HLB Specialties has made its mark in the produce industry as a papaya specialist and distributor of other tropical produce items, but achieving that status was a process — and not an easy one at that.
HLB Specialties, based in Pompano Beach, FL, was founded by Homero Levy De Barros and is celebrating 25 years in business. He credits the success of his company to a willingness to take chances.
“We like challenges, and we don’t shy away from them,” Levy de Barros said. “I think that is what separates us from other companies.”
Levy de Barros explained that throughout his professional career, he always looked for ways to set himself apart from his competition.
When he was much younger and just starting out in business, Levy de Barros had a chain of pizzerias and a restaurant in his native Brazil. But before he launched that business, he researched it extensively.
“I went to New York and learned what it took to make good pizza,” he said. “I knew even back then that if I wanted customers to keep coming back, I had to have the very best quality.”
The pizza chain and restaurant were successful ventures, but at the time inflation in Brazil was around 80 percent per month, which put a strain on the business. Then one Friday, the Brazilian government put a freeze on all price increases to combat the rampant inflation. This put more money in consumers’ pockets, but with demand far exceeding supply, merchants could not make a profit because they could not raise prices. So instead, brands were discontinued and “new” brands introduced with higher prices.
Levy de Barros could see the writing on the wall and decided to leave the business before the staggering inflation returned.
In looking for his next venture, he wanted to capitalize on his passion for the ocean, so he launched a dive shop in Rio de Janeiro. Again, he operated with the customer’s best interest in mind and the business flourished. But the seven-days-a-week schedule combined with the rising crime rate in Brazil were not favorable for his young family, so they moved to his wife’s native Germany.
“My wife, Bruni, worked for Lufthansa Airlines, and one of her friends there introduced me to someone who was looking to export seafood to Germany,” said Levy de Barros. “I never sold fish before, but I thought, I’ve never sold pizza before either, and I never ran a dive shop before either, and those were successful businesses, so I decided to give it a try.”
Levy de Barros worked with a fish producer in Brazil who had 300 small boats that went out on Thursday night and returned Saturday morning. The fish were flown to Frankfurt, Germany, and distributed throughout the country and into Austria and Switzerland in a matter of days. He said they developed a following among consumers due to the superior quality and freshness of the fish.
“I got spoiled because the fish was so fresh and people started demanding only these fish,” he said. “I had no problem selling them — the problem was keeping up with demand. And I was selling something that was not caught yet, and that was tiring.”
Again, Levy de Barros was poised for the next step in his career, and that same Lufthansa contact suggested that he sell papayas, since there was someone in Brazil who wanted to export to Germany.
“I knew nothing about papayas at the time, but at least they were on the tree and I could see them,” he said. “So I got into the business and started selling ‘Caliman’ fruit.
Caliman, the oldest producer and exporter of Golden papayas from Brazil, refused to sell fruit that was green, fearing that customers would not have a good eating experience and would not buy again.
“It was difficult in the beginning because some people objected and said our fruit was too expensive from coming by plane,” said Levy de Barros. “They wanted cheap, green fruit that came by boat. And I said, ‘Sorry, then you won’t have my fruit because it will be by air and with color.’ Some clients decided to try, and I had to give a lot away, telling them if it didn’t sell, they wouldn’t have to pay.”
Eventually, Levy de Barros built a customer base in Germany, Spain, Austria, Belgium, Italy and Portugal, and business took off. This also coincided with the time that Caliman developed the Golden papaya variety, which is a very clean and beautiful piece of fruit.
After years of work demonstrating that the Golden papaya was not a preferred host for the fruit fly, the U.S. market was finally opened to Golden papayas in 1998, said Levy de Barros. That same year he moved his family to Florida and opened the U.S. offices of HLB.
For almost 10 years, Levy de Barros sold fruits only from Caliman from one farm in one region of Brazil. But papayas are so susceptible to Mother Nature, he said, and supermarkets are planning four to six months in advance, which is an eternity for papayas.
“Now, we source papayas from Ecuador, Mexico and Guatemala, as well as several regions in Brazil,” he said. “In the next five years and beyond, we will be looking to expand growing areas regardless of what products we handle. The idea is to have more varieties and more select growers.
“We also want to expand to more tropical products, expand the sourcing regions and work very closely with growers on topics such as food safety,” he added. “We are willing to make the necessary investments with our growers. We want to make them understand what is important.”
Business has changed drastically in the last 25 years, said Levy de Barros. On the retail side, supermarkets are much more strict about whom they buy from and how suppliers treat their workers, with an emphasis on social responsibility.
“But chains are extremely loyal,” he said. “Once you are in with a chain, they want to stay with you. Our first retail account was Costco, and they remain one of our best customers.”
Another factor in the success of HLB Specialties is that employees are treated well, said Levy de Barros.
“We have almost no turnover, and that is because we treat our employees as family,” he said. “They are my priority. In fact, I still have my original team in place in Germany - they have been with me for more than two decades.”
And key employees at HLB include Levy de Barros’s two children, Melissa and Lorenz, and his son-in-law, Andres Ocampo.
“They are much more involved in running the company these days,” he said. “And they share my passion for this business and do everything possible to make HLB successful. If you call HLB, you always get a person on the phone, and that is our goal to provide superior service to our clients. We try to think ahead and try to mitigate any potential problems that we can foresee.”