Acesur CEO Highlights Andalusia's Key Role in Sector's Future

Gonzalo Guillén believes production capacity is the limiting factor to increase olive oil consumption and Andalusia remains best positioned to expand the market.

Acesur is the largest olive oil bottler in Spain, says CEO Gonzalo Guillén. (Photo: Acesur)
By Daniel Dawson
Feb. 7, 2024 16:53 UTC
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Acesur is the largest olive oil bottler in Spain, says CEO Gonzalo Guillén. (Photo: Acesur)

Over 180 years, Acesur has grown from a small fam­ily busi­ness in Seville to one of the world’s largest olive oil pro­duc­ers and exporters.

According to research from the Pablo de Olavide University of Seville, the com­pany, founded by the Luca de Tena fam­ily in 1840, played a piv­otal role in expand­ing Spanish olive oil exports out­side of Europe.

This indus­trial rev­o­lu­tion in the pro­duc­tion basics of har­vest­ing and milling has resulted in an impres­sive increase in qual­ity.- Gonzalo Guillén, CEO, Acesur

In the wake of mass migra­tion from south­ern Europe to the Americas in the early and mid-20th cen­tury, Acesur was one of the lead­ing Spanish com­pa­nies ship­ping its olive oil abroad to Andalusian expa­tri­ates and their newly estab­lished busi­nesses. Later, the com­pany pio­neered shift­ing from bulk to indi­vid­u­ally pack­aged and branded exports.

Over nearly two cen­turies, Acesur has remained firmly in the fam­ily. In more than 35 years at the com­pany, as export direc­tor and then as chief exec­u­tive, Gonzalo Guillén has presided over sig­nif­i­cant growth. He remains bull­ish about the com­pa­ny’s future, Andalusian olive oil pro­duc­tion, and a grow­ing global olive oil cul­ture.

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Gonzalo Guillén started at Acesur in 1990 with the mandate to expand exports. (Photo: Acesur)

While a career at Acesur was almost cer­tainly a given, Guillén joined unex­pect­edly while enter­ing uni­ver­sity. After fin­ish­ing high school, dur­ing which he stud­ied for one year in the United States, Acesur’s elderly inter­na­tional sales direc­tor died.

When I returned to Madrid, my father told me that I would be start­ing uni­ver­sity, but I also had to work,” Guillén told Olive Oil Times.

Since he already spoke English, his father assigned him to the inter­na­tional sales depart­ment to increase the company’s exports.

At the time, Acesur prac­ti­cally was not export­ing olive oil; just a few ship­ments to some Arab coun­tries and a lit­tle bit to the United States,” Guillén said.

See Also:Goya Spain GM Says the Global Olive Oil Sector Potential Lies with Young Consumers

To improve Acesur’s abil­ity to export, Guillén vis­ited many new and emerg­ing olive oil mar­kets in the early years to forge rela­tion­ships with poten­tial clients, learn about the cul­ture and con­duct con­sumer stud­ies.

Little by lit­tle, we formed a dis­tinct strat­egy in each coun­try,” Guillén said. And we grew slowly but steadily until now we’ve entered more than 100 coun­tries.”

Indeed, over the past 35 years, exports from Acesur and other Spanish com­pa­nies increased dra­mat­i­cally.

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Guillén believes that expanding production capacity will ultimately grow consumption and a global olive oil culture. (Photo: Acesur)

According to International Olive Council data, Spain exported just 65,800 tons out­side the European Union in the 1990/91 crop year com­pared with the 467,500 tons exported in 2021/22.

Olive oil con­sump­tion has democ­ra­tized,” Guillén said. There are so many more con­sumers all over the world now.”

Since 1990/91, olive oil con­sump­tion has risen dra­mat­i­cally from 1.67 mil­lion tons to 3.33 mil­lion tons in 2021/22. Over this period, sig­nif­i­cant increases have occurred in China, from vir­tu­ally no olive oil con­sump­tion to 42,500 tons in 2022/23.

Similarly, olive oil con­sump­tion has risen dra­mat­i­cally in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Germany, Japan, Turkey and the United Kingdom.

However, the most sig­nif­i­cant growth has been in the United States, with con­sump­tion grow­ing from 88,000 tons in 1990/91 to 412,000 tons in 2021/22.

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Despite record high olive oil prices at ori­gin after a sec­ond con­sec­u­tive below-aver­age global har­vest in 2023/24, Guillén antic­i­pates demand in the United States to con­tinue to grow.

It is pos­si­ble that the United States will become the largest olive oil con­sumer this year, some­thing we never would have thought,” Guillén said.

