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28. mar 2022

Interview with CEO of Unda Ltd

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Interview with CEO of Unda Ltd

In recent years, the canned fish producer Unda has been experiencing a breakthrough in the production of smoked sprats - not only has demand increased, but it is also working hard to increase the product range, setting high quality as a priority. Last year the Ministry of Agriculture of Latvia awarded the company with "Lielais Loms" ("Big Catch") award. Artūrs Bubišs, Chairman of the Board of SIA “Unda”, talks about the work of the company.

Canned fish factory "Unda"

  • Located in Engure, Tukums region.
  • Founded in 1907, during the Soviet years it became a factory of the collective farm "Soviet Fisherman", the name "Unda" was regained in 1992, when the company was privatized.
  • The main product - Smoked sprats in oil, in total there are about 50 different types of canned fish in the assortment.
  • Sales markets are Germany, Poland, Spain, Portugal, USA, Japan, New Zealand, Australia, Egypt and other countries.
  • Sprats are marketed under the Diplomats trademark, created in 1931 and renewed in 2017.
  • Employs more than 180 people.
  • Fish is purchased from the largest fishing companies in Latvia, as well as one Estonian fishing company.
  • Member of the Association of Fishermen, The Union of Latvian Fish Processing Industry and the Association "Rīgas Šprotes" since their establishment.
  • A project is being implemented for the installation of a total of 630 solar panels with a system capacity of 236 kW, which will produce at least 226,300 kWh per year for the company.

 

- How important is the "Lielais Loms" ("Big Catch") award to you?
- We try to do everything as well and correctly as possible on a daily basis, and it is very difficult to show this to a customer who, when buying a product, simply eats it without knowing how it was created. The award is an evaluation of our work, approval that we do everything right.
- What products can Unda be proud of?
- The main product that we have been producing every day since the very beginning is sprats. There are only four or five serious sprat producers left in Latvia, including us. We work every day to produce products of the highest possible quality, however, even if any mistakes occur, we immediately do our best to prevent them from happening again. That's why we are proud of all our products, because they are made with real care.
- What sets out the sprats produced by Unda among other producers?
- Good raw material is very important - quality fish with clear traceability (MSC certificate *). Traditional smoking under the supervision of experienced professionals. We work very seriously on quality - we regularly analyze fish and products at various stages, there is an X-ray machine on the production lines to check each box for any foreign matter. There are a lot of important stages to look out for as soon as one of them fails, it can be felt in the end - it's no longer a good sprat.
The sprats must be golden, properly and neatly arranged in a box, look good and have the right taste. Those who eat sprats on a daily basis quickly understand which sprats are good and which are not so good. I have my own way of testing products. We usually go to a food exchibitions together with several other sprat producers. We are literally standing shoulder to shoulder in our booth. I usually ask visitors to go around and taste all the sprats in our stand and then come and tell us which ones are the most delicious. I always get the answer that "Undas" sprats are the tastiest.
- Where do you buy raw materials?
- As the main product is smoked sprats or brisling sardines, 90% of the raw material is sprat wild caught from the Baltic Sea, which we buy from two Latvian and one Estonian fishing company. All these companies are catching sprat in one area of ​​the Baltic Sea.
- Ten years ago, almost 90% of sprats produced in Latvia went to Russia and other countries east of Latvia. Who are the main eaters of sprats today?
- In Russia, sprats have been eaten since the tsar's time, this product is well known and popular, so historically, companies have focused on the Russian market. However, even before the Russian embargo in 2014, we exported our products to Germany and the United States. After the embargo was imposed, we started to travel to all food exhibitions. At first the interest was cautious, those who tasted this new product, realized that sprats are a good thing. The Japanese are thrilled, they like sprats very much. Japan requires well-smoked sprats, and there are no restrictions on benzopyrene levels.
The West has its own specifics, there is a need for more stylish packaging. There was nothing to do in the Western market with the packaging that we had in 2014, when I came here to work. We renewed the old “Undas” trademark “Diplomats” in 2017, and we started to methodically rework all the packaging and its design in accordance with the requirements of the Western market, although the classic Smoked Sprats are kept in their traditional black style packaging
- Market change is a complicated process, how fast can it be done?
- We usually work with distributors. It takes at least a year or two to get a new serious customer. This is the time from the first conversation at the exhibition to the conclusion of the supply contract. During this time, customer-organized audits, inspections, tests, evaluation of samples at the distributor's customers take place. Under current conditions, this process takes even longer. 

