant power’ - is instructed by a conviction that plants must become a mainstream solution to population growth and global warming.
“We are already using more than one planet to feed the world,” he says. “So we will have to rebalance our way of eating.” Growth in plant-based foods, he believes, will come not from consumers who cut out meat and dairy altogether, but from supplementing their meat and dairy intake to lead a more healthy, balanced lifestyle and to ease the pressure on the planet. “Can you imagine if tomorrow the Chinese start to eat like the Americans and the Europeans? The planet’s over. We have a duty to the next generation.”
Deryckere insists he’s “not anti-cow”. And that’s a good job, since he sits on the board of Dean Foods - the sixth-biggest dairy company in the world [Rabobank, Global Dairy Top 20, 2011] with sales of $13.1bn (£8.3bn) last year. Nonetheless, Alpro - together with Whitewave, Dean’s US-based dairy-alternative business - will “guide our [Dean Foods] colleagues to a more sustainable future,” he says. And they have also provided “the growth genes inside the Dean Foods portfolio”, Deryckere adds.
With the traditional dairy model struggling to keep pace with the demands of the predicted population growth, Deryckere intends to convert Alpro from “a reactive brand,” to a proactive one, using the idea of ‘plant goodness’ to promote a holistic lifestyle based on the benefits - low fat, high amino acid content - of plant-based eating. Mind you, he’s a pragmatist. In the US, “Whitewave has positioned almond as a low calorie product because Americans are obsessed by calories.”
Although he’s been in the post for more than a decade now, Deryckere says his work has only just begun. For plant power to really grow, he knows he needs to convince retailers to get behind it as a concept, to build it into a category in its own right. “Our retailers are our partners in building the market,” he says. If buyers show consumers they’re behind plant-based foods, shoppers will follow, he argues. And he cites energy-saving lightbulbs as a product area that was previously only shopped by eco-centrics, but became more mainstream thanks to supermarket support. “They decided to give much more space to energy-saving lightbulbs and suddenly people moved to them. Although it was a little bit more expensive, it was good for the planet.”
Switching consumers onto the benefits of soya might be possible in the long term, but one area in which the company faces an immediate challenge is raw material prices, which have spiked alarmingly in recent months. And this is especially problematic if, like Alpro, you maintain a non-GMO sourcing policy, which carries a 15% premium, and growing, year-on-year.
So would Alpro ever consider switching to GMO soya in an effort to control costs? While Deryckere refuses to rule out a future move to GMO, for the time being at least it would be a step too far, he says. “There are too many question marks about GMO. We will not do it until we are sure it is not dangerous for the health of the consumer, even if it costs a lot more money. And I tell you, it costs a lot of money.”
It’s not just cost that is giving Deryckere a headache, either. Alpro recently pulled out of South America, one of the world’s biggest soya producing areas. “We decided not to source in South America anymore because it starts to be impossible, not in price, but in sourcing non-GMO beans in that area at all.”
With strong brands, a strong innovation pipeline, and strong conviction both in terms of its strategy and its vision, Deryckere believes Alpro can weather the storm and continue its mission. An enthusiastic sailor, he likens Alpro to “a fantastic sailing boat”.
“The lighthouse is in front of us, we know exactly where we have to go. We have an operating framework [in which] everybody knows exactly what he needs to do, the process and the systems and the people are mobilised. There is a storm outside, so we need to be cautious, to put a little bit less wind in the sail. But I am very positive and confident about the future.”
Bernard Deryckere snapshot
Marital status: Married with two children (aged 20 and 22)
Hobbies: Golf and sailing. Is a member of the Royal North Sea Yacht Club, Ostend
Education: Gained a Masters in Applied Economics/Business Administration from the Catholic University of Louvain.
Career background: first job was in detergents product management at German manufacturer Henkel. Spent 14 years at Unilever, progressing from a key retail account manager for food and beverages at Unilever Belgium, to chairman of Unilever Scandinavia.
But even though he was “crazy about Unilever”, Deryckere joined Alpro in September 2001 as CEO partly to spend more time with his family in Belgium. But in Alpro “I discovered something fantastic: a company with the professionalism of Unilever and nestle - balanced scorecards, operating frameworks - but also the entrepreneurship of a small company, fighting to grow because we believe in what we do. We are green from our hearts.”