For this month’s Spotlight on Women in Business, showcasing the achievements of women entrepreneurs around the world, The Wisteria Group turns to Costa Rica. Paula Montecinos is founder and managing director of ALUAP, a fruit and vegetable processing company which since its creation in 1994 has grown into a million-dollar operation.
1. Paula, tell us a bit about what gave you the idea to start your own fruit and vegetable processing company.
In college I majored in food sciences and after I graduated I started working with McDonald´s in Quality Assurance. There were only four restaurants in Costa Rica at that time and I had to visit and control the quality in the restaurants and with the suppliers. I met people from the meat industry, bread industry, sauce and vegetable suppliers, and others. At that time in Costa Rica, McDonald´s had its own pie factory and I was in charge of Quality Assurance for that, too.
After I had been with them for three years, McDonald’s started opening more restaurants and their pie factory was too small to supply them. So they started looking for someone who could make the pies. My family has a farm in the mountains and there was a small warehouse there that I thought I could use to make the pies.
It was a crazy idea to make the pies by myself! But I was confident because I knew the process and I knew the quality that McDonald´s expected. Also, I wanted to do something by myself. So I went to talk to the owner. He was not very convinced of my idea but he told me he would give me a try, and that´s how I started.
After two years of making pies, McDonald´s decided to import them from the U.S. So now I had nothing to produce. But I knew the people from the sauce industry, and I knew they were looking for someone who could deal directly with the farmers and supply the raw material already clean, in a puree or cut the way they needed it so all they would have to do is put the product in the mixer, cook, pack, and ship it. That is how I started with the fruit and vegetables and expanding my client base.
2. You sound like someone who is good at recognizing and seizing opportunities. What was your vision when you started out?
My first vision was to step in and fill the need that I identified in the sauce industry. My second vision was related to quality. The sauce industry needed to receive the raw material, produce the sauces and ship them next day. If the raw material is not of good quality, you notice it five days after it is shipped out because that is how long it takes for the pathogens — the “bad” microorganisms — to grow. But in five days the sauce could already be in the market, in another country or in someone’s home! So I decided to set up my own little lab where I could analyze each batch, keep it for five days, and send results with a quality certificate so the sauce company was sure that they could produce and ship next day. The companies loved the idea, and this is what makes me different from other business similar to mine: the quality certificate. This is why at ALUAP we focus so much on quality control and why we work to obtain different international quality certificates.
Today, I have 15 employees and about 10 different clients. My focus is on selling to companies and industries within Costa Rica. Some of my clients are exporters, but I only sell nationally.
3. What does a typical work day look like for you?
At 6 a.m. I am already in my office, organizing work for the employees. I have three “right hands”, one who is in production, one in the lab, and one who is in charge of buying the raw materials and shipping the finished products. During a typical work day I spend some time in the lab, some time in production, and a lot of time checking the price and quantities of raw product in the market. The latter is important because when the price is low we buy and produce and save for the time when there is a shortage and prices are high.
One of the things that is really important to me is work-life balance. Usually, I work from 6 am to 12 noon, so that I can be with my children in the afternoon, have a late lunch with my father, practice sports and visit my friends. Sometimes when I explain this to people they look at me like I am crazy but I tell them that is “Calidad de vida” (Quality of Life)!
4. That’s great. I’m going to say “Calidad de vida!” myself the next time someone asks me about my own work-life balance. I also understand that you are passionate about sports. You completed an Ironman! That is impressive.
I love biking, running and swimming, each one or the three together and, yes, I finished a complete Ironman. Now my kids are teenagers so I love to enter competitions with them and with my husband. My passion is trail running; I just finished a 50km race in the mountain!
5. Do you feel burdened by the sense of responsibility that you have in running a company? Or does it motivate you?
Not at all, I am confident that I can handle it and I feel good that I can give work to my employees. We are like a big family, I need them and they need me, so we all are responsible for keeping the business running. I want them to be happy so I help them in different ways, maybe to finish their studies, or fix something in their homes, or to buy a motorcycle…. And they help me for example by working when I am not there, keeping good quality in every aspect of the process and running to have the shipments get to our clients on time. They also come up with ideas and observations that help the company very much.
Also, to help the environment, we recycle paper and plastics, and with the peelings of the fruit and vegetables we make organic soil. We reuse the water from cleaning the raw material to water a small forest of indigenous trees. Sometimes I like to invite students from a nearby rural school and teach them about production, recycling, reusing and the importance of finishing school and then studying so that they can have a job when they are older, and maybe own a business.
I love my work, I love helping the people who work with me, and I love helping the nearby schools.
6. What advice do you have for young women today?
Work! Finish your studies so that you will have better work possibilities. If an opportunity comes along for you to start your own business, don’t let it go. At the beginning you might not be sure of what you are doing, it might be hard work, and you might get very tired, but with time it all starts to arrange itself in the best way.
I believe it is so important to work, especially women, because working makes us independent and having money for our needs gives us tranquility. But it is also important to spend time with family and friends and doing the things we love… Calidad de vida! It is important to work for the money but it is also important to feel good about yourself, to be productive. This is really why I love my work.