Lucia is an up and coming talent in the international business and trade community of professionals. After a couple of stints in other areas of business, she rose to an international business management position in less than 3 years. Some of it, thanks to an extended international background: she has lived in Spain, Austria, Germany, and the US, and speaks Spanish, English, German, and Italian. Under her belt, she has a Bachelor’s Degree in Translation and Interpreting at Pablo de Olavide University (2012, Spain). She currently lives in Washington, DC and acts as VP of Sales at Ines Rosales USA, the US subsidiary of the iconic Spanish brand.
USEC had a unique opportunity to hold this exclusive interview with Lucia, who is also a member of our association.
1) For those not familiar with Ines Rosales, can you provide a short overview of your company?
Ines Rosales is an iconic Spanish brand, established in Castilleja de la Cuesta (a small town near Seville) in 1910 by a lady by the name of Ines Rosales Cabello. The company is mostly known for their Authentic and Renowned Olive Oil Tortas. For those of you asking yourselves, what is an Olive Oil Torta? It’s a unique product, which we have described in the US as a fine Mediterranean crisp. The Tortas are is still made by hand in our factory, using the original and unaltered recipe from Ines Rosales’ family cookbook. It contains just a few ingredients, such as wheat flour, extra virgin olive oil, sugar, aniseed, or sesame seeds. All in all, a Torta is an oven-baked, crispy, and delicious piece of traditional Andalusian bakery, that has found its way to people’s mouths in 38 countries. This is quite a testament to the quality of the product.
For those of us who have grown up in Andalusia, the Tortas are also deeply entangled in our memories. Most of us, have been introduced to them by our mothers or grandmothers. They are a staple that it’s usually present in our pantries at home. In my case, I vividly remember going to visit my grandmother almost every day as a kid and sharing a Torta and a glass of milk with her while drawing. Over 20 years later, in 2015, I had the honor to join the company that holds such a special place in my memories. I guess I excelled at eating Tortas, not so much at drawing…
2) Ines Rosales has been operating since 1910 but its US operations started a few years ago. Can you tell us a bit about the experience operating in this country and what strategy has been followed so far to expand its US sales?
Correct, Ines Rosales USA was established in 2014. However, our presence in the US goes back a little farther: Ines Rosales first exports to the US date back to 2003. For 11 years we relied on reputable importers to bring our products to market.
It could seem that after over a decade of our products being distributed all over the country, when we established Ines Rosales USA, we had full understanding of what the US food market was, at all levels. It wasn’t our case and I don’t think that is often the case for any company in similar circumstances. Since 2014, we have done -and will continue to do- a great deal of learning by gathering know-how and experience in the market. In my very brief experience, I’ve seen many foreign companies underestimate the huge “beast” the food industry in the US is. Let’s not forget this is a multi-million industry that services over 300 million of inhabitants, across very demographically-diverse 50 states and more than 3 million miles of land. All of it in the context of a business culture very different from the one we are used to in Spain. This is a complex, competitive, and fast-paced market, it is important for Spanish companies to be aware of that.
Taking this into account, for us the strategy has always been very clear: the first key step was to secure a smooth transition, after that, surround ourselves with reliable local partners and secure a targeted and sustainable growth. That is exactly what we were already doing in year 4 thanks to a great product and the mighty efforts of the team who first started this incredible journey.
3) Many companies have found that to be successful in the US they have had to adapt significantly their product offering and their marketing. What has been your experience in this area so far?
I can’t say I disagree with that. Even though the US consumers are some of the most open to trying new and exotic products and flavors in the world, they also have available within hand’s reach one of the largest product offerings I’ve seen anywhere.
We are lucky to have a great product, a wonderful team, and what I personally think is the right strategy, because surviving in this market without some sort of adaptation is extremely complicated, if not impossible. I often like sharing this story with people: we owe a great deal of our success to our first importer, they were clairvoyant enough to understand immediately that the first thing they had to do was to adapt the product use and store merchandising to that which best suited the eating habits of the US consumers. What we Spaniards see as a cookie-like product meant to be eaten as breakfast with coffee or as a snack in the afternoon, the US consumers see as the perfect cracker to pair with cheese.
That was our first piece of adaptation, since then, we have taken numerous steps to make Ines Rosales appealing to consumers in the US: new flavors, new product developments, the Kosher and the Non-GMO certification, among other examples.
4) In some ways, the traditional product sold by Ines Rosales, its super famous ‘tortas’, do not have a direct competitor in the US as it is a unique concept. How has this influenced the sales and the strategy followed so far by your company?
Of course, there’s competitors, and they are a blessing: competition is one of the many motivators for growth and improvement in almost every company. As you well pointed out, Olive Oil Tortas are a unique proposition in the US scene. In a market in which the product offering is so large, having a unique product usually grabs the attention of the retail decision-makers. It also means, there needs to be investment in grabbing the consumers’ attention at the supermarket. There are many ways to do that, but most of them usually involve large amounts of money. We cannot compete in that realm with the big brands out there, who are backed by multimillion-dollar corporations with deep pockets.
For us always it has always been about making sure we have the best product we can, staying true to our roots, having a very clear and realistic idea of where we want to get, and maximizing resources in order to do so. Usually, the latter means getting really really creative.
I have to say consumers do appreciate the effort we put into bringing a top-quality product to their pantries, and we have quite a fan base of true Torta lovers in this country.
5) Some foreign food brands have followed a US strategy based on relying on local partners, others have tried to do most of the work on their own. What are the main reasons to follow one path or the other and what kind of strategy has worked best for Ines Rosales so far?
I cannot say what works or may work for other companies or other areas of business, but I can say that for us having local partners has always been key in our success. I strongly believe we made the right choice by relying in some local key players from the beginning, and to this day we still do. We bring the product know-how and they bring the understanding of the market and the consumer, to achieve a close to perfect marriage.
6) There is an increasing concern among importers working in different areas regarding the tariffs being imposed on certain products by the US. How is this impacting your field?
I think the concern is always there for most of us. So far, we have been lucky enough to fare almost unscathed given the current international trade climate in the US. Unfortunately, I know that is not the case for many other Spanish companies in the US. Some of these companies have been doing for years a great job at adding to the effort of building a good reputation for the Spanish food and gastronomy in the US. In some ways, if they lose, we all do.
7) As an executive with sales experience in Spain and the US, what are the main differences you have found between the ways of doing business in both countries?
Working in a foreign country with a foreign culture always requires adaptability skills. It might look like a given, but I often see foreign executives from many different countries trying to do business as if they were still at home. It is important to choose the right executive profile for the country that best suits their skill set. In this country it is very important to be an assertive and dynamic professional, ready to make decisions in a fast-paced and highly demanding environment. Americans tend to build professional relationships in a very different way than Spaniards, you are guaranteed to get better results by delivering on your word and proving your professional worth, than with 2 hour-long business meals. This is a culture in which time and reputation are two of the highest valued aspects in business. As long as we are mindful of those two key facts, they tend to like doing business with Spaniards, they really appreciate our ability to improvise and the fact that we tend to be very customer oriented.