It has been a year since Conserve Italia, a group of Italian co-operatives, sold France-based packaged fruit supplier St Mamet to French private-equity firm Florac. Matthieu Lambeaux, the former Findus executive, had joined Florac in May 2015 to help the family-owned Florac buy branded food companies in France and became the CEO of St Mamet after the takeover. John Shepherd met Lambeaux at the SIAL trade show last month to discuss his plans to grow the business.

A year ago, as the ink dried on the sale of French packaged fruit group St Mamet to private-equity firm Florac, Matthieu Lambeaux, the new CEO of the French packaged fruit group, said the company was “at a turning point in its history”, starting a period of “recovery” and could become a “global player and market leader”.

Speaking to just-food at last month’s SIAL trade show in Paris, it seems Lambeaux believes recovery is well under way. Lambeaux and St Mamet were using SIAL to announce what he called an “exclusive pineapple supply deal” with Del Monte Pacific‘s S&W arm as the latest in a series of moves to grow the French group.

Lambeaux had joined Florac five months before the St Mamet deal was announced, tasked with buying branded food companies in France for the family-owned private-equity firm.

The former Findus, Campbell Soup Co. and Unilever executive told just-food St Mamet’s deal with Del Monte Pacific represented a “new long-term partnership” as the French group moves to ramp up production and target new markets. 

St Mamet is now investing in production and new product development in France and aims to expand its existing exports to China, as well as explore new markets, Lambeaux said. He added he and his colleagues are enjoying the “challenge of rebuilding and energising” the St Mamet brand.

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“St Mamet was a fantastic product but needed help,” Lambeaux said. The company had previously been “at the top” of its game, but Lambeaux said “its factory was not in a good state and the former owners were not developing anything new. The problem for any brand that does not re-invent and renew is that it will disappear one day.”

St Mamet’s new owners were quick to seize on one of the key obstacles that lay ahead for the company and take action, Lambeaux said. “Pineapple currently represents 20% of St Mamet’s tinned fruit sales, but the market had long been neglected. People felt very remote from where the pineapples came from and there had been supply shortage issues which no one had done anything about for a very long time.

“S&W had been working with St Mamet in the past, but not on an exclusive basis. St Mamet was previously sourcing from several suppliers, which can mean different, colours, taste and product texture. This was why we had the idea of forming a strategic partnership with an exclusive supplier for pineapple.”

Lambeaux declined to reveal the financial details of the deal or the amount of supplies from S&W. However, he said St Mamet wanted to work with S&W “because it supports our model of not just buying on the spot market, but knowing where a product comes from before we put our brand on it and sell it”. Lambeaux added: “We need to have traceability.”

S&W pineapples originate from a 22,000-hectare plantation in the northern part of Mindanao, which is the second largest and southernmost major island in the Philippines. 

S&W general manager Tan Chooi Khim was also at SIAL to announce the deal and told just-food the company manages the land under long-term leases with local farmers and workers who were given ownership of the area under government land reforms enacted around 15 years ago. The lease agreements “have brought employment stability locally and of course we can help growers get the product to the international market through St Mamet”, Tan said.

“We think the time is right for us to venture into Europe through this partnership,” Tan added. “We have had a presence in Scandinavia, but not across Europe as a whole and this is the first time we are in France.”

Lambeaux said supplies of tropical fruit is also part of the deal with S&W. He said: “At the moment the partnership is focused on providing canned fruit, but things may evolve. There are a lot of things that we can potentially do together.”

St Mamet today defines itself as a canned fruit, jam and apple sauce business, which originated from fruit growers in Provence, in southern France. Lambeaux said St Mamet now has 150 growers working for the company across orchards on 650 hectares of land spread across five of France’s departments.

He said St Mamet plans to increase the combined size of the orchards from 650 hectares to 1,000 hectares “and have 30% of produce grown as organic” by 2021, in response to demand for organically-grown products, although he noted the company already sources sustainable produce recognised by France’s Agri Confiance agricultural certification. In January, St Mamet will launch its first range of organic products for mass catering, such as schools, which will include fruit salads and compotes. 

“The aim now is to transform the company into one of the European leaders in fruits, especially in innovative products such as fruit salads,” Lambeaux said. “We are refitting our factory in Nimes completely to make it one of the most exciting fruit salad businesses in Europe. To make a good fruit salad, we need the fresh fruit available nearby, so our growers in France are helping to provide that. In terms of growth, that is what we are doing right now.”

Lambeaux declined to discuss investment costs, or the company’s sales and performance as it enters its second year of operations under new management, but he said St Mamet had seen growth of around 8% in the French market in the third quarter of the new team’s first year at the helm. When the sale of St Mamet to Florac was announced, the fruit supplier’s annual turnover was given as EUR100m.

Lambeaux cited a partnership with McDonald’s in France, where St Mamet’s dessert pouches are the “main dessert” included in children’s Happy Meals, signed in the last year as evidence that “in one year we are already turning the business around”. 

“In five years’ time, I see St Mamet as one of the fastest-growing companies in Europe in fruits. In terms of other markets, we are looking at China, where we have started selling our apple sauce smoothies range. We are also looking at selling into Asia, the Nordics, Russia, the US and the UK.”

However, on the UK, he added: “My wife is English and my kids are English and I love the UK. But I think the UK is a bit of a battleground at the moment.”

Nevertheless, Lambeaux said the current uncertainty about the UK market until Brexit negotiations with the EU are completed would not necessarily be a bar to entering the country. He knows the UK market well, having worked in the country for ten years, including a stint heading up Hellmann’s mayonnaise in the UK.

“St Mamet does not exist in the UK at all at present, so we have nothing to lose in considering it,” Lambeaux said. He revealed that he has already held talks with representatives “of some of the UK’s major retailers to discuss the possibility of selling into the UK retail market”.

Lambeaux remained tight-lipped about UK retailers that might be in St Mamet’s sights and acknowledged newcomer fruit products from the company would face “very strong competition” in the UK. “But we have things we can offer that on one else can,” he claimed. “One is that we can offer product traceability and so our pears and peaches and so on can be traced back to our own orchards in France. In fact, we are launching a website next month for people to pay a virtual visit to our orchards to see where their product comes from.”

Lambeaux suggested St Mamet’s new smoothies desserts range “might be a starting product for the UK”. However, he said it was too soon to speculate further and much rested on how Brexit evolves. With Brexit in mind he also expressed concerns he said are now uppermost in the minds of many companies. “The UK risks from going from global village to Little England,” he said. “Having been the light in the world for the past 30 years on free trade, we now start to consider the possibility that free trade between the UK and Europe, where there is the biggest free trade market in the world, might not continue.”