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West of Eden: Heinz's development of the Indian Ocean Tuna plant in the Seychelles has been a cornerstone of its ambitions in European tuna. (heinz in the seychelles).

The road from Bel Ombre to Victoria winds its way gently across the densely vegetated peninsula of Mahe until, as it descends to the capital, it becomes a series of steep, switchback bends. From one of these, a panorama opens up of Victoria, the harbour, and the archipelago beyond -- the Marine National Park dominated by Ste Anne and Ile aux Cerfs.

It's the stuff of motion pictures so incontestably marvellous one hardly feels the Seychellois need to bang on about `Paradise' and `Eden' so much in their tourist literature. Even in cloudy conditions, it is lush and humid, the air thick with an enervating steaminess and fruit aroma.

Slap in the centre of the view, yet seamlessly blending in, is the white roof of the Indian Ocean Tuna (IOT) plant, a Heinz operation that is a keystone of its supply of canned tuna to the UK under the leading John West brand, and powerful ammo in its determination to stay ahead of Princes -- with its major investment in Mauritius -- in the battleground that is UK canned and pouch tuna.

General manager David Bentley is proud of the pains that Heinz takes to ensure the plant is in environmental harmony with the islands. After all, following major expansion in recent years by Heinz, it is probably the second largest canned fish factory in the world after Heinz's US StarKist facility in American Samoa, in the context of a surprisingly tiny island nation -- the Seychelles have a population of only some 70,000.

An international food industry expert, Bentley has been keen to employ local managers at the plant, and is impressed by how well they have performed.

Heinz's presence -- it is the only major international food company on the islands -- means canned tuna is now the number one engine in the Seychellois economy, even overtaking tourism, a factor appreciated by the government which sees tourism as vulnerable since Sept 11.

Jacquelin P Dugasse, minister for industries and international business, says Heinz's investment in the islands is of enormous importance to the economy. "For us to have a company like Heinz is very important. We used to have a policy of high government involvement, but we are now moving away from this to create an enabling environment, and we encourage inward investment in the islands. Heinz's presence is a big plus for the Seychelles because it gives confidence to other companies worldwide. Interest in the islands has multiplied thanks to Heinz."

Location and the ability for minimal handling are the philosophies that guide the operation, and the reason why Heinz decided to expand the Seychelles plant.

Right in the middle of one of the world's most unspoilt seas, the Western Indian Ocean, and in the centre of the tuna fishing grounds, the plant provides a one-stop shop for landing and processing. It's a vertically integrated "from sea to plate" strategy with full traceability. IOT trains staff to follow a `Right First Time' approach and quality control at every stage is stringent.

The factory, now employing some 2,500 people, was originally established by the government of the Seychelles in 1987 to produce canned tuna for export. Following its privatisation programme, a 60% stake in the plant was sold to Heinz in November 1995, and the new company Indian Ocean Tuna formed. The Project Diamond redevelopment, expanding the operation by building up and over the original facility, kicked in in 1997. In 1999 IOT overtook Thailand to become the largest volume supplier of canned tuna to the UK, and record sales were achieved in France and Italy.

By 2000 IOT had achieved more than 14% share of the total EU market for imported canned tuna, and its approval by the British multiples was followed by it becoming one of the first tuna canneries worldwide to achieve the `higher level' of EFSIS accreditation, an achievement of which Bentley is very proud. That was followed by `best safety record' within the Heinz Europe manufacturing sector.

As the biggest employer on the islands, it is something of its own community. In operation it also has to take care of itself. A desalination plant was installed after drought hindered production in 1998. In line with its environmental concerns, it also has its own wastewater plant. "We have very little impact on the environment here," says Bentley, "and what impact we have had, we have improved upon." That means IOT is scheduled to achieve ISO 14001 by the end of 2002. Now the plant is constantly being re-engineered at all stages "like a Swiss watch", says Heinz md European seafood Adolfo Valsecchi. "We are achieving the same quality level as a small specialist shop, as a restaurant," he says.

"Our philosophy is that we should deliver to the consumer a quality that is as close as possible to the perfection delivered to us by Mother Nature. The challenge is not to destroy what Mother Nature is delivering to us in perfect condition."

Behind the increased size of the plant -- and fuelled by its expansion -- is another growth story, that of Heinz's steady progress in its ambitions to become a dominant player in European canned, pouch and added value tuna.

Heinz bought John West from Unilever in 1997, but before that there had been the entry into Europe with the acquisition of Petit Navire in France in 1986, and Italy's Mareblu acquired from Kraft Jacobs Suchard in 1996, with production moving to the Seychelles. It's now an international player in tuna with a presence in every part of the globe.

Heinz has achieved "significant growth" with each of its acquisitions, driving Petit Navire to become the number one brand in France ahead of Saupiquet, and pushing Mareblu up from number six to number four in Italy. The French market is packaging and innovation driven, and Heinz has achieved added value dominance there in much the same way as with British number one John West.

