Just over 20 years ago, when the olive oil market was on the cusp of major growth in the United States, Steve Mandia was living in Imperia, Italy, while working for the company Oleificio Borelli Spa. After a few years of immersion in the Italian olive oil industry, Mandia recognized a need for change.
“I understood that Italy was a very large importer, processor, and packager of olive oil, but a local presence was needed in the market in order to successfully distribute to a worldwide customer base.” Mandia recalls the difficulty he had working within the Italian olive oil business, “I was working for an exporter and was in charge of selling to the U.S., Canada, and other English speaking countries. We had a difficult time selling to the ever-changing customers in the U.S. because we didn’t have a presence there and weren’t able to adapt to the needs of the local market.”
“The United States customer is more about service than anything else,” says Mandia. “They can’t wait for transportation issues or the supply of packaging to become available — you have to have the product when they want it at the quality that they want.” Mandia realized that servicing the customer at the local level was the key to success. “By bringing the product directly from the source to the customer base, we’d be able to service the customer much better locally than abroad. I saw a great opportunity for a company in the United States.”
In 1991, Mandia founded East Coast Olive Oil Corporation. He saw the best opportunity with major customers, as plenty of small importers were already buying and selling olive oil within their local markets. It was the large manufacturers of food products in the U.S. that Mandia was after.
“While we bought olive oil from Italy, we primarily sourced from other countries — Tunisia, Turkey, and Spain — as the Italians were doing. We started off selling bulk and private label to the food service industry,” supplying companies like Ragu Spaghetti Sauce and Pam Olive Oil Spray, “that’s the kind of market we structured our business around.”
At the inception of East Coast Olive Oil, Mandia says the market in the U.S. was capping off at 50,000 metric tons. Today it has reached approximately 300,000 metric tons. “The ethnic consumer has always been consuming olive oil and will continue to do so. The explosion of olive oil in the U.S. market was due to the non-ethnic consumer coming to the realization that there’s a health benefit to olive oil and the Mediterranean diet.”
East Coast Olive Oil pinpointed its target customer at just the right time. “It was the late 80s, early 90s when the growth rate in the U.S. olive oil market really took off.” Timing was everything. “Obviously, I think we did a great job capturing the market, but having a market growing by double digit percentages in any given year helped us succeed.”
Over time, East Coast Olive Oil began expanding the company. “When we started, there were only a few of us running the company,” Mandia recalls. After several acquisitions, East Coast Olive Oil had branched out from bulk and private label to branded products. “We were very aggressive in growing our business. In 1995, when the company was rather dormant, we bought Gem Oil, which gave us a brand and a very large customer base in the North East. We also acquired Puglia Brand, which was a staple product in the metro New York and New Jersey area.”
In 2003, the company acquired a New England based boutique company called California Olive Oils that specialized in extra virgin olive oil, flavored oils, and vegetable oils. By promoting their new brands and expanding their product line, East Coast Olive Oil gained a strong foothold in the marketplace. “We’ve been lucky to grow with some of these small companies,” says Mandia who credits the financial strength of his company to these acquisitions and to the consolidation of facilities. “We took down packing facilities that we didn’t use and rolled this revenue into the company without the overhead.”
There have also been challenges along the way. “The challenge is always trying to sell a quality product in a market that doesn’t always sell quality products.” Mandia says the company’s goal has always been to educate the customer. “Once they physically know the differences in quality and have a sense of security with what they’re buying, if we’re able to service them well enough, I’ve found you can keep a customer for a long period of time.”
Of course the challenges in the beginning greatly differ from the challenges the company experiences today. “In evolving a small company into a bigger company you have the challenge of running a day-to-day business — making sure you staff your company with professional people, being able to service the customers in an ever changing environment (from selling primarily bulk to producing our own private label bottles) and continuously staying ahead of the competition curve.”