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Minnesota Public Radio

Puerto Rican Brothers In The Christmas Tree Business


23 December 2004
Copyright © 2004 Minnesota Public Radio. All rights reserved. 

This is MARKETPLACE. I'm Cheryl Glaser.

Some kids in Hawaii might find fewer presents under the tree this Christmas. That's because Mom and Dad may have shelled out all their cash on the tree itself. Seems tree importers there underordered this year, and now prices are topping 200 bucks. Islanders looking for a better business model might want to look in the Atlantic. Reporter Av Harris introduces us to one of the men that made it happen there.

FERNANDO (Teacher): My name is Fernando Cristino Colon Osorio Vasquez Cruz Santo Rodriguez, but you can only can call me Fernando.

AV HARRIS reporting:

Fernando teaches computer architecture at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts. He and his brother Pedro come from the tiny island of Culebra off the eastern coast of Puerto Rico. Thirty years ago this winter, Fernando went home for the holidays from graduate school and was having a drink in his brother's house when he noticed something odd.

FERNANDO: By curiosity, I said, `Pedro, how come you don't have a Christmas tree?' And he says, `Well, this year, they ran out. The only people that sell it really are the supermarkets here, and they ran out, and there were none. So I didn't get a Christmas tree.' Immediately at that point, I said, `Well, if they ran out, that means that there's a business there.'

HARRIS: So the two brothers agreed to jump on the opportunity for the next holiday season. Pedro, an engineer for Colgate-Palmolive, would work his industrial contacts to get the trees through customs and find retailers who would sell them. Fernando would purchase about 2,000 Christmas trees and arrange to ship them to San Juan. But shipping the trees was a problem. At the time, the only people bringing in Canadian Christmas trees owned their own refrigerated ships. Fernando and his brother couldn't afford this. Fernando called some shipping lines.

FERNANDO: And I called them up, and I said, `So how can we ship these trees?' And they said, `Well, you know, we ship tomatoes and other things to Puerto Rico in what we call refrigerated containers.' And I said, `Can I rent one?'

HARRIS: They didn't know it at the time, but renting the refrigerated containers would become the key to their success.

FERNANDO: Most of the trees were taken out of the hull of a ship, put in flatbeds, being exposed to the sun--and the sun in Puerto Rico is very hot. And then you will move these trees and sell them in supermarkets. Well, they wilted.

HARRIS: But now they could pull their refrigerated containers up to the front door of mom-and-pop stores like gas stations and bodegas.

FERNANDO: The first time that that trees smell any other air than Canadian air was at that time that you opened those doors and the trees came out. And those trees coming out were fresh, and they smell. And I tell you, people just went crazy. We sold all 2,000 trees in less than a week. We made a bundle. And we knew that we had a winner here.

HARRIS: Over time, the Cologne brothers became the number-one Christmas tree suppliers to the island of Puerto Rico. Eventually, the brothers bought thousands of acres of farmland in Nova Scotia, where they grow their own Christmas trees. Fernando estimates that he and his brothers sell about 100,000 Christmas trees a year, and not just to Puerto Rico anymore. They ship their trees to most of Central and South America, Europe, and West Africa. Next year, the company expects to ship its first 15,000 trees to China. This is Av Harris for MARKETPLACE.

GLASER: And I'm Cheryl Glaser. Thanks for joining us.

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