Chateau Ksara, Lebanon’s biggest and oldest winery (it has been making wine in the Bekaa since 1857) boasts a 35% market share, producing nearly two million bottles each year with revenues of around $6.5 million.
Managing director, Charles Ghostine has just returned from Pro Wein, the premiere German wine fair held every year in Düsseldorf. Ksara is an energetic exhibitor on the international stage, regularly attending the major wine fairs in London, Bordeaux, and Verona as well as Düsseldorf. “We need to be there. If we don’t show up it might send the wrong message to the market,” said Ghostine. “We don’t go expecting to take big orders. We go show our face,” he explained.
Much has been said lately about the potential of Lebanese wine: that it can compete with the very best of the New World producers and that it should position itself as a boutique product. While other producers may be tempted to hit the volume market, Ksara will not skimp on the final product. The winery harvests nearly 2000 tons of grapes from its 300 hectares, an average of nearly seven tons of grapes per hectare (Chateau Ksara, the winery’s flagship wine, is made from the oldest vines, which yield just five tons per hectare). “Some wine regions will obtain yields of as much as 14 tons per hectare,” said Ghostine. “We will not do this.” Although Lebanon’s wine sector has enjoyed significant growth in recent years, until the mid-90s it was a market dominated by a triumvirate of Chateaux Musar, Ksara and Kefraya. Since then, old names – Nakad and Tourelles – are mounting a comeback, while a handful of newcomers, notably Massaya, Wardy, and Clos St Thomas, have made their presence felt with exciting and affordable new wines in eye catching bottles. This increased supply and variety coincided nicely with a change in tastes. The Lebanese have been drinking more wine and local consumption is increasing by around 10% each year. For the record, the Lebanese consumed three million bottles in 2003. Of that number, roughly 1.2 million were imported – 89% from France. This mini-revolution forced Ksara to defend its position in the local market. “The challenge for us was to maintain our market share,” said Ghostine. “In the early 90s, we were producing 1.2 million bottles now we are hitting 1.8 million.”
Brand loyalty among local drinkers has Ksara in good stead and, despite increased competition, it has been able to meet the increased demand and can claim a 35% market share. With Kefraya not far behind in second place, many new labels have been forced to penetrate overseas markets. Much of this success lies in the performance of one wine: the Reserve de Couvent, Ksara’s mid-priced red, which is still a massive performer among local drinkers. “In the restaurants, the Reserve is king,” said Ghostine. “It offers the best quality to price ratio. It is the backbone of the company and we are pushing it very hard both here and abroad, where we send 60% of the 530,000 bottles of Reserve we make each year.”
Ksara exports 49% of its wine, mainly to France, which takes around 250,000 bottles. (Lebanon exported 1.8 million bottles in 2003, roughly 30% of total production). In 2003, Ksara appointed Hallgarten, the specialist fine wine company, to be its UK agent and Verbruggen to distribute in Belgium.
Finally, the company has invested $200,000 to enhance its hospitality profile at its Bekaa winery. Ghostine explained that, despite being one of the early advocates of a structured wine tourism program, the Ksara board made a decision not to go for a full-out F&B operation like those at Massaya and Kefraya. “We receive around 40,000 guests a year, who visit our famous caves and tour the winery,” he explained. “Now we will be offering cheeses and other snacks with our wines, but we are first and foremost wine makers.”
Fruit juice and fresh-cut produce manufacturer K-Sun is an example of a firm that has restructured production and creation of new market segments. But even with adherence to innovative practices in agro-industry, the company is expecting real profitability out of its $2 million factory only from exports. “The Lebanese market is not big enough for such investments,” said general manager Mazen Kassem. “We couldn’t recoup our investments from the Lebanese market, and never thought we would.” The export revenue should begin to flow this year, as K-Sun recently reached an agreement to deliver packaged fruit juice to France beginning this month. K-Sun first brought their fresh juice to market in late 1996, seeking to dominate the domestic market’s premium segment with 65 juices and a mix of varieties. Turnover of the product line in its first month was precisely $83. A first challenge was changing consumer habits, as people in Lebanon thought fresh juice was something they squeezed at home. “It took time to educate consumers,” said Kassem. The project took off as a sideline of a larger business growing fruits and vegetables, which the Kassem family had been running for some 50 years. When they decided to launch K-Sun, the initial business plan entailed a nationwide retail network of 18 shops in a vertically integrated operation from grower to home consumer. A central aim was to eliminate middlemen from their trade in fruits and vegetables. The value-added products, juice and fresh-cuts, emerged as an afterthought. In terms of product lines, market realities led K-Sun onto a different path of making most their revenue from juices –mostly orange juice and lemonade – and supplying first and foremost hospitality enterprises. At more than $1 million annually, fresh juice accounts for 50% to 55% of K-Sun turnover, according to Kassem, and the firm is the leading supplier to restaurants, hotels and delivery food specialists. A company-owned store in Hamra is the base for K-Sun’s distribution network, which relies on a modest fleet of one truck and several delivery vehicles.
