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SPAIN - Agriculture

Juan Luis Rivero

CEO, Azucarera


Juan Luis Rivero Ximenes holds a degree in Business Administration and Management (ADE). He has developed his professional career in the financial area at Carrefour and Uralita. In November 2001, he joined Ebro Puleva as Responsible for Management Control, later becoming part of the financial area of Azucarera Ebro SL in 2005, where he was appointed Finance Director in October of the same year. Following the acquisition of the company by Associated British Foods plc, he was appointed CEO on October 1, 2010, a position he currently holds.

"Azucarera does more than just produce sugar, we were the first in Europe to dry pulp in the sun, and in our collaboration with growers, we were the first to implement and promote solar irrigation."
TBY talks to Juan Luis Rivero, CEO of Azucarera, about the company’s history, new facilities, and sustainability efforts.
Azucarera has been extracting sugar from sugar beet since 1903. How would you describe the company’s evolution over these years?

Azucarera started out in 1903, and today there are only two sugar producers left in the market: Azucarera and a cooperative. Azucarera is currently the leading producer of beet sugar in Spain. To date, beet sugar has been competing with sugar from France or Portugal because Portugal is skilled in producing sugar from cane. The market is highly competitive, and over the past 10-12 years, it has only continued to increase. Since 2017, the market has been completely free when before the EU used to have quotas by country. Every country can produce whatever they want and commercialize it, which was a huge change for all sectors in Europe.

Azucarera is to set up a liquid organic fertilizer packaging plant in Miranda. What benefits does the company expect to achieve with this project?

We specialize in selling sugar as a commodity. Yet we do more than just produce sugar. We also have a very well-known brand called Betalia, which consists of animal feed and fertilizers as well. The factory in Toro, Zamora, has a liquid plant where we not only produce liquid sugar but also custom-made products since the customer can specify the formula they want, and we are capable of supplying it. Betalia as a brand pulp is the product that the farmers like the most for animal feed. We also produce molasses, especially for yeast and animal feed. The Stimel fertilizer was very successful and will be more competitive if we invest further in production.

Azucarera promotes technological advancements to monitor sucrose evolution. Could you explain what these technologies are and how they benefit farmers?

We are a digital company, not just in the agro sector but throughout our entire business. We are proud of the fact that six or seven years ago, we started monitoring the evolution of beet during the growth cycle with a device that takes satellite images. With all the data that we have been collecting for seven years, we are proud to know precisely what the ideal evolution of the beet is during the entire cycle. This helps us communicate with growers during the growing process and inform them if their beet is not in optimal condition due to a lack of irrigation or fertilizer. It is therefore very useful to analyze all the factors that have a great influence on growth. We have a tool that allows us to increase collaboration with growers.

What achievements has Azucarera made in terms of sustainability, and what could other companies in the sector learn to be more sustainable?

Regarding environmental concerns, we were the pioneers in Europe to dry the pulp in the sun instead of putting it in a drier, which consumes energy. This was a very successful method, and we substantially reduced emissions thanks to it. Secondly, in our collaboration with the growers, we were the first to implement and promote solar irrigation. We were able to install solar energy in all of our irrigation plants instead of spending energy on irrigation systems. The number of growers who came to try solar irrigation was huge. We always work with the Association for Research on the Improvement of Sugar Beet Cultivation (AIMCRA), which aims to improve beet growing and reduce energy and water use through innovation initiatives. We also invest in experts and consultants who teach us how to cut down on energy use in our factories. Over the past couple of years, we have started to transport beet by train, which reduces emissions and is cheaper than using a truck. The number of things that you can do in a factory when saving energy is huge. For example, we need a lot of steam, so we have to work with water at very high temperatures. We have a technology that allows us to do that process, whereby we end up consuming less energy. Our goal is that all our factories will soon be 100% emission free.

What are Azucarera’s notable achievements in the social and governance spheres?

We have more female than male positions when it comes to gender diversity. Our salary gap is the opposite of other companies. In the whole company, the percentage of female employees is around 23%. However, in a management position, it is around 60-70%. We have several agreements with unions whereby we work to make sure everyone in the company receives equal treatment. We also operate health and safety programs and have physiotherapists at each of our sites. These provide an exercise program which is particularly helpful for employees whose work is physically demanding. We also have mental and health programs against tobacco, alcohol, and so forth. We are therefore highly focused on employee welfare. Azucarera also has an effective promotion system with a succession plan for every position, and we have not recruited any management positions for the past 10 years. We are strongly focused on career development within the company, and have been working with young women of potential in one of our most successful programs. In every factory, we invite young women to observe technical work to encourage future participation where interested.

Global sugar consumption will set a record this year. Is Azucarera pursuing an international strategy to maximize commercial potential?

Europe’s consumption is fairly stable. We are incredibly fortunate, as Spain has a huge, innovative, and thriving sweets industry. The country also has strong biscuit, candy, and chocolate industries, and we export worldwide. Consumption in Spain is not going to fall, especially because we have growing customers due to internationalization. In terms of our position in the international markets, we sell in Portugal and France. Our geographical area is, therefore, within close proximity to our factories, as sending our products to other parts of Europe is a waste of money and energy, and a source of unnecessary CO2 emissions.

Azucarera collaborates with farmers in the countryside and promotes rural development. What potential does the Spanish countryside have as an investment focus?

The agro-industry in Spain is extremely competitive. I am familiar with many industries because they are our customers and located in the countryside with us. The farmers are outstanding in innovation and technical development. We have the best food quality and safety systems. The agro sector is one of the lead contributors to Spain’s GDP. It generates employment in the rural areas where we are located. For every employee in the sugar sector, there are another 10 people employed in complementary industries.

What efforts does Azucarera make to improve the image of the sugar industry?

We do not invest in supporting the ingredients, since we belong to a group called the Association of Food and Beverages in Spain. There are no good or bad foods. However, there are good habits and bad habits. We do not invest in supporting the ingredient because the ingredient is so good, being completely natural and essential in providing energy for health. We are concerned about the reputational factor of negative public opinion, but we are not worried that sugar consumption will decline.

What are the main objectives of Azucarera for the coming years?

Our objective is to continue developing beet in collaboration with our growers. We want to include more people in the Azucarera family within our strategy. We have many growers who are well-integrated with us. We work closely with transport companies, too, and also with other technology firms and contractors with which we devise a maintenance plan. The challenge for the future, then, is to expand the Azucarera family.



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