During the Covid time, the introduction of a new product is even more tedious, because rarely does anyone come to the offices where the tested products arrive. It takes three months for someone to taste the new product. And we are not the only ones who send their products for testing.
-During pandemics the fish industry reported a rapidly growing demand for canned food as buyers were buying long-lasting products. What are your observations?
- The situation has been interesting for us since 2015, when we really felt the Russian embargo. It took several years to move our markets to the west. The summer of 2019 has arrived, usually every year we go on vacation in July - August, we stop the factory for annual improvements and repairs. We came from vacation and concluded that the situation has changed radically - we are no longer able to produce as much as customer demand. In March 2020 Covid-19 started and demand grew even faster. A year has passed in negotiations with customers, explaining why we are not able to fulfill all their requests on time. By the end of the year, we more or less balanced the situation - we hired additional people, improved production processes.
If you asked me now if we wanted to return to the Russian market, I would say no. The only advantage of working there was that it was easy to plan a production, as there was mostly one large client, all that was left was to work and send the products. Now there are a lot of customers, more time is spent planning production wisely. In Russia, there was also a great demand for fried sprats. Now we mostly produce more complicated Smoked Sprats and similar items, but that means we cannot produce the same quanitites we did in Russia. Fried sprat can be produced by a much smaller number of people than by producing Smoked Sprats, where the process is almost 100% hand work. We also produce and export fried sprats today, but now it is not nearly half of the total production, as it used to be. But we are actively working on this issue.
We already have 10 new types of fried products, aimed specifically at the western market. It will be produced in 10 different exotic sauces - it tastes fantastic! You should try this product.
- Who develops new recipes and products?
- Since last year, the company has new food technologist. Most of the ideas are generated by the whole team together. Everyone has ideas, and we always discuss them and experiment a lot. A technologist is the person who puts these often crazy ideas into practice. Every week something new is created, then we taste, test, evaluate how it appears in the end. We have worked on the new product series for more than three months. We do not lack ideas for new products.
- What is the impact of rising energy prices?
- Electricity prices affect us not as much as cost of the gas. If the electricity bill (at the time of interview) increased by about 50%, then the price of gas increased about five times. These costs are very difficult to quickly incorporate into product prices. Until now, we changed the price of products on average once a year - starting from the fishing season, fishermen named the price of fish, and it was also known how the prices of packaging would change. At the end of the year, everyone said there would be an agreement on new prices, and there were no surprises afterwards.
The last few years we had to review prices several times a year. And every time it is a huge challenge, because there are arguments from all sides why these new prices cannot be accepted. It is reassuring that we are not the initiator of these price increases, and in fact, due to circumstances, all producers are doing so today. It is only unfortunately that the increases in costs and, consequently, in the prices of products are too rapid.
- You installed new production lines last year, do you feel efficiency improvements?
- We needed new production lines because the old ones had reached the end of their lives. If there were 42 work spaces in packaging area on the old lines, now it is 60. It was difficult to vary the types of products on the old lines, we have become flexible with the new ones, because we can produce two or more types of products on it. Now, for example, we can produce fried sprats on one line and sprats on the other two. Downtime has decreased.
When it comes to automation, Peruza is known to be working on automatization of rodding area. If this imachinery succeeds, then, for example, 40-50 people who now work in the rodding area will be able to work on the packing lines, and our productivity will double. Packing area automation for Smoked Sprats will not be invented any time soon. Lasers and sensors work precisely and when there is the same size raw material, but fish vary in size.

Once upon a time, Unda had 300 employees, how many are there now, will there be times when you can employ 300 people again?
- If we had 300 people available, we could employ everyone. The more the company could produce, the better the cost of the product. This would only boost sales. We need about 180 people for one full shift. Record production volumes were in 2014, when we employed 250 people. Now I would very much like to be able to complete one full shift. For three years in a row, we have almost the same number of peaople - some come, others leave, it is difficult to find employees. We take people from a wide area, from Kauguri and Tukums to Mērsrags and Vandzenė.
- Can you pay competitive salaries?
- I believe that Unda is a good and honest employer. The salary does not depend on the amount of work - the more the person does, the higher the salary. The automation installed on the lines counts each can that the employee produces. Although the boxes on the lines were counted at all times, it was possible to discuss how correctly this was done. Last January, we introduced a change in job accounting so that people would know exactly what they were paid for. It is clear to everyone how much they earned for what they did. The average salary comparing to other players in our industry  is definitely above average. Working conditions are also very important - here, too, we are certainly among the best!
- At a time when companies had to switch to western markets, several companies changed their range, offering customers more expensive fish products using salmon, herring and mackerel carcasses. Have you remained loyal to sprats from the Baltic Sea?
- It is easier to work with ocean fish, it requires less labor, the process is easier to automate. However, it is difficult for us today to 'jump' into this market, because it is highly competed by large European companies with large production volumes. They buy raw materials in very large quantities. In order to compete seriously with them, we must start such projects working with serious losses.
Today we are not really ready for that yet. In addition, we are real experts in working with sprats, so we will develop our skills, improve our knowledge and be the best in our niche! At least for now.
- What are the nearest development plans?
- We plan warehouse automation so that products can be pasted and packaged automatically. We hope to complete the project on the use of solar energy soon - we have started installing solar panels, so we will be the second fishing company in Latvia to use solar energy for electricity production. We estimate that we will be able to produce 20-30% of the energy we need ourselves. There are many different projects and plans.

* The MSC CoC / ASC CoC certificate states that the fish is farmed, caught and environmentally friendly in accordance with all environmental, hygiene and welfare requirements, but the packaging of the products is environmentally friendly.

Iveta Tomsone,
LLKC Supply manager

The text is translated and republished from laukutikls.lv

Contacts

  • UNDA SIA

    Tel. (+371) 63181117
    info@unda.lv
  • Production facility

    Juras street 60, Engure
    Engure parish, Tukums district,
    LV-3113, Latvia
  • Office

    Miera street 61/1 – 5a
    Riga, LV-1013

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