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Bringing three decades of produce knowledge to the newly created position of South American trade manager, industry veteran Bill Lewis joined The Oppenheimer Group Dec. 9.

Mr. Lewis, whose began his career as an inspector for the California Department of Agriculture, has extensive experience in the Latin American arena and will lead the Oppenheimer team in Santiago, Chile, focusing on the distribution giant's export programs. Included in his purview are Asia, Europe and Central America.

As he refines and implements new export strategies, Mr. Lewis will call on his relationships with Chilean growers that he established during the past two decades. Prior to taking the Oppenheimer position, Mr. Lewis was a director and consultant to Santa Elena, a consortium of Chilean grape growers focused on European exports, in Chile and Delaware.

He was also general manager at Pandol Chile in Santiago, from 1989 to 2008, when Pandol Brothers' Chilean operations were closed. During his tenure with Pandol Chile, Mr. Lewis oversaw farming operations in the third through 10th growing regions of Chile, stretching from Copiapo to Osorsno. Stateside in his early years, he worked as the Western area manager and senior buyer for Topco Associates in Visalia, CA.

With a background that encompasses category management, marketing, procurement, grower relations, supply chain efficiencies and export, the new Oppenheimer manager offers a unique perspective.

"In the past, Oppenheimer's Chilean exports to markets other than North America have been fairly modest," John Anderson, Oppenheimer chairman, president and chief executive officer, said in a prepared statement.

Mr. Anderson also said, "Many of our growers handle their own exports. We will continue to support these efforts, while Bill's expertise, relationships, and knowledge of the U.S., European, and Asian markets will enhance our approach. With his help, we'll connect more of the right varieties with the right customers so we can broaden the global customer base for our grower family."

It is expected that Mr. Lewis will "also play a key role in indentifying areas where Oppenheimer can deliver greater value throughout the supply chain," Mr. Anderson said.

The Oppenheimer Group markets a full range of items from Chile, including grapes, stone fruit, kiwifruit, apples, pears and citrus, and Mr. Lewis said that he anticipates strong growth in the grape category in the next 12 months.

"Grapes will definitely increase for this season," he told The Produce News. "But we're also expecting strong growth in citrus, blueberries and avocados."

Mr. Lewis went on to say, "Despite the economic difficulties facing the North American market and the weakened dollar, I think we'll see progress in demand and prices overall. Fresh fruit consumption is expected to increase as more consumers become aware of what a great value, as well as the health benefits, they get for their purchase. This is also a strong indication that Eastern Europe will show improvement over last season."

When asked what his top priority is in his new position, Mr. Lewis responded, "Certainly my primary focus is the Oppenheimer South American export program, but I will also participate in all areas of the company's strategic goals and objectives to improve our South American operations. The Oppenheimer Group, with more than a century-and-a-half of remarkable history, is currently evolving more strategically than ever before to continue as one of the greatest produce companies in the world, and I'm very excited to have the opportunity to be a part of it."