Having consolidated its position as the leading food company of the Amazonian North, Mariza Alimentos is ready to take on the rest of Brazil. Founder and president Flávio Costa explains to Michael Sommers how the company's regional identity and reputation for innovation have become key ingredients in its recipe for national expansion.
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Native to the tropical forests of the Brazilian Amazon is the urucuzeiro tree. Traditionally, the scarlet seeds of its fruit have been used by indigenous peoples for purposes as varied as body paint, insect repellent, and as a condiment that adds mild flavor and bright color to food. Known as urucum – or coloral (due to its intense orange hue) – in powder form, it is a mainstay of kitchens throughout the Brazilian North and Northeast. And it literally provided the seeds to success for Mariza, today the largest food company in the Brazilian North.
A Big Mix
Flávio Costa, founder and president of Mariza, was only 20, in 1983, when he began packaging and selling locally-grown coloral at the marketplace in his hometown of Castanhal, located in the vast Amazonian state of Pará. “Back then, I never imagined that today Mariza would be one of the leading food companies in the North and Northeast and that instead of just coloral, we’d be selling over 500 items.”
During its three decades of existence, Mariza has grown steadily and organically. However, over the years there have been a handful of acquisitions in which Mariza purchased other food industries scattered throughout Pará and then moved production of their lines to Castanhal, where it possesses 1.07 million square feet of industrial facilities along with its own separate packaging plant (where Mariza products account for 16 percent of business). Additionally, the company is partners in a transportation company, based in São Paulo, where distribution of Mariza items represents 12 percent of revenues.
Acquisitions and alternative activities aside, the company’s growth over the years has been largely the result of expanding its customer base via the ongoing diversification of its product mix. Despite the vast number of items in its portfolio, Mariza focuses on several major categories: condiments, olives/olive oil, sauces, cake mixes, and cereals (popcorn, polenta, corn, rice and wheat flakes). While some of its products and ingredients are imported from abroad (Greece, Spain, Argentina, Chile and Peru are all important suppliers), Mariza is also strongly committed to sourcing locally in terms of everything from the cement it uses for expanding its facilities to the peppers that go into its sauces and condiments.
Tending to its Turf
“We do a lot of training and prep work with local producers and suppliers,” says Costa, adding that such efforts are part of wider reaching social programs that the company has developed to benefit surrounding communities. Mariza’s various projects include the awarding of scholarships to high performing students, the annual donation of 70 tons of food to local entities, and the installation of indoor plumbing systems to areas in which residents have no running water in their homes.
Complementing its social consciousness is the company’s commitment to environmentalism. Since 2007, Mariza has adhered to a zero waste policy whereby, every month, it processes 110 tons of rubbish and residue, which are then selected and reused or resold, or recycled into energy. More recently, the company invested R$2 million (roughly US$800,000) in a water treatment system in which all water used at its facility is treated and then returned, in pristine state, to the municipality.
While Mariza makes a point of tending to its backyard, its home turf of Pará has also taken good care of Mariza. Aside from its big product mix, one of the main factors that distinguishes the company in the marketplace is the distinctiveness of that mix, which stems from the many local and regional products that Mariza is the only company to supply on an industrial and/or national scale.
“For instance, we’re the only company that sells banana flour, which is very popular in the Amazon,” points out Costa. “But there are many other regional products that we not only work with, but try to divulge and popularize throughout the rest of Brazil. Tapioca flour was originally only known within a certain region of Pará; today it’s recognized all over Brazil.”
“We make a big effort to innovate in terms of the market. For example, in many parts of Brazil, people use different kinds of hot peppers to season their food. However, in the North and Northeast, we are fond of a special type of yellow pepper that is not only hot, but also very aromatic. Selling yellow peppers on an industrial scale is tricky because they’re very unstable. We carried out a lot of studies and experiments before we were able to successfully launch yellow peppers as one of our products. To date, we’re the only producers in Pará of this pepper, which sells well even in São Paulo.”
National Growth with Regional Focus
Mariza’s innovative streak isn’t limited to regional products. As Costa points out, “We’re audacious in terms of many of our items.” As examples he cites the fact that Mariza was the first food company in Brazil to market roasted rock salt – the extra-dryness of which makes it ideal for Brazilians’ beloved churrascos (barbecues). It was also the first company to create sealed packaging for tofu. Meanwhile, the company isn’t afraid to go head-to-head with multinationals by producing its own version of international classics such as madeira sauce that rivals that of leading competitor Uncle Ben.
While embracing its regional identity, the goal of transcending its regional origins – and location – is an increasingly important one as Mariza, having consolidated its position in the North and Northeast, seeks to make larger inroads throughout the rest of the country. “A major challenge for us today is the fact that being based in Pará means that we’re geographically – and logistically – remote,” admits Costa. “In order to be less marginal, we’re in the midst of a massive expansion plan. Our aim is to set up plants in various key Brazilian regions and develop items there that take advantage of local products. The strategy is to grow nationally but with a regional focus.”
With this mission in mind, Mariza recently purchased a company in Cuiabá, capital of the Central-West state of Mato Grosso, with plans to begin production of its cereals line later this year. The fact that the Central-West is a major producer of soy, corn, rice, and other grains will allow Mariza to improve logistics and cut production costs since the plant will be surrounded by raw materials and much closer to its transportation company in São Paulo, not to mention to customers in the rest of Brazil.
The launch of the Cuiabá plant – Mariza’s cereal line will move production from Pará to Mato Grosso in February – is only the first stage of a plan that will see Mariza open four more regional plants over the next four years. Also in the works are the acquisition of a peach canning plant in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, which will subsequently become the base of Mariza’s entire line of preserved fruits – cherries, plums, pineapple – and a plant devoted to its line of olives, in São Paulo, where proximity to imported olives and factories that produce glass jars will also increase efficiency and drive down costs. Concurrently, the company is studying the possibility of opening a plant in the South-Eastern state of Minas Gerais, a major cultivator of potatoes, which will become the more practical launching base for its line of potato-based products (mashed potato mix, chips).
If aspiring to such significant growth in such a short time span seems ambitious, it’s also completely in keeping with Mariza’s ethos – and origins. “When I started out selling coloral, I never, ever imagined that I’d be where I am today,” muses Costa. “I produced the coloral myself and sold it at the local market, then to the local supermarket, then to supermarkets in neighboring towns and cities. I never planned on the growth that subsequently took place. I always considered whatever gains occurred to be very small and that they could be so much greater. Today, Mariza’s products are sold throughout Brazil, but we still work like this. And I continue to instill in all of our employees the idea that we can always be so much greater.”