The evolution of K-Sun was not simple, mostly because of shrinking purchase power and growing competition. Some competitors introduced pasteurized juices roughly at the same time as K-Sun, which also had to contend with the increasing domestic manufacture of reconstituted juices as well as juice drinks and watery nectars. One (now defunct) competing product used K-Sun look-alike bottles and although they were trademark protected, seeking legal recourse would have been lengthy and costly. Additional hurdles included inflexible customs practices and nitpicking officials, not to mention the absence of government support. Despite the obstacles, K-Sun in 2001 obtained a new factory and a high-tech machine that allows non-thermal processing of fruit juices at a capacity of 15,000 liters per day. This equipment treats foodstuffs with ultra-high pressure, which is proven to eliminate pathogens and foliage organisms without the side effects of pasteurization. As a result, K-Sun juices increased their guaranteed shelf life from five to 21 days. The company also expanded into the manufacture of fresh-cut foods, marketing popular salads and vegetables in ready-to-eat portions.
Although K-Sun built their factory to European standards and with exports in mind, Kassem said entering Europe “hasn’t been easy.” The firm encountered difficulties ranging from acquiring a distributor to finding transportation. No air carrier offers refrigerated flights from Beirut to Paris, for instance, so K-Sun took to routing their first deliveries to France through Luxembourg. With a foot in the French market, K-Sun hopes for profitable times. At 80,000 liters per month, the target for the first year agreement means a tripling of current production, Kassem said. The company aims to reach further European countries, such as the United Kingdom and Germany. K-Sun is also in the process of implementing distribution of its juices to the Gulf, and the company eyes growth of its fresh-cut lines in the domestic market (including manufacture for private labels) and in exports to regional markets, such as Cyprus and Jordan.
Mohamad Gandour, president of Gandour’s The Dairy, established his company in the mid-nineties when he decided to revive an ancestral farm and make it the cornerstone of a dairy enterprise. He began in 1996 by transforming the farm into a dairy operation and acquiring over 200 high-yield Holstein milk cows. In 1997, Gandour established a modern, two-block long, dairy factory in the industrial area of Kfarchima. Networks for milk collection from the corporate farm and independent subcontractors, and distribution of fresh milk and cheese products were set up. By May 1998, Gandour dairy products – fresh milk, cheeses, and fermented products – poured into the market under the brand name Dairiday.
The company allocated $600,000 over the first two years to develop the Dairiday brand identity. All in all, investments amounted to over $7 million, which the company could finance to less than one third with a government-subsidized loan. The remainder was sourced from private equity and high-interest commercial loans, Gandour told EXECUTIVE.
