Chances are you have bought one of Sun-Brite Foods Inc's products. The
Ruthven facility produces canned tomatoes, sauces, condiments, and beans, just
to name a few. Its brand names include Unico and Primo, and its client list
includes Campbell’s and Heinz. The products make their way to stores from the
Maritimes to Victoria Island. So how has this local business succeeded in the
ever-competitive food industry? "Success is based on honesty, integrity and hard
work," says Henry Iacobelli, President and founder of Sun-Brite. Iacobelli
started the cannery with his wife, Lina, in 1973. The couple, who met in a local
cannery where they both worked, bought a failing cannery facility and worked in
the plant alongside their employees. "Everything was done by hand. We had 30
ladies peeling tomatoes," Iacobelli says. That first year, the 5,000 square-foot
plant produced 33,000 cases of canned whole tomatoes. These days, the processing
facility is now 200,000 square feet, plus 500,000 square-feet of warehouse, and
produces 70,000 cases of tomato products a day. Growth has not come overnight,
but gradually over the past three decades as Sun-Brite upgraded to new, more
efficient processing technology, added new products and took opportunities to
expand its operations. One opportunity presented itself in 1997, when Sun-Brite bought
Unico Inc., one of its largest customers. As the market became tougher, Sun-Brite
management knew they needed to expand their business with a brand name product
to remain competitive. The Unico acquisition provided that opportunity, with a
long-standing, recognizable brand that has helped double sales over the last
decade. Founded in 1917 by Edward Pasquale, Unico’s product line includes
pastas, cooking oils, tomatoes, beans, peas, fish, olives, marinades and rice.
In 1994, Sun-Brite and a group of employees bought local Countryside Canners Ltd., in a profit sharing purchase that has "done very well for [our employees]," Iacobelli says. The company also purchased Unico in 1997 and Primo in August 2006, which along with a variety of products added a pasta-making plant to the Sun-Brite facilities.
Growth has not just come from acquisitions, however. Research and development have been key to producing quality products in a cost effective and efficient manner, allowing Sun-Brite to increase its production volume. "We put a lot of time and effort into R & D," says John Iacobelli, Henry’s son and CEO. "We reinvest a lot of money."
Sun-Brite’s research and development includes new equipment and technology, new product lines and working with customers to develop new recipes for items such as pizza and pasta sauces. During the past year, Sun-Brite has updated its labels, both to modernize the designs and to comply to the government’s new nutritional labeling regulations. The company also introduced several new products, including new pasta sauces, San Marzano Type tomatoes packed in puree, tomatoes with herbs and spices and new condiments under the Unico brand. "Whatever we can come up with that will compliment our existing products," John says. "We’re on track for some good growth, we’ve increased sales [in 2006] by seven to eight percent, which is really good in our business."
Processing has changed dramatically since the days of ladies peeling tomatoes by hand. One of the first changes was a switch from self-harvesting to contract crops, which allowed the business to concentrate on quality packing of its products. They now contract largely within southwestern Ontario, including Harrow, Chatham, Leamington and Wallaceburg. In the 1980's, Sun-Brite introduced new peeling techniques and continuous rotary pressure cookers to increase yields and improve the quality and consistency of its packages. The company also installed a five-effect evaporator in 1981, which allowed it to begin producing crushed tomato products, including sauces and puree. In 1990, installation of a four-effect, five stage evaporator, allowed Sun-Brite to process 60 tons of tomato per hour. An aseptic processing system added in 1991 produces product for bulk packaging, which is a main ingredient used internally for off season specialty sauces. A new hot break unit installed at the Ruthven facility in 1996 allows Sun-Brite to produce a more consistent and uniform quality paste and concentrate product. A few years ago, two new non-chemical steam peelers were introduced.
The last 30 years has also seen a growth in personnel. Many of its 130 employees at the main Ruthven facility have been working at the site for more than 15 years. Full benefits and competitive wages have kept the turnover rate at a minimum, he adds. Sun-Brite also employs 100 people at the Unico Plant in Toronto and 100 workers at the Primo Plant, also in Toronto. Sun-Brite currently employs 130 people at the Ruthven facility and during the harvest season (August 1 through mid-October) we employee 350 people.
The key to being successful has been taking the right opportunities at the right time, and fulfilling commitments made to clients, Henry says. "I take pride in my work, whatever it is. I take pride in doing a good job, an honest job." Henry has also turned to faith for strength and wisdom. "I never go through a day that I don’t have God in my mind," he says. And according to John, "The best advice [my father] ever gave me was that you’re only as good as your word. You better do everything in your power, even if it costs you money, to keep your word."
John, who has worked in the plant since he was 13 or 14 years old, has two sons that both work at the plant one involved in production and the other on the logistics side of the business. Henry would like the company to move forward in whatever direction opportunity takes it, and "... to provide good solid employment, to be a good community citizen," and to continue to provide "really good, high quality products at a fair price," he says.
1532 County Rd. 34,
KINGSVILLE, ONTARIO N0P 2G0
PHONE: (519) 326-9033
FAX: (519) 326-8700
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