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Benito Orihuel : “I have devoted my whole life to chemistry and fruit”

Benito Orihuel welcomed us at the Citrosol facilities in Potríes (Valencia). It is not Valencia Fruits first visit to these facilities, but this visit is a special one as the CEO of Citrosol up until now is announcing an significant change for us at a business level and, above all for him personally: Benito is stepping down from direct management of the company to take up a part-time advisory role. His career and character are both shaped by his dedication to science. His passion for chemistry, fruit and, of course, his work, have, in short, caused him to set back his retirement and, even now, he is not leaving completely because he loves what he’s been doing for nearly forty years. Throughout our interview he appears relaxed, optimistic, and excited about the new phase that will begin at the end of the year. A new era which will allow him to spend more time enjoying his personal and family life, especially with his grandchildren who bring a smile to his face just by their mention.

Valencia Fruits. Now, as you are about to embark on a partial withdrawal from your professional life, it may be good to look back on your career.

Benito Orihuel. A long time ago I worked for Citrosol for around three years, following which I spent some years at Chiquita (United Fruit Company), the company that appears in “ Cien años de soledad” and also in the latest novel by Vargas Llosa. I spent a few years with the company in Florida and then moved to Anecoop where I was the Quality Director for 15 years. Finally, towards the end of 2007, I returned to Citrosol and have enjoyed twelve uninterrupted years.

VF. Although working abroad is more common now, it wasn’t so before; how did the Florida opportunity arise?

BO. Quite by chance. I actually started working for an English fruit company which was then bought by Chiquita. Chiquita looked internally to select someone from the American company or within the group to fill an opening in the USA. They sent an email to me asking for my CV; called me to go to the United States where I spent three or four days, and they offered me the job. I didn’t look for it.

VF. What was your academic training?

BO. I initially studied chemistry, then completed a Master of Science degree in Biochemistry and Plant Physiology in the US. When I finished my studies I started my first stint at Citrosol and then everything else just came along. The truth is that I have devoted myself to chemistry and fruit all my life; a true specialist.

VF. When you returned to Citrosol in 2007, what was your responsibility within the company?

BO. I joined at the highest level and until 2017 combined the General and Scientific management of the company. Back in 2017 we were already turning over almost 18 million euros p.a. with a staff of 74-75 people, so it was complex combining the two roles.

VF. What led you to bet on Citrosol?

BO. My father was one of the founders of Citrosol so, of course that carried a lot of weight.

VF. As soon as we met, it was near impossible to not realize that you are passionate about the scientific aspect of your work. In the new phase that will be starting in just a few days, what will you focus on in your work at Citrosol?

BO. Indeed, at the end of the year I will begin the new phase. I will focus my attention on scientific issues, but as an advisor. In principle, I’m not going be involved in the laboratory. Well … that’s the idea. I will assume technical responsibilities and will also be an advisor to the Board.

VF. It’s not hard to guess the fact that you are staying and not disassociating yourself entirely is because you like this a lot.

BO. Yes, I love it. I have dedicated myself to this activity my whole life. I have never added it up, but it must be close on 40 years. It is difficult to say from one day to the next “that’s the end of it”. I ‘m not going to work full time, but from the end of the year my dedication will be relative; one or two days a week. Also, I am quite relaxed as a great professional, Jorge Bretó, is replacing me.

VF. We know that you’ve got three children and at least two grandchildren …

BO. And another on the way! Yes, I have two daughters and a son.

VF. Among your new day to day roles, will you be involved more as a grandfather?

BO. I’ve always wanted to. Of course.

VF. We can’t help but think that it makes you a little sad to leave.

BO. Sure, but over the years you start to lose a bit of energy and making important decisions every day is tiring. It becomes harder to stay focused on something. I don’t really believe in multitasking. Simple things can be done simultaneously, but if it’s something serious you have to devote your full attention to it. Concentrate.

VF. What are your expectations for Citrosol in this new era?