As a result, Acesur has invested heav­ily in the U.S., open­ing a com­mer­cial office in New York City more than a decade ago, fol­lowed by a bot­tling and dis­tri­b­u­tion cen­ter in Virginia in 2020 and the pur­chase of more than 350 hectares in California to plant a super-high-den­sity grove late last year.

The United States is the main olive oil con­sump­tion mar­ket where there is much more poten­tial to grow vol­ume,” Guillén said. It is a mar­ket that allows for a lot of inno­va­tion. It is a mar­ket where the mar­gins are not so tight because there is a lot of com­pe­ti­tion from super­mar­ket chains in many states and areas.”

He added that despite less recog­ni­tion of the brand com­pared to emerg­ing mar­kets in Asia, the United States remains a mar­ket that offers much more oppor­tu­nity than any other.”

Fundamentally, ris­ing con­sump­tion in the U.S. and the rest of the world results from a sig­nif­i­cant global pro­duc­tion increase, espe­cially in Spain.

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Acesur manages more than 2,000 hectares of super-high-density olive groves and four modern mills across Andalusia. (Photo: Acesur)

We’re cur­rently in a very bad sit­u­a­tion, with pro­duc­tion only expected to reach 700,000 tons again,” Guillén said. However, Spain has the capac­ity to pro­duce two mil­lion tons of olive oil.”

Buoyed by Spain, ana­lysts expect global olive oil pro­duc­tion to reach four mil­lion tons annu­ally by 2050, and Guillén believes that con­sump­tion will keep pace.

In the last 30 years, we have been lucky to pro­duce a prod­uct that con­tin­ues to be in style,” he said, cit­ing the grow­ing body of research demon­strat­ing olive oil’s health ben­e­fits and the con­tin­ual rank­ing of the Mediterranean diet as one of the world’s health­i­est and eas­i­est to fol­low.

Virtually all the olive oil pro­duced each year is con­sumed that year,” Guillén added. The rea­son global con­sump­tion isn’t higher is because of pro­duc­tion.”

In a nor­mal year, olive oil makes up roughly three per­cent of global edi­ble oil con­sump­tion (due to con­sec­u­tive poor har­vests, this fig­ure fell to one per­cent in 2023). Still, Guillén believes it could eas­ily reach six per­cent.

As a result, the best way to grow global demand for olive oil is to increase pro­duc­tion. While Jaime Lillo, the newly-minted exec­u­tive direc­tor of the International Olive Council, believes pro­duc­tion expan­sion will mainly occur out­side the Mediterranean basin, Guillén believes Andalusia will con­tinue to be ground zero for olive groves and oil pro­duc­tion expan­sion.

I believe that there is not as much capac­ity to grow out­side the Mediterranean because the weather con­di­tions for olive trees are very lim­it­ing,” he said. Spain is where there is more capac­ity to grow because there is a lot of land.”

Part of this expand­ing capac­ity comes down to what Guillén describes as the olive oil world’s indus­trial rev­o­lu­tion, which has unfolded over the past sev­eral decades. The sec­tor has auto­mated and pro­fes­sion­al­ized a lot over the last 30 years,” he said.

This has been espe­cially the case in Andalusia, where much of the land­scape of Spain’s largest autonomous com­mu­nity is defined by super-high-den­sity olive plan­ta­tions. They are the future,” Guillén adds.

He argues that cul­ti­vat­ing super-high-den­sity olive groves has low­ered pro­duc­tion costs for farm­ers by mech­a­niz­ing the olive har­vest. Over this period, olive mills have become more advanced, which has improved qual­ity.

See Also:Future Lies in Specialized, Sustainable Production, Deoleo CEO Says

This indus­trial rev­o­lu­tion in the pro­duc­tion basics of har­vest­ing and milling has resulted in an impres­sive increase in qual­ity,” he said. Automation means the olives are har­vested and trans­formed in a mat­ter of hours. Every year, more extra vir­gin olive oil and less olive oil of infe­rior qual­ity is pro­duced.”

While mod­ern grow­ing and pro­duc­tion meth­ods have taken root all over the olive oil world, Guillén argues that Spain is dri­ving the rev­o­lu­tion, par­tially due to its out­sized pro­ducer role, aided by sev­eral fac­tors.

The first is geog­ra­phy,” he said. There are vast plains with an ade­quate Mediterranean cli­mate for olive grow­ing. In Spain, some estates are between 200,000 and 500,000 hectares that can be mech­a­nized, reduc­ing costs sig­nif­i­cantly.”