But its decision to invest in European tuna was prescient. Tuna is emerging as a star in canned foods even as it packs a bigger punch as a main protein. And for that, read `star', and not just major presence -- it has some 53% of the 361m [pounds sterling] canned fish market in the UK. It is emerging from the can, earning new respect and becoming rather chic in the manner of bottled water, as it takes to pouches and portable hand held containers.

Jeremy Coles, general manager for UK marketing, John West, talks passionately about tuna being "the perfect food". It's one of those statements that sounds hyped up but is well grounded in reality. Tuna is perfectly suited to the modern consumer's demands for a food that's high in protein, with no smell or bones. It is value for money, low in fat and calories, and is highly convenient, versatile, and healthy. TV commercials for Light Lunch make play not just of the ultra-convenience of a no-preparation complete meal with vegetables and pasta included, but also of the portability.

Valsecchi looks to the Italian example to indicate how much potential there is. In Italy, yellowfin tuna in olive oil is by far the most popular variety. Italy, the number one market for tuna in Europe, also has the largest number of different utilisations. Tuna, with its strong health appeal, has its heartland among younger consumers, and is stronger among the more affluent ABs. It is also popular with children, and value for money.

John West has been "re-energised for the 21st century" according to Coles, and has achieved a remarkable 93% share of the added value tuna sector in Britain. This is partly a result of the launch of the Light Lunch range in its unique six-sided foil packs, manufactured in Brittany from IOT tuna.

The WeightWatchers from Heinz 3x80g cans in Coronation dressing and Mayonnaise and Sweetcorn varieties, and the arrival of the five-strong Tuna with a Twist pouches, also built share. It was a bold programme of new product development that delivered.

But Coles insists the philosophy behind it was quite simple: that of constantly listening to the consumer. It's much the same approach as that advocated by Tesco and pioneered in modern grocery by Irishman Eamonn Quinn of Superquinn fame. Understanding the consumer's requirements is to understand everything. "Research defines everything we do," says Coles. "It is all driven by what the consumer wants and needs."

And when he says everything he means everything: not just the product but also its format, the recipe,and how it is merchandised. "Our mission is to better define the role of canned fish. And of course we look hard at what is happening in other proteins. People sometimes need advice on how to use canned fish in more versatile ways and we have worked to supply ideas via recipe cards, instore demos and the like."

Coles and his team were behind last year's amusing John West Bear TV ad campaign for salmon that won three awards at GRAMIA 2001. The Bear ad is believed to have won more awards than any other ad in the world.

The resounding success of the campaign has had beneficial effects for the whole John West brand. Coles is happy to reel off impressive statistic after impressive statistic that verifies the popularity and potential of tuna in the British diet -- such as the fact 84% of British households will consume some kind of fish in a two-week period, and that there are nearly a million meal occasions a day involving canned fish.

But hang on, surely very high penetration levels among consumers might be worrying, indicative of saturation, perhaps? No, says Coles emphatically. "Even with 72% of British households currently buying tuna, there is still another 28% of the UK population to go. That is another 6.5 million households."

But his vision is of adding value, driving up the category to the benefit of the retailer and not simply pinching sales from competitors. Coles says the achievement of John West in the past year has been to gain incremental penetration for the canned fish category, especially in the areas of salmon and tuna.

Value added tuna enjoyed a 17.4% rise in penetration in the year to December 2001, thanks to this innovation by John West, with 1.7m additional households buying into the category.

The added value engine has created "some of the highest gains ever seen in canned foods, including repeat purchase", explains Coles. "Where volume has switched, it has come from people upgrading from standard product to added value."

John West sees great potential in driving the yellowfin variety in Britain. "Research suggests the UK consumer is looking for a new taste in tuna and yellowfin satisfies this requirement." This comes in premium steak format, and its curiously appealing lithograph can printed on the top can be presented vertically on the shelf for greater impact at point of sale. Introduced two years ago, John West yellowfin now has a significant percentage of its steak sales.

But whatever the precise requirements of the end consumer, in terms of the raw material, IOT comes up with it to a set of standards that tolerate variation to only a microscopic degree, much like the Impress machine that stamps the cans out of preprinted sheets of metal with astonishing accuracy. The plant can process the tuna through various cooking methods and various mediums, according to the differing tastes of the markets, whether olive oil, springwater, brine or Petit Navire's `equilibriated oils'.

The Seychelles development brought together Heinz's resources with the "high equity" of the John West brand. Under Unilever, John West had been sourcing from companies all over the world. "Put simply," says Coles, "the sea to plate philosophy has been the result of Heinz and John West joining forces."

There is also the marketing expertise. With the high kicking bear still fresh in mind, one wonders if the same creativity will emerge for tuna, perhaps along the same lines. Coles isn't giving anything away yet about new product development this year, but you know he has some exciting stuff up his sleeve from the twinkle in his eye. Tuna is buzzing and he is certainly enjoying the kick he is getting from it right now.
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Comment:West of Eden: Heinz's development of the Indian Ocean Tuna plant in the Seychelles has been a cornerstone of its ambitions in European tuna. (heinz in the seychelles).
Author:Davis, Kit
Publication:Grocer
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Feb 23, 2002
Words:2038
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