BO. We are making a slow transition so that everything goes well and Citrosol can continue to grow. The most important thing is that we have developments that we are not fully exploiting commercially because we currently lack trained technical sales staff to be able to provide our service in the manner we would wish and that your own clients would sign up to. You have to combine personal and commercial skills with technical ability.

VF. Over recent years, coinciding with your management, Citrosol has evolved in scientific innovation, turnover and personnel. For you, what stands out in each of these aspects?

BO. Our growth has been born out of radical innovation, I’d even say revolutionary, although maybe that’s a little strong. I believe that the greatest exponent is the “Citrosol Vertido Cero” (Zero Waste) system. A solution that has forged its way into post-harvest treatments, especially in Spain, although it is already starting to take hold in other countries. The Citrosol Vertido Cero system is the new benchmark. It has practically become a standard within the sector.

Before, after any treatment was carried out in the drencher the solutions had to be purified and disposed of every day. If the treatment solutions were saved for the next day, treatment efficacy was lost even to the point that, instead of controlling decay, it generated more. Due to the highly erratic results many clients didn’t even want to use the drencher. Citrosol’s growth came along with this solution: Customers saw that our drencher treatment always offered good decay control and that just fueled our growth, both by higher existing client demand and by the increase in our client base. The Vertido Cero System maintains the initial efficacy of the fungicide treatment solutions throughout the whole season, without changing them, and the clients who are using it are very happy with the results.

Regarding our market share, although it is difficult to assimilate the necessary data, in Spain our share has grown by at least 10-12%, although it may well be more. In 2007-2008 we hadn’t reached 25% of the market and now we probably have a 40% share in Spain. Although data is difficult to compare as information on tonnage, for example, is no longer available (previously it was), it is something that we do get a sense of. If we go to Vega Baja, along the road from Santomera to Orihuela or from Santomera to Murcia, we can go past the gates of many warehouses and there are more who are Citrosol clients than not. The same occurs in Valencia in areas such as La Safor: there are more Citrosol clients than all of the rest put together. In fact, there are towns where every one of the exporters is a client or ours.

As for the evolution of turnover over those years; in 2008, it was 8 million. In the 2007-2008 campaign, the fruit harvest was very poor nationally. Citrosol was operating pretty much within the national market only, so turnover fell. Today, we turn over around 9 million in international markets alone, and that represents just 39% of our turnover. In all we are now close to 23 million and, if we consolidate with South Africa, 25 million.

Internationally, we continue to expand in the Mediterranean Basin, but the two countries showing our greatest expansion are Peru and South Africa, where, in the latter, our subsidiary already invoices over two million.

When it comes to human resources, we have grown to almost 100 people.

VF. Your company profile suggests that the training of personnel is very important. A few months ago, you made an assessment about a news item that was published about the Valencian Community, which pointed out that it was where the least amount of time was spent studying Physics and Chemistry.

BO. Indeed. I read that they were taught conjunctively and with little time dedicated to them, especially chemistry. I can’t judge if the training in general is good or not by looking at the people we have here in scientific or technical positions. We employ staff with excellent credentials that really do not reflect the average.

VF. What percentage of the staff are highly specialized?

BO. We’ve never sat down to analyze it, but I am sure over 50% in the scientific-technical part, we have Doctorates in numerous fields, Chemistry, Biology, Agronomic Engineering and in the Electromechanical and IT fields. for example, we have higher education trained Telecommunications Engineers, Industrial Engineers, and Electronic Engineers. Not to mention the field staff who are out providing technical services to our clients, be they biologists, chemists or agricultural engineers. Also, we are fortunate to have the University of Valencia’s campus for Environmental Studies close by in Gandia from where we have graduates.

VF. The Sales department is very important in a company like Citrosol …

BO. Of course. You can have all the best products and systems, but if you don’t sell them … Technology isn’t always the easiest thing to sell. All our sales staff are technical experts and the way we sell is by offering very good technical results. It is very important to provide a highly qualified after-sales service.

