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Stephen Mandia, Sovena USA

Jun. 10, 2011
Lara Camozzo

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There are two sides to this busi­ness,” says Mandia. One is the sourc­ing side, and the other is the sales side. We really sep­a­rated our­selves by first of all being here, and sec­ondly by the prod­ucts and the pack­ag­ing offer­ings that we sell.” Today the com­pany offers organic oils, mono-vari­etals, refined oils, and spe­cialty oils all in dif­fer­ent types of pack­ag­ing — from a 250 mL bot­tle to bulk oil and every­thing in between. We are a one-stop-shop,” says Mandia, we’ve really dom­i­nated in that mar­ket.”

Two decades or so later, much has changed. When Mandia started in the olive oil busi­ness most cus­tomers were local importers buy­ing a con­tainer at a time from a com­pany in Italy. Today, Mandia’s com­pany has grown from a few founders to one of the largest importers of olive oil in the United States.

We can offer the same val­ues for some­one who used to order a con­tainer at a time. Instead of buy­ing $20,000 worth of prod­uct, they can buy $5,000 on a weekly basis.” Mandia refers to this way of dis­tri­b­u­tion and logis­tics as the Walmart mode,” say­ing that peo­ple want quick returns on their prod­uct; they want it deliv­ered on a spe­cific day, not within a win­dow of 10 days to 2 weeks. That’s the secret to our suc­cess — being able to ser­vice that very defined need for dif­fer­ent cus­tomers.”

But the biggest change that East Coast Olive Oil has seen over the years came in 2005 when Mandia decided to sell part of the com­pany to the Sovena Group, a Portuguese com­pany and one of the world’s largest olive oil pro­duc­ers. In 2007, East Coast Olive Oil was renamed Sovena USA. The busi­ness had grown tremen­dously,” explains Mandia. We were run­ning the busi­ness out of 3 dif­fer­ent facil­i­ties, and we needed an invest­ment in a new facil­ity. I was look­ing for an indus­trial part­ner to help the busi­ness grow.” Above all, Mandia was look­ing for a European part­ner because he believed this would help the com­pany not only in sourc­ing, prod­uct knowl­edge, and exper­tise, but also for the image of the com­pany.

Part of the deal for me was gain­ing more pro­fes­sion­als within the orga­ni­za­tion that offered a cer­tain level of exper­tise. It’s not easy to find an olive oil expert here in the U.S., we just don’t have an indus­try to pull from. Bringing some­one in who’s well versed in olive oil — like our direc­tor of qual­ity assur­ance of Sovena USA, Gabi Estevez, from Seville, Spain — is very help­ful; it helps edu­cate our cus­tomers.”

By join­ing forces with Sovena, Mandia feels he was able to bridge the gap between his com­pany and the mar­ket over­seas. When you grow an orga­ni­za­tion, you can’t grow it all by your­self. You need to imple­ment a man­age­ment team to help bring you to the next level. I think Sovena was the right choice for me,” says Mandia, adding Today, Sovena USA, which is located in Rome, New York, has the fore­most pack­ag­ing facil­ity in the U.S. by far.” Other Sovena facil­i­ties are located in Portugal, Spain, and Tunisia, which gives the cus­tomer a lot of choices, Whether they want to buy prod­uct packed directly in Spain, or be able to buy directly from our facil­ity, I think we can encom­pass anybody’s needs within our orga­ni­za­tion.”

Looking toward the future, Mandia sees a great poten­tial for growth. If you look at the olive oil con­sump­tion here in the U.S. com­pared to other indus­tri­al­ized coun­tries, our con­sump­tion is still very low. I think that the IOC (International Olive Council) has rec­og­nized that and is will­ing to invest in pro­mot­ing extra vir­gin olive oil here in North America, which will help this next growth come in our indus­try.”

Mandia believes he’s taken his com­pany to the top when it comes to qual­ity, qual­ity con­trols, and pack­ag­ing abil­i­ties. Today Sovena is the sin­gle largest grower of olive trees for extra vir­gin olive oil in the world. Having that cra­dle to grave logis­tics — tak­ing an olive from an olive tree and putting it into a bot­tle and onto the shelf — will cer­tainly sep­a­rate us from the rest of the com­pe­ti­tion.”

Steve Mandia stud­ied Business at Bentley University just out­side of Boston, Massachusetts. During this time he also spent a semes­ter study­ing at Richmond College in London which he says gave him a chance to travel around Europe and become com­fort­able with the dif­fer­ent mon­e­tary exchanges and the feel­ing of liv­ing in a for­eign place. Looking back I’ve always said that was an edu­ca­tional expe­ri­ence that really opened my eyes to the world itself,” he says.

While Mandia con­sid­ers him­self a full-blown American” at this point, his roots trace back to Italy. His fam­ily has lost touch with their rel­a­tives in Italy. Nevertheless, Mandia and his tight knit Italian fam­ily con­tinue to carry on cer­tain tra­di­tions. I grew up vis­it­ing my grandmother’s house every Sunday for break­fast which included olive oil — meat­balls fried in olive oil, fresh made bread for dip­ping in olive oil — it was all about the olive oil back in the day,” says Mandia.

I remem­ber my grand­mother kept a big gal­lon can of olive oil under the sink, and my grand­fa­ther would always have a big plate of veg­eta­bles with olive oil, salt and pep­per.” Today, the mem­o­ries and the olive oil still flow in rich abun­dance as the Mandia fam­ily con­tin­ues their Sunday tra­di­tion. I’m 47 years old, and I still go every Sunday to my grandmother’s for the same feast. We have 4 gen­er­a­tions — my grand­mother, my father, uncles, myself and my broth­ers, and our kids — and we still enjoy that rou­tine.”

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