for all seasons
Eric van Innis, chief executive of Bridgepoint-backed Sapec Agro, has been involved in the agricultural market for more than 30 years. But his career began in a very different sector.
Hercule Poirot, the famous Belgian detective created by author Agatha Christie, made the Orient Express well known around the world. But it was another Belgian, Eric van Innis, who in the early 1980s helped to bring the ultra-luxurious train service back to life.
Much like his fictional countryman, van Innis’s involvement happened by chance.
“I was managing the repairs and maintenance office of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits in Belgium and we were looking for new opportunities. One evening, I was having a quiet drink at a hotel in Brussels, when I met an American businessman. We began talking about my work and he said he was looking for a company to restore some old train carriages,” van Innis explains.
The American was James Sherwood, founder of leasing company Sea Containers, and the conversation turned out to be rather more than idle chat.
“Our company worked on the project for four years. It was a present for his wife and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me,” says van Innis.
Learning by example
Fresh out of university when he took the Wagons-Lits post, van Innis was an economist by training and a manager by inclination.
He was soon recruited by Groupe Roullier, a multinational business specialising in plant and animal nutrition.
“Daniel Roullier, the founder, was a truly dynamic guy and I learnt an enormous amount from him and from the company. After working there for four years, he asked me to be his right-hand man. But at the same time, I was approached about moving to Sapec. It was a hard decision, but ultimately I chose to move,” says van Innis.
That was 28 years ago, but Sapec Agro today is very different from the operation that van Innis took on in the early 1990s. Back then, the business – based in Portugal – was primarily involved in commodity fertilisers, a highly competitive and frequently low-margin industry. Van Innis led a radical restructuring, selling the fertiliser division and steering the company towards two key areas: crop protection and speciality nutrition.
Initially run separately, the two divisions were brought together in 2010 to create Sapec Agro, which was acquired by Bridgepoint in late 2016.
“Plants function in the same way as humans. They need to be protected, they need to be nurtured and they need to be fed. Crop protection products are like medicine for plants – they protect them from insects, weeds and disease. Specialist nutrition products help plants to counteract stress and reach their maximum potential,” van Innis suggests.
As he explains, plants can be stressed by weather conditions, lack of water, the application of unsuitable products and ill-thought-out human interaction. “When they are stressed, they direct their energy towards fighting that stress and yields suffer. Our nutrients help plants to overcome those stresses and the results can be dramatic.”
Scientific evidence backs up this thesis, suggesting that environmental stress can affect plant yields by more than 50 per cent.
“We can’t eliminate all stress, but we can help to reduce it and, combined with careful crop protection, we can make a significant difference to yields per hectare,” van Innis says.
Wellness in the field
In a world where consumers are increasingly concerned about food safety and quality, the softly spoken Belgian is something of an evangelist for his company and the industry in which he works.
“Crop protection products – herbicides, pesticides and fungicides – are chemical formulations and they are sometimes criticised as harmful or polluting. But much of this criticism is based on ignorance. Crop protection is an essential part of the agricultural process.
We have to protect plants so that we can increase the amount of produce they generate. Specialist nutrients complement these essential protection products by counteracting some of the side-effects and promoting wellbeing – a bit like minerals and vitamins for people,” he suggests.
“We have more than 1,500 trials going on every day and our solutions can improve yields by up to 25 per cent compared with classic fertiliser and crop protection applications,” he adds.
I am very optimistic about our business. We have almost doubled EBITDA in the past two years and I think we can do the same again
Feeding the world
Van Innis believes that the agronomics industry is in the throes of rapid change, driven by greater knowledge and understanding of crop DNA, technological advances and consumer preferences. Plants and soil can be analysed more accurately than ever before, plant health can be monitored by flying drones over fields, farmers are increasingly keen to maximise yields, while cultivating quality produce, and consumers are increasingly interested in the source and safety of their food.
“This creates tremendous opportunities for us. Populations are growing and we will need to feed between 7 billion and 9 billion people in the coming years. The available arable land is limited, so we need to increase average yields per hectare. We are talking about feeding the world and the sustainability of the planet. These are real and essential problems. Of course, I cannot solve them singlehandedly, but if I can make a contribution, that is incredibly motivating,” van Innis declares.
Treating plants with plants
That contribution has certainly increased in recent years. Sapec Agro has 1,400 employees, including more than 400 agronomists – experts in the science of soil management and crop production – and the group has expanded both organically and through acquisition since Bridgepoint invested in it.
“The first acquisition was a French company, SDP, which increased our range of crop nutrition products. It also added adjuvants to our offer. These make crop protection products more effective,” says van Innis.
Sapec Agro went on to acquire Idai Nature, a Spanish company specialising in biological products that in essence treat plants with plants. And earlier this year, the group acquired Microquimica, a crop nutrition specialist with a four-decade presence in Brazil.
“We now have three legs: crop protection, specialist nutrients and bio-solutions. These can be used in combination with one another. Farmers can apply crop protection formulations and nutrients at the beginning of a cycle, and once a plant is healthy and mature, they can move to bio-solutions so that their produce is more environmentally friendly when it is sold to consumers,” van Innis explains.
“Crop protection products are highly regulated to protect consumer safety, but biological products go even further and they are particularly beneficial with fresh products such as fruit and vegetables,” he adds.
These are the types of crops that Sapec Agro focuses on across its business – as opposed to “row” crops, such as wheat, barley and soya.
“Fruit and vegetables tend to be more vulnerable to stress and the need to drive yields is correspondingly greater. As time goes on, however, row crops may need our help too,” says van Innis.
For now, the company has significant potential for growth in its core areas. The crop protection division has historically focused on southern Europe, but it has recently moved into Brazil and there are plans to expand into Mexico and central Europe, too.
Plants function in the same way as humans. They need to be protected, they need to be nurtured and they need to be fed
Boots on the ground
The specialist nutrition division is global, having grown virtually from scratch to one of the top three in its niche, and the market is increasing at eight per cent to nine per cent annually. The biocontrol sector is expanding at double-digit percentages and van Innis is confident that Sapec Agro can become a substantial player in this field.
“I am very optimistic about our business. We have almost doubled EBITDA in the past two years and I think we can do the same again, through a combination of organic and inorganic growth,” he says.
The company adopts a slightly different approach from many of its peers, sending agronomists around the world so they can explain how their products work and the benefits they can confer. “We have more boots on the ground, so we can understand the pressures that farmers are under and how best to alleviate them. That helps us to devise better solutions and develop genuine relationships with our customers,” van Innis says.
Talking the talk
“I tell my colleagues that we need to speak three languages – the language of farmers, the language of plants and the language of our products. In that way, we become not just sales people but also consultants. In fact, in many cases, farmers look to us for advice and guidance.”
Having trained as an economist, van Innis has developed an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of agronomics and the role that proper protection and nutrition can play in the global agri- cultural sector.
“Our products enhance yields, so production is enhanced, wellbeing is enhanced, the planet becomes more sustainable and, of course, farmers make more money. Our solutions should not be seen as a cost but an investment,” he maintains.
Town and country
Sapec Agro is still headquartered in Lisbon, but van Innis spends much of his time travelling, including a significant part of the working week in Madrid, where the crop nutrition division is based. Now 62, he remains passionate about his work and the opportunities that lie ahead for Sapec Agro. However, his sights are set on a slightly different life for when he finally retires.
“I would like to be a farmer, with a vineyard here in Portugal. I am not a big drinker, but I do like very good wine from time to time, especially with good cheese. We have excellent examples of both in this country so, if I could produce great wine and cheese, I would be very happy,” he says n