VF. What changes have you seen occur in the sector since your dedication to post-harvest?

BO. That is a question that requires a lot of thought … But, just quickly, there is a process of centalization that seems to be accelerating in recent years, with investment funds starting to buy up companies within the sector. Then the other obvious large change is the supermarket demands. Other changes are brought about by rule changes, including the rules governing good agricultural practices … These are changes that, in general, are positive because they bring a higher level of professionalism to the sector. It is a slow, but inexorable, process.

VF. And from the consumer’s point of view, how has it changed? Before, the need to use chemicals was not so evident and now they are seeing some negative press in the media …

BO. I don’t think that’s a uniform perception. Awareness is much more developed in some European countries than in others and, for example, in the USA it’s not so relevant. There it is felt that the most dangerous thing from the point of view of food is that it may have microbiological contamination and the pressure against conventional chemistry is far lower. Also, the negative press generates a largely false pressure. In the European Union the regulations for both medicines and veterinary products and plant protection products are very strict, the strictest in the world. So, when they let you use a chemical it is because that product is safe. Bear in mind that you have never eaten as healthily and safely as you now eat in western countries.

VF. A lot of the time companies within this sector are looked at under the microscope …

BO. As with doping in sports, there are always going to be some who cheat, but in general, the regulations are adhered to and here in Europe, I say again, they are the most demanding in the world. The consumer can rest assured.

What we have detected is that, especially in German supermarkets, which are the ones that place the most emphasis on such issues, they are already beginning to appreciate that so much pressure actually favors piracy and that uncontrolled active substances appear that, generally logic would dictate, are more dangerous than authorized ones. Fortunately, they are realizing this, as we have been able to verify. I don’t think that they will go so far as demanding only 1/2 or 1/3 of MRLs because their public perception may take a step backwards, as well as this being something which is generally acceptable. But they have realized that the side effects of excessive demanding may be negative.

VF. Today, is agriculture possible without synthetic products?

BO. You can go a long way with green, or greener, chemistry. But it is very difficult to establish scientifically when a chemical is green and when it is not. To give another example, it can be similar to what has happened with plastics: not so long ago plastic was the worst thing out there, but now alternatives to plastic are being put in place that turn out to be more harmful. There is a lot of confusion and controversy.

In green chemistry you can go a long way. In fact, considering that the fruit that tends to decay the most is citrus, especially lemon and tangerines, the question would be, can you send citrus to other continents without using conventional fungicides? It’s difficult. What you can do is reduce the active ingredients used and you can improve a lot by reducing the residue that remains on the fruit. The supermarkets don’t want residues, but, at the same time, they don’t want the fruit to go rotten either.

VF. We are living in a historic time with the health emergency caused by COVID-19; how do you think it will influence the future of the fruit and vegetable sector? Will it also have an impact on post-harvest treatments?

BO. The COVID-19 pandemic has been brought about by a virus, a microorganism, everybody is now far more aware of the need for cleaning and disinfection, which is carried out with chemicals, alcohols, hydrogen peroxide, peracetic acid, etc. The rejection of chemistry should decrease on the one hand, whilst on the other, all of society should now be more aware of the relevance of microbiological risks. The effect on how post-harvest treatments are now perceived should be positive.

VF. And how, in the future, will long distance exports coexist with the pressure generated by distribution and consumer needs?

BO. For years we have championed the term “precision post-harvest”. We research the variability of treatment that exists in the preparation in a warehouse. We study them carefully and look for ways to mitigate. It is a quality management job. We achieve this with our application systems using sensors, so that there is no variability in the application just the precise concentration of the chemicals.

Well, of course, you can go to Turkey and citrus decay control becomes very easy: they just apply tons of fungicides with three or four active substances at very high dosages. That way they can send fruit to the Emirates, to the Persian Gulf, to Asia, to Russia … But it is somewhat overloaded with residues and when they arrive in Europe, they experience rejections due to detection of prohibited active substances or for exceeding the MRLs.

