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  1. Interviews
August 24, 2020

“The timing was less than optimal” – Tyson Foods’ Brett Van de Bovenkamp on European foodservice launch and wider ambitions

Andy Coyne speaks to Tyson Foods' Brett Van de Bovenkamp, the executive charged with kick-starting the US meat group's European operations.

By Leonie Barrie

Andy Coyne speaks to Tyson Foods, Brett Van de Bovenkamp, the executive charged with kick-starting its European operations.

A year on from taking over Brazilian meat giant BRF’s European assets, US protein giant Tyson Foods is starting to flex its muscles on both sides of the English Channel.

Tyson has launched branded products into the foodservice channel and, longer term, is eyeing European retail markets. The ink is still not dry on a new five-year plan and investment in infrastructure and product innovation is on the cards.

All of which can be seen in the context of the company’s wider international expansion plans, which it has been suggesting for a number of years.

In charge of the European operation is regional president Brett Van de Bovenkamp.

Based in the UK, Van de Bovenkamp has been in his present post since May last year but has been at Tyson in various roles since 2014. He has previously worked for Hillshire Brands – the US food manufacturer Tyson acquired six years ago – and was at Unilever for ten years over two spells.

The deal to take over BRF’s European – and Thai – assets was announced last February but did not come to fruition until June. Van de Bovenkamp has been involved from day one.

Tyson paid US$340m for assets including processing facilities in the Netherlands and the UK.

Then Tyson president and CEO Noel White said at the time: “The acquisition of these BRF facilities will help complement and strengthen our presence in Thailand, and provide new capabilities in Europe, enhancing our ability to serve growing global demand for value-added protein.”

The deal came months after Tyson completed the acquisition of US-based Keystone Foods from another Brazil-based meat group, Marfrig Global Foods, arguing that deal would provide a “platform to build a true international business”.

Donnie King, (then group president of Tyson’s international business and now its chief administration officer), talked about 90% of global protein consumption growth occurring outside the US and while much of that growth is expected to come in markets less mature than those in Europe, the BRF move revealed its ambition to become a global leader in protein.

Speaking to just-food, Van de Bovenkamp talks about the company’s “aggressive growth agenda”, adding: “The goal is to be a sustainable protein leader in Europe and this [the BRF deal] helped to open the apertures towards that.”

Tyson’s first notable move following the BRF deal came in July this year when it launched is namesake brand into the European foodservice channel.

A range of chicken products manufactured in Europe, South America and Asia, are being offered to restaurants, cafeterias and caterers operating in a channel that has started to re-open in recent weeks after being effectively closed down for several months to help limit the spread of Covid-19.

The Tyson brand is used on 28 frozen products with categories ranging from coated, skewers, raw and fried. Products include Southern Fried Chicken Breast Fillets, Coated Chicken Crunchies and Battered Chicken Nuggets.

“Our flexible supply chain allows us to support our customers and their growth by offering best-in-class service and supply contingency. The European Tyson products are sourced from our Tyson Foods businesses in the Netherlands, Thailand and our joint venture in Brazil,” Van de Bovenkamp says.

“The infrastructure we got from that [BRF] deal gave us the ability to bring this to market. The assets in Europe were two [production] facilities but also great people. A critical part of this is also leveraging the innovation kitchens, one in Kent in the UK and one in the Netherlands.”

Eyebrows were raised, though, at the timing of the launch given the problems the foodservice channel is continuing to face.

“The Covid pandemic has been a terrible challenge for people and businesses everywhere so the timing was less than optimal,” Van de Bovenkamp admits.

“But one of the strengths of our business is in the foodservice channel. We are firmly committed to it and we think the products can help that channel. They need solutions to help the consumer.

“Certainly in foodservice March and April were a challenge but we have seen a really good rebound. It varies by market but it has been positive. Some people are doing better than pre-Covid.”

But why the need to launch branded products into this channel?

“There is still very much a role for brands here. We have had a tremendous response from the launch,” he says.

Inevitably some industry watchers have seen this as a prelude to a full launch of Tyson brands into European retail markets. Some reports have suggested the US giant is undertaking a small retail trial in one of its continental European markets.

It also inherited brands from the BRF deal, such as Speedy Pollo, sold in Italy, and the UK-focused ‘chicken on a stick’ range Grabits.

Van de Bovenkamp is not denying Tyson wants to make further inroads into retail in due course.

“It is in our plans for the future,” he says. “You can draw from the idea of us having a protein-based launch with a commitment to sustainability that that opens [other] apertures for us, whether animal or plant-based.

“We have a new, five-year strategy, not even announced yet, which involves a variety of investments including investing in the facility in the Netherlands to increase capacity.”

Sustainability issues are likely to feature heavily in the five-year plan. The foodservice products made in the Netherlands feature recyclable or biodegradable packaging.

But Van de Bovenkamp says exporting to China from Europe to circumnavigate US-China trade tensions is not something on the cards as a “further processor” of products rather than a meat exporter.

“The focus is on leveraging our capacity and capabilities to serve the UK and EU markets,” he says, stressing there are 13 different languages on the packaging of its newly-launched foodservice products with target markets including the Netherlands, the UK, Spain, Italy and Germany.

Tyson, best known for its meat products, now describes itself as a “protein leader” and plant-based or fusion products can be expected to be under consideration for future launches in Europe.

In the US, Tyson previously invested in the plant-based meat business Beyond Meat before pulling out and launching its own blended meat and plant-based product range Raised & Rooted.

All of which speculation feeds back to the idea of Tyson looking to grow its international business, which remains a small part of the company’s overall revenues.

The company recently released its fiscal third-quarter results for the three months up to 27 June and, of its $10.12bn of sales, some $402m was attributable to its “international/other” business.

Tyson noted “it expects improved results from our foreign operations in fiscal 2021”.

Van de Bovenkamp’s plans in Europe will be at the forefront of those efforts.

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