Money saved dur­ing the grow­ing and har­vest­ing phase can be invested in mod­ern mills and state-of-the-art equip­ment.

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Guillén believes Spain is well-suited to expand production due to its geography, climate and investments in modern mills. (Photo: Acesur)

By con­trast, Italy and Greece are more moun­tain­ous. As a result, the aver­age size of an olive grove is far smaller, which makes mech­a­niza­tion much more expen­sive, and there tends to be a larger num­ber of smaller mills.

We are light years ahead of our com­peti­tors,” Guillén said. In Spain, we have the best tech­nol­ogy, fac­to­ries, con­trol sys­tems and soft­ware, and dig­i­tal trace­abil­ity sys­tems, as well as the most advanced refiner­ies and the most mod­ern bot­tling plants with the high­est capac­ity world­wide.”

Along with steadily ris­ing global pro­duc­tion, greater aware­ness of the health ben­e­fits of extra vir­gin olive oil con­sump­tion has dra­mat­i­cally increased con­sump­tion.

For almost all con­sumers in the world, olive oil is an aspi­ra­tional prod­uct,” Guillén said. People under­stand it is a more expen­sive and health­ier prod­uct than other edi­ble oils.”

However, he added that extra vir­gin olive oil’s strong fla­vors have also been a lim­it­ing fac­tor in some areas of the world.

Countries in very north­ern Europe or Asia have had a harder time get­ting used to it; they con­sume it at first more for health than fla­vor,” Guillén said. But lit­tle by lit­tle, con­sumers are becom­ing con­vinced that the fla­vor is also good.”

Along with con­vinc­ing con­sumers to embrace its fruity, bit­ter and pun­gent fla­vors, Guillén sees prices at retail as a lim­it­ing fac­tor for expand­ing olive oil’s appeal, which he cites as another rea­son that pro­duc­tion must increase.

Now, with 2.7 mil­lion tons of pro­duc­tion, we see prices of €6 to €9 per kilo­gram,” he said. If we return to high pro­duc­tion, we will be at €2 or €3 per kilo­gram.”

However, prices will likely con­tinue to rise before they fall. Due to its sta­tus as the world’s largest pro­ducer by a wide mar­gin, Spain’s har­vest goes a long way in deter­min­ing global olive oil prices.

Once again, pro­duc­ers and experts antic­i­pate pro­duc­tion to reach about 700,000 tons after last year’s decade-low 664,000 tons.

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Guillén believes the globalization of the market creates opportunities for producers to experiment with different varieties. (Photo: Acesur)

Guillén said that prices will con­tinue to rise if it does not rain more this win­ter, and high tem­per­a­tures neg­a­tively impact the flow­er­ing period in April and May, as they have done in the pre­vi­ous two crop years.

However, if this were to pass, Guillén does not antic­i­pate prices going much higher than cur­rent lev­els since the fol­low­ing year’s sit­u­a­tion would be sim­i­lar to the cur­rent one regard­ing demand and a lack of olive oil stocks to carry over.

Going hand-in-hand with the prob­lem of prices, Guillén views cli­mate change as a defin­ing chal­lenge fac­ing Andalusian olive oil pro­duc­tion.

Rather than being fatal­is­tic about the olive trees’ prospects, he believes a coor­di­nated gov­ern­ment response would go a long way in alle­vi­at­ing some of these issues.

The olive tree is very strong and resis­tant,” he said. The only thing miss­ing in Spain is a much more coher­ent medium and long-term water pol­icy. The prob­lem here now is that all the poli­cies are short-term.”

Guillén believes there needs to be bet­ter coor­di­na­tion between the cen­tral and regional gov­ern­ments to invest in water infra­struc­ture, which he said has been neglected for the past 30 or 40 years. The lack of water is absolutely a lim­it­ing fac­tor for pro­duc­tion,” he said.

Guillén points to the con­struc­tion of the Alqueva dam in the neigh­bor­ing Portuguese region of Alentejo, which has trans­formed the country’s olive oil pro­duc­tion capac­ity and made Portugal one of the world’s largest pro­duc­ers with the poten­tial to eclipse Tunisia and Italy to reach 300,000 tons of pro­duc­tion annu­ally.

Despite the chal­lenges faced by Acesur and the olive oil sec­tor, Guillén remains opti­mistic about the future.

I am opti­mistic because the prod­uct is not only pro­duced in Spain, it is being pro­duced in more and more places,” he said. Therefore, the global mar­ket is grow­ing, and that, in the end, is good for every­one.”


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