Olam International of Fresno expands global reach

The Fresno BeeAugust 30, 2013 

Olam International calls itself the brand behind the brand.

It's a global company that few local people have heard of, but its food ingredients are used in products lining grocery store shelves around the world.

And it's making the central San Joaquin Valley a key part of its footprint — from the fertile fields to a high-tech north Fresno laboratory where food scientists concoct new products.

Over the last five years, the Singapore-based supplier of agriculture products and food ingredients has quietly been acquiring Valley processing plants and working with growers to become a major source of dehydrated garlic, onions, peppers, and specialty vegetables — an estimated $10 billion international market.

They've made Fresno the headquarters for the entire spices and vegetable ingredient division and recently launched an Innovation and Quality center for research and development.

Olam's presence in the Valley, and its potential for creating skilled jobs, is exactly what government leaders say is needed in a region that has been known for its farming prowess, but not necessarily as a center for food production.

"It makes perfect sense that they would want to be here," Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin said. "This is a reflection of the overall effort to create higher-value products here. And that ultimately creates higher-paying jobs for our residents."

Greg Estep, president of Olam's Spices and Vegetable Ingredients division, said Olam's IQ center is a natural extension of what the company is trying to achieve in becoming a leader in its industry.

The IQ center at the company's northeast Fresno office at 205 E. River Park Circle is home to a microbiology lab, food-chemistry lab and product-development kitchen.

Its customers, who are among the who's who of food makers, are looking for innovation, quality assurance and new products.

"They trust us, and they know we can help them look at things in a different way to get ideas and develop products," Estep said. "That is why we built the center."

Inside the center's office is a display of products Olam's processing plants make for its customers. The products include chopped garlic in a jar, salsa, spaghetti sauce, diced tomatoes and hot sauce. Confidentiality agreements prevent the company from disclosing who their customers are, but Estep says Olam supplies products to nine of the 10 largest food companies in the world.

Olam officials are fond of saying that chances are your grocery cart contains several products featuring an Olam ingredient.

On any given day, the IQ center and company's processing plants in the Valley could be hosting a customer from one of nearly 20 different countries.

Siva Subramanian, a vice president and head of technical services at Olam Americas, said that of the center's staff of 15 employees, at least 10 are "let loose" to solve a customer's problem or develop a new product.

Already, the center has been tinkering with several new products including a mustard mixed with onions, a new relish and dried green chile powder.

"Our customers are very open to new ideas and we have had success and, of course, some failures," Subramanian said. "One of our customers has even outsourced their research and development to us."

Community impact

While the new IQ center provides a critical function for Olam, it also has become an important source of science-based and business-related jobs for area college graduates.

Olam intern Jay Krishna, who is working on his professional science master's degree in biotechnology at Fresno State, thought he would have to look outside the area for a job opportunity.

"I consider myself very lucky to be able to work here and have learned a lot," Krishna said.

Debbie Young, director of the office for student professional development at Fresno State's Craig School of Business, said Olam has reached out to the campus to recruit interns and potential employees.

"There is a large number of our students who call the Valley their home and who want to stay in the Valley, so to have a huge global company like Olam here is extremely important," Young said. "The growth potential for this company is huge."

Growth mode

The new IQ center adds to Olam's already growing number of acquisitions, which includes: the former DeFrancesco plant in Firebaugh; SK Foods in Lemoore; and a seed and research facility purchased from Gilroy Foods, a ConAgra company.

As part of Olam's spices and vegetable ingredient division, the company employs nearly 2,000 people in the Valley. It also contracts or farms about 50,000 acres to supply its processing plants, including Lemoore's tomato plant that runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week during peak harvest.

The plant is the state's second-largest producer of tomato products, including bulk tomato paste and diced tomatoes. Olam also is the largest processor of organic tomatoes in the world.

Steve Power, senior director of Olam's Lemoore plant, said the factory can process 350 to 400 truckloads of tomatoes a day — all sourced within a 30-mile radius.

"In all sincerity it is a sight to behold," Power said. "It is like an orchestrated dance."

Dave Watkins, senior vice president of Olam's agriculture operations, said the company is definitely in growth mode.

Watkins oversees the company's farming operations and its seed-growing facility in Hanford. The facility produces Olam's proprietary onion seed and supplies growers with disease-free garlic cloves for planting.

"Olam has placed a huge bet in California," Watkins said. "And despite the regulatory challenges and water issues, they are all in."

Estep understands the agricultural landscape in California, but he also sees the bigger picture and the role his company plays in a world economy.

Estep says the global trends of increased meat consumption, snack and processed foods categories bodes well for Olam and its products.

"We have the portfolio and the connection with the multi-nationals," Estep said. "Our growth will come from these mega trends. If things are booming in the next five to 10 years, we will grow with that. If there are setbacks in the economy, then it will have some impact. But I am optimistic, and I see our business growing."


Olam Spices & Vegetable Ingredients

Opened Fresno headquarters: 2011

Employees: About 2,000 throughout the San Joaquin Valley

California operations: Williams, Healdsburg, Gilroy, Modesto, Firebaugh, Fresno, Lemoore, Hanford

Farms: About 30,000 acres in the Valley


The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6327, brodriguez@fresnobee.com or @FresnoBeeBob on Twitter.

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