Since its debut, the Dairiday brand has been fighting battles brought on by recession and insufficient regulations. In the milk market, consumer habits, lack of knowledge and above all, price barriers have kept the share of fresh milk down. “I thought that every family of four would consume at least one liter of milk per day,” Gandour said, “and perhaps they do, but it is powdered milk.” The powdered competition retails at a third to a quarter of the price of fresh milk. With all their production capacities, The Dairy’s fresh milk has thus been forced to compete for a sliver of the market “that is 5% to 8% of total consumption in liquid milk in Lebanon.” In cheeses and fermented products, the company has to hold their ground against unlicensed operators who, said Gandour, have “no overheads, no distribution costs, and no marketing costs.” From 1998, he was involved in persistent appeals to the ministry of economy and trade and its consumer protection unit, to oblige Lebanese producers of LABAN, LABNEH, cheeses and related goods to comply with standards on packaging and food safety. “Nothing has been done,” said the entrepreneur. The problem of unsanitary conditions in predominantly unlicensed bulk production of fermented dairy goods was brought to public attention last year by agricultural minister Ali Hassan Khalil. Instead of helping, the official outrage only pushed Dairiday sales down by 13% to 14% over two months, which forced The Dairy to run TV advertisements, reassuring their customers that their product is trustworthy. In spite of the verbal commotion, the unlicensed operators are populating the market as they did before, maintained Gandour, and enforcement of regulations never happened. The problems, which Gandour shares with his licensed competitors, have one common denominator: consumer education. Campaigns promoting the health benefits of fresh milk and the importance of food quality and food safety are amiss in Lebanon. If licensed milk producers would collaborate in their efforts, they could stage such campaigns to increase awareness. Another option would be public sector participation in such campaigns. However, Gandour is more optimistic about the possibility of achieving the former. Without strong prospects for short-term improvements, The Dairy has turned to a marketing partnership with the region’s largest dairy manufacturer, Saudi-based Almarai. Under their agreement, the Lebanese company has added Almarai UHT milk to its portfolio and will also begin distributing Almarai cheeses. In the longer term, The Dairy aims to also partner in production terms with the Saudi company, for local distribution under their brand.
With an upswing in sales, the struggling dairy company could be amortized within two to three years. But for now, Gandour is looking for viable markets outside Lebanon, with Syria being the only lucrative option. “We hope that one day, Syrian consumers will have access to Lebanese milk.”
Horrific stories that often come out about Lebanon’s slaughterhouses do not usually give the meat and poultry industry in Lebanon a good name. Producers often have to work doubly hard convincing consumers their animals are fed healthy food and not just dried up carcasses. So far, three poultry companies have managed to carve their brands in the consumer consciousness: Hawa chicken, Tanmia and Shuman. Forty-nine-year-old Shuman chicken is no newcomer to the poultry market, which has flourished the past decade after the government slapped a near-ban on fresh poultry imports in the mid-1990s to protect the industry. “Poultry prices have been dropping ever since the government imposed the ban,” said Nabil Shuman, who has taken over the business of selling chicken from his deceased father. “This is a perfect study of how a government can protect an industry, that later develops, experiences a price decline and attracts investments.”
Today, Lebanon slaughters about 60 million chickens per year, the bulk of these are raised on farms owned by the three biggest chicken companies. “In the 1950’s, we were producing 20 chickens a day, now we are producing 5,000,” said Shuman. “Back then, there was only one supermarket and only one restaurant was buying packaged fresh chicken.”
Shuman also credits his company with pioneering the packaging of chickens. “We were the first company to process ready-to-cook chicken breasts. In 1995, we were the first to manufacture chicken nuggets and breaded products in Lebanon.”
In order to remain an effective player in the market, Shuman explained their use of a vertical integration strategy. “We control everything from A to Z: we own our farms and slaughterhouses, breed our own chickens, have our own distribution networks and own processing plants for chicken nuggets. This allows us to control quality of the end-product.”
For this reason, Shuman chickens are pricier than their rivals and quite less spread. But the company has been able to compete in the market following the entry of other big companies by maintaining its own niche. “We only have 5% of the $130 million poultry market in Lebanon,” said Shuman. “But we have 75% of the branded chicken in self-service sections in supermarkets.”
Unlike Tanmia and Hawa chicken, Shuman’s operations are not widespread. Tanmia’s processed products and Hawa chicken’s outlets dot nearly every main area in Beirut. “We have managed to remain profitable because we chose to take a niche and develop it,” said Shuman. “In normal periods, people may tend to buy any fresh chicken, but when there is a crisis in the poultry industry they head for brands like ours.”
Despite declining chicken prices, Shuman expects his company to sell 1.6 million chickens in 2004, raking in some $5.5 million in revenue, with sales increasing by 20% a year. The company is maintaining a bullish approach to the poultry industry, mostly because of Lebanon’s flourishing supermarket outlets and the sophistication of the Lebanese consumer’s brand consciousness. “The purchasing power is not going to stay like this and it will improve in three to five years. With the development of the supermarkets, consumer habits will change.”
For now, Shuman chicken will try to reach its sales goals by importing technology, which is needed to cut production costs and help raise capacity. “Production costs in Lebanon are high and the only way to cut them down is to continually upgrade our technology,” said Shuman. “The $150 million in investments that were spent over the past decade in this sector have mainly gone into lowering costs.”