Gelson Dalla Costa, president of Apti Alimentos, tells an interesting story about how one of the leading companies in Brazil’s packaged desserts segment earned its name – 15 years after it came into being. Founded in 1985 by Dalla Costa and three other partners in the southern Brazilian town of Chapecó, Santa Catarina, the tiny start-up that specialized in repackaging spices originally went by the name of Pitú.
It wasn’t until 2000 that the INPI, the national Institute responsible for the regulation of trademarks, realized it had made a mistake in allowing two Brazilian manufacturers to share the same brand name. The Pernambuco-based producer of Pitú cachaça had been around since 1938 and, over the decades, had become synonymous, nation-wide, with Brazil’s beloved version of rum. It was thus decided that the small Santa Catarina food company – which had evolved into a manufacturer of diverse products that ran the gamut from instant cakes, puddings, and desserts to juice, chocolate, and gelatin powders – would need to change its name.
“A marketing consultant at an advertising agency came up with ‘Apti’,” recalls Dalla Costa. “We liked the associations it had with both ‘aptitude’ and ‘appetite,’ which tied in nicely with our various product categories. And it certainly helped that we were no longer confused with cachaça in consumers’ minds. Indeed, shortly after the name change, we experienced significant growth across the board, which proved that ‘Apti’ was a winning choice.”
Going Up against Multinationals
From its earliest days as a tiny spice packaging business, Apti was concerned with maintaining constant but stable, organic growth. Born during a period of great political and economic turbulence in Brazil – 1985 coincided with the end of Brazil’s 21-year military dictatorship and annual inflation rates that reached 234 percent – Apti adopted a strategy whereby, instead of taking out loans and risking debts, all of its profits were reinvested into the ongoing development and expansion of the company.
“Even though we started out very small, being a national company gave us an edge over big multinationals,” claims Dalla Costa. “Not only are we better prepared to adapt to Brazil’s constantly turbulent markets, but we also possess the agility to make strategic decisions more rapidly than multinationals, with their corporate hierarchy.”
Dalla Costa is referring specifically to U.S-based Royal and German-based Dr. Oetker, centuries-old companies that had long dominated the Brazilian market for baking products such as flour, baking powder, cocoa, and cake mixes. Despite their near monopoly in the 1980s, Dalla Costa intuited that the Brazilian market was going to expand and that there was space – and opportunities – for a homegrown player that offered a wide range of products made with the highest quality ingredients available.
National Prominence – and Shelf Space
His intuition proved to be on the mark. Over the last thirty years, Apti has grown into the third largest supplier of dessert products in the country. The most recognized brand in its category in the southern Brazilian states of Paraná, Rio Grande do Sul, and Santa Catarina (home to 35 million inhabitants) according to Neilsen surveys, Apti is also gaining prominence – and shelf space – in the rest of Brazil.
Its expansion beyond its home turf was given a major jolt in 2007, the year Apti inaugurated a brand new plant in Araras, an important industrial city in São Paulo, the powerhouse Brazilian state that generates around 35 percent of Brazil’s GDP. While the Chapecó headquarters, responsible for 60 percent of the company’s revenues, focuses on supplying to clients in the South, the Araras plant, responsible for the remaining 40 percent, distributes to the growing number of customers in the populous Southeast and Northeast regions of Brazil.
Today, between its two plants, Apti possesses a total of 54,000 square feet of manufacturing space with a monthly production capacity of 3,500 tons. Although its product portfolio includes close to 500 individual products, the vast majority are divided into four major categories: gelatins, powdered drink mixes, chocolate milk powder, and cake mixes, each of which is responsible for between 20 and 25 percent of the company’s revenues.
Over the last five years, Apti has enjoyed average annual growth rates of between 10 and 15 percent. However, the company has ambitious plans to expand by a whopping 40 percent over the next three years via a two-pronged strategy that consists of increasing sales volumes to pre-existing clients while further diversifying its already broad product mix. In terms of the latter, it has added a line of savory products (bouillon cubes and powdered soups) and expanded its line of breakfast offerings (oatmeal, zero calorie drink mixes). It recently made a major investment in its chocolate milk line with the launch of Apti Instant Power. The hope is that the product’s “high tech” formula, featuring powder that is highly dissolvable and chock full of vitamins, will push the company’s national market share from fifth to third place, behind Nestlé’s Nescau and Pepsico’s Toddy.
Packing Instant Power with vitamins reflects a new and major focus as the company seeks to tap into Brazilians’ growing concerns with healthy eating. Aside from adding vitamins to pre-existing products ranging from gelatin to pudding mixes, Apti has also been introducing products that emphasize the reduction of calories, sugar, and salt. Increasingly, it has also been tweaking traditional formulas, replacing sugar with sweetener and artificial colors, aromas, and flavorings with natural ones.
“A lot of our products are unique in the marketplace,” points out Dalla Costa. “For example, Instant Powder is the only chocolate milk powder that has 10 major vitamins and high levels of iron; an important selling point in a country in which significant numbers of people suffer from iron deficiencies.”
Just as important as adhering to the latest health trends is tapping into Brazilians’ homegrown tastes and traditions. In this vein, Apti not only makes an effort to create dessert products that rely on beloved tropical fruit flavors, but it also seduces consumers by resurrecting time-honored recipes, many of them regional, that function as sweet comfort food.
“We sell mixes for maria mole (similar to a coconut flavored marshmallow) and sagu (a type of tapioca pudding) and bolinhos de chuva (“balls of rain” similar to sweet dumplings),” recites Dalla Costa, emphasizing the fact that none of these national delicacies are produced by multinationals. “Offering these items not only sets us apart, but has leveraged our growth in the marketplace. The multinationals may have far more capital than we do, but we are rich in recipes!”