Problems can be solved in this way, although it’s really not recommended, or by applying specific fungicides and green chemical products.

VF. What distinguishes Citrosol from other companies in the post-harvest sector?

BO. I don’t believe in simply selling products; we sell solutions for the post-harvest condition problems of our clients’ fruit. Our obsession is problem solving. To solve a problem, you need to combine the right products with the best application equipment, and it is that combination that we sell. We never tell the sales team that they should sell one product above another because one may have a greater profit margin, for example. We have a catalog of around 80 products and we never hold business meetings to urge our staff to sell a specific product: We want to offer the customer the products they need to solve their problems, not to sell a particular product because we have a stronger vested interested in it at a certain time. We start from standardized treatments and, depending on the client’s circumstances, where they export, one or another may apply. Furthermore, you have to adapt to what your client asks of you and, in turn, to the requirements of their own clients. So, we don’t work with slogans to sell one product or another because it suits us. Yes, we do make recommendations that we believe would be good for the client. For example, if you export we suggest you use Sunseal wax in place of another, but always thinking about what will work best for you.

VF. Is that the main difference between Citrosol and its competition?

VF. Of your years at Citrosol, what accomplishments are you most satisfied with?

BO. On a scientific basis, what I am most satisfied with is Citrosol Vertido Cero. In the real world there are clients who use it more and others less, but it is very satisfying to know that we have some clients who reach the end of the season, take out the treatment solution, put it into a storage container and then reuse it four months later. It’s worlds away from when the solutions needed to be discarded daily. It was and perhaps still is the first example of the “Circular Economy” in post-harvest. From a more personal perspective, satisfaction comes from our team. The team at Citrosol is exemplary and fully embraces the values ​​that I have had the pleasure of revealing in this interview; thank you.

 

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VF. What distinguishes Citrosol from other companies in the post-harvest sector?

BO. I don’t believe in simply selling products; we sell solutions for the post-harvest condition problems of our clients’ fruit. Our obsession is problem solving. To solve a problem, you need to combine the right products with the best application equipment, and it is that combination that we sell. We never tell the sales team that they should sell one product above another because one may have a greater profit margin, for example. We have a catalog of around 80 products and we never hold business meetings to urge our staff to sell a specific product: We want to offer the customer the products they need to solve their problems, not to sell a particular product because we have a stronger vested interested in it at a certain time. We start from standardized treatments and, depending on the client’s circumstances, where they export, one or another may apply. Furthermore, you have to adapt to what your client asks of you and, in turn, to the requirements of their own clients. So, we don’t work with slogans to sell one product or another because it suits us. Yes, we do make recommendations that we believe would be good for the client. For example, if you export we suggest you use Sunseal wax in place of another, but always thinking about what will work best for you.

VF. Is that the main difference between Citrosol and its competition?

BO. That is one difference and, then, the other difference is that when we put experimental results in an advertisement, much of the time they are not even results that we have obtained ourselves, but they are those that have been obtained by International Scientists, be they Spanish, South African, or perhaps Australian, or they have been obtained by institutions such as AGROCOLOR (the laboratory of COEXPHAL, Almería) or the CNTA (National Center for Technology and Food Safety of Navarra), or even the famous Volcani Center in Israel. There aren’t many companies that are happy to use results obtained by a third party in their publications.

VF. Of your years at Citrosol, what accomplishments are you most satisfied with?

BO. On a scientific basis, what I am most satisfied with is Citrosol Vertido Cero. In the real world there are clients who use it more and others less, but it is very satisfying to know that we have some clients who reach the end of the season, take out the treatment solution, put it into a storage container and then reuse it four months later. It’s worlds away from when the solutions needed to be discarded daily. It was and perhaps still is the first example of the “Circular Economy” in post-harvest. From a more personal perspective, satisfaction comes from our team. The team at Citrosol is exemplary and fully embraces the values ​​that I have had the pleasure of revealing in this interview; thank you.


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