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Empacadora Hill Brothers Reborn And Growing Stronger


December 7, 2000
Copyright © 2000 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

Back in 1962, Cecilio Massanet had only a $700 truck and a deep desire to be successful.

Following graduation from high school, Massanet went to work for his father at a meat station in Plaza del Mercado in Rio Piedras after finishing high school. Soon after, however, he started his own modest business selling onions and potatoes, later adding a line of bird seeds he bought from Molinos de Puerto Rico.

Coming from a family of merchants, it was almost natural for him to feel something of a passion for the food business. "For me, this work is not just work, it is a pleasure," he said.

Little by little, his operation diversified until he was able to establish Empacadora Hill Brothers (EHB), a small food packaging and distribution company located at the Hill Brothers sector in Rio Piedras, where he used to live.

But he soon faced complaints from the neighbors who opposed having a business operating in a residential area, and was forced to look for another location, this time in Trujillo Alto. In 1979, EHB officially moved operations to a new 20,000-square-foot building, although construction was still unfinished.

"On Christmas Eve, that same year, someone broke into our new building and stole more than $100,000. It was an inside job," said Massanet. "But thank God, we were able to recover and continue growing."

Today, Massanet heads one of the island’s top food packaging and distribution companies. A newcomer to the list, EHB ranked No.85 on the CARIBBEAN BUSINESS Top 300 list of locally owned companies.

EHB’s five-acre wholesale, animal feed and paper operation is located on the Trujillo Alto Expressway, Road 181, right across from Plaza Trujillo shopping mall.

Facilities feature storage and parking capacity for over 70 containers, as well as modern packaging equipment for a large range of produce, including onions, potatoes, oranges, tomatoes, root products and garlic. EHB also has more sophisticated or more sensitive kind of wrap-around equipment for grapes, apples, stone fruit, and other more delicate fruits and vegetables.

EHB distributes to big retailers and food chains such as Wal-Mart and SAM’s Food Warehouse; Grande, Mi Familia, and Econo supermarkets, as well as food distributor JF Montalvo, among others.

A new beginning

1995 was a tough year. EHB’s business went into a slump and Massanet grew uncertain on whether he should try to keep the enterprise going. He felt the full weight of running the business by himself and came perilously close to calling it quits. But he persevered and looking back today he says giving up would have been a big mistake.

"I was feeling disappointed and didn’t have the desire to grow. I talked to some of the staff members and even thought about selling or closing the company," he remembered.

But a year later,. he convinced both his daughter Brenda and son in law Matias A. Ringel to return to Puerto Rico from the U.S. and work for him. He reasoned that they might add some kind of new ingredient to the company… and he was right.

Having previously worked for a banking institution in the U .S., Ringel had the expertise to handle the company’s finances, while Brenda was named human resources manager.

It was a new beginning. The couple’s youthful spirit and enthusiasm was the boost Massanet needed to go on. Sales soon took off and the company experienced an income hike from $22 million in 1996 to $52.5 million in 2000.

In April 1996, EHB established a farming and marketing operation, Siembras de Borinquen, with the idea of increasing product freshness and availability. The 463-acre development is currently farming onions, pumpkins, and sweet potatoes, as well as batata, and other products of local interest.

The land is the property of the Puerto Rico Land Authority and the operation provides jobs to more than 100 families in Santa Isabel.

In December 1998, EHB acquired several dry food and convenience related brands, including Suncorn (oil, corn flakes, mayonnaise), Sevillano (olive oil, olives, peppers, capers, vinegar, and seasoning), Dutch Lady (condensed and evaporated milk), and RINA (laundry detergent, cleaning formula, and degreaser).

Last July, the company officially introduced Bon marmalades and nectars, which are manufactured in the Dominican Republic and have had good acceptance in Puerto Rico.

But some losses are inevitable. EHB’s perishable foods losses range from 5% to 7% of total annual sales (about $250,000), according to Ringel.

After hurricane Georges hit the island in September 1998, the company invested nearly $500,000 in the refurbishing of their offices and additional packaging machinery.

Future investments

Aware of the increasing demand for its products, EHB now plans an expansion to quadruplicate its refrigeration capabilities at an investment of nearly $4 million.

Current facilities feature 170,000 cubic feet of refrigerated-produce capability with storage capacity for up to 20 containers.

Massanet said the expansion is under serious consideration because, as he emphasized, it is important to pay attention to every little detail when it comes to preserving and selecting the food before it goes to package, temperature being the factor that matters the most.

The key to success

"I was once invited to speak to a group of students and it was very disappointing to see their lack of motivation. One of them even asked me, ‘How much money do you make?’" Massanet remembered.

"And I got even more disappointed because this is not a matter of how much of a fortune you can make. The important thing is to work and feel good about it and be productive." He counseled the youth to set goals and work hard to achieve them.

In business, said Massanet, there are three competitive areas: price, service, and quality. His priority is always quality, followed by service and then price. "Anyone who knows about the fruit and vegetables market understands that quality is not negotiable."

"We are also aware that good service helps on retention of clients. And that is very important because though you may lose only one client, you lose a lot of other indirect clients," said Ringel.

Another lesson always to be remembered, said Massanet, is that "…in this business, if you have good credit and a good reputation, you almost have it all."

After 38 year in the industry, he has learned that evolution is necessary in order to survive. "The food market is evolving with more sophisticated packaging needs and every day there are more food products that come either peeled or precooked featuring different packaging. And we have to evolve, too, in order to satisfy the demand and remain competitive."

EHB has entered the World Wide Web at, offering clients and visitors information about its products, as well as company history, pictures, and news.

But nothing is more important than the people who have made success possible; not even sales, said Ringel.

"Besides sales, for me, the most important part of our company is that our workers are well trained and have the necessary skills to do the job. To have the right people doing the right job is a must to remain competitive in this business," he added.

EHB currently employs nearly 175 people, including regular employees and independent truck drivers.

Massanet proudly noted that some of the employees have worked for the company for more than 30 years. "I’m still working with some of the muchachos who helped me when I had the truck. We have a great team, definitely. Our employees are the ones responsible for the company’s success."

And he also has great faith and trust in the administrative personnel. "Matias is almost the president of the company," Massanet laughs.

Although still the first in command, he feels grateful that the company is gradually passing into the hands of the family’s second generation…hoping there will be a third.

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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