A pioneer of novel applications for specialty foods and processes, Jan Grøndal’s career in food science has been fueled by his creative spirit and desire to expand future markets with the fruits of his labor. Today, at the culmination of a notable career, Grøndal puts his talents to service with Einar Willumsen. As Vice President of Technology and Manufacturing he is responsible for the company's manufacturing, application and quality control laboratories in both Sweden and Denmark, as well as a development laboratory in Denmark.
Although a relatively new addition to the company, he joined three years ago, as a member of the management group Grøndal helps the small but historic food flavor company retain its market-leading position in a tightly controlled Scandinavian marketplace.
One of the biggest challenges he says is trying to compete in a rapidly globalizing world. "There were a lot of local companies more or less of our size," he says, "Now the world is becoming more and more global and we are a small player among huge, huge companies."
"The innovation is rather in finding new ways of cutting costs than it is in innovating in developing new tastes or new food stuff."
Jan Grøndal, Vice President, Technology and Manufacturing, Einar Willumsen
Einar Willumsen distinguishes itself by selling to niche markets. "There are hundreds of companies in Europe that can sell you a strawberry flavor but there may be six or eight that can sell you cheese flavors."
Working for a relatively small flavor house Grøndal now experiences a completely different environment to that of his early years in the food industry, having spent a large part of his career putting his creativity to work for multinationals.
"When I was working with stabilizers maybe there were five producers in the world and the company I worked with had perhaps 60 percent of the world market share. It was easier to be in the big company with a large market share that’s for sure, if we were pressed a little on profit we just increased the prices because the threshold to enter that business was extremely high. The threshold to enter the flavor business economically is not very high, so you could open a flavor house tomorrow if you had the knowledge."
For this reason innovation is at once the key to survival and the biggest challenge. "It's a widely used word but it's really hard to do…my philosophy here is that this innovation must be founded on solid knowledge, because if you don’t have a solid knowledge foundation then the innovation is too weak and it's too fragile."
Advice worth noting, especially when one considers the source. Grøndal is the brain behind two patents regarding novel carrageenan and its application for which he was presented with the Silver Award at the Food Ingredients Europe most innovative ingredients competition in 1999. The research had all the more value considering it took place at a time when Europe was engulfed in the Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) crisis which had a disastrous impact on the sale of products that were made with gelatin. Grøndal‘s patented carrageenan application was a vegetarian equivalent that possessed the same unique texture qualities as gelatin. In some cases the patented carrageenan has gone on to replace gelatin, but the high price and reduced public concern over BSE has prevented a wide-scale adoption from the industry.
Consumers have a habit of choosing the cheapest product on the shelves notes Grøndal, a trend evidenced today by the slow adoption of organic food. "If you ask people on the street nine out of ten would claim they would buy organic foods if they had the choice, once they are in the supermarket they buy the cheapest product. So we have two faces as consumers: one is the polite face we use when we are together with other people and the other face is for when we stand alone in the supermarket and we choose the cheapest product."
After completing his PhD thesis, Grøndal worked for three years with Carlsberg Brewing Company in Copenhagen applying his inventiveness in search of different uses for brewers spent grains through fractioning processes. Grøndal could have received another patent for his research into novel uses for food stabilizers, when as project leader working for Hercules Inc., his team discovered how adding pectin to baked goods actually improved their quality. "It was never done before and it was something we could have had a patent on but we made a mistake and a major global food company got the idea and prevented us from having a patent."
Nowadays his role has evolved somewhat. Einar Willumsen was originally established as a philanthropic foundation, donating a portion of its profits for medical research, one of the reasons why it remains resilient to acquisition today. Nevertheless, with profit margins shrinking as powerful Scandinavian supermarkets transfer the burden from tight-pursed consumers down the supply chain, Grøndal is faced with the challenge of reducing year-by-year the cost of his products and in the end he laments, "the innovation is rather in finding new ways of cutting costs than it is in innovating in developing new tastes or new food stuff."
With this in mind, Grøndal has been working extremely hard on building a technology platform that will carry his company's growth into the future. "We are working on process technology where we are implementing new technologies and automatizing all our processes, like mixing robots instead of manual mixing of flavors, and starting working with key performance indicators for delivery precision."
"It’s a new way of thinking for an old company," he says.
Despite the challenges Einar Willumsen commands a strong position in the Scandinavian marketplace thanks in large part to its historical roots. Another path to success is routed through collaboration "introducing external help either from universities or independent consultancies on very specific topics, so not broad support but very narrow support, and very skilled support. Grøndal explains that since they are not a huge company, they can't just bring in unlimited experts.
Ultimately Grøndal admits, "I think we face more challenges internally than externally – I think we have all experienced that – I think most people claim that they want to be innovative and be part of the change but in reality most people don’t like it. Most people hate to do things differently than they did yesterday."
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