Didier Vivies

Position: Chief Executive Officer
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My name is Didier Vivies, CEO of Central Valley Ag Exports,Inc. and I’m going to tell the story of my company.

I was born in a French Island in the Caribbean called Guadeloupe. I obtained over there my BTEC in Accounting and Finance and learned the business life. I gained a lot of experience through different job positions that I held. I had the opportunity to work as Procurement agent in several companies where my main mission was to lower the expenses of the companies through optimizing the buying side of it. Later on, I created my own distribution company in the food and beverage business. In that company, I discovered and launched in the French Caribbean Market a beer called CARIB. It was very successful, that brand is today’s one of the most well-known brand in the Caribbean. After a while, I decided to sell this company, because I had the opportunity to come to the United States with my wife. I didn’t really know what was planned for me over there but I wanted more than ever to live and experience the so-called American Dream. I was 36 at that time, and had no idea of what would be my new life in the United States.

How CVAE Started

When I arrived in the USA, I wasn’t looking for anything specific as a job, I wanted to learn the new culture from scratch. I applied for several jobs at places like Starbucks, McDonald’s and Panera Bread. Then one day, I received a call from a friend in the Carribean. He is the director of one of the biggest distribution company in the French Carribean Islands and also represents the famous brand Heineken and hundreds of other brands in the food and beverage industry. He asked me if I could help him find Light Red Kidney Beans—beans that are very famous in the Caribbean. They appear in almost every local dishes and considered the No. 1 beans over there. It was my first time selling this type of food but I was also very excited to find this product for my friend as I was seeing a great business opportunity. I had to find raw commodities in California and also someone who would be able to package the beans for me (C&F Foods)—and ship them to the Carribean. In other words, a middleman/broker in this business. Later on, I decided to trademark my own brand that I called Celimene. Célimène is an identity brand infused with Caribbean culture. It caters to Caribbean people, and Caribbean food enthusiasts. The cordial image of smiling Célimène lady evokes the memory of warm personalities under the Caribbean sun. I realized after a while that the commodities business was a very tiny network of processing facilities and farmers, and that the opportunities of developing other products was quite big.

The Start of our Own Packaging Business

After three great years in the business as a middleman and right after the financial crisis of 2008, I took the risk and decided to buy my own packaging equipment in order to package my own brand with my suppliers' products. Located in Visalia, in the middle of the Central Valley of California, I was able to considerably lower my packaging expenses compared to my competitors all located in big cities like Los Angeles or San Francisco. We are not in the high-tech industry, we are in the commodities business—and no matter where you are, a bean, a pea, and rice will always be a bean, a pea, and rice. That is why the cost of packaging is really important for our customers.

That being said, we have more flexibility. Our minimum wage is lower in the valley and our fixed costs are most of the time lower than our competitors'. For example, as of today, one of the biggest customers we've had during the last five to six years is 99Cents Only Stores. They have been very happy of our service and pricing and we are always trying to satisfy their needs.

To be honest, my biggest challenge, aside from creating my own business in the United States, was to understand that if I wanted to grow my business and develop other brands in the domestic market and not just on export sale, I would have to work through traders and brokers—the people who would represent my brand and develop it. Our success is thanks to their sales team and network. It is always hard to find reliable and efficient traders to safeguard your interests, and not just the customers' interests. I can say that today, as of 2021, my team of brokers for the South and the North of California and also the Pacific Northwest are great, efficient, and hard-working people. They work hard to develop my brands. The year 2018 was great for our domestic business perspective as we started to work two of the biggest distributors of California: Supervalue, and C&S Grocers. Also, LA Foods, which supplies all type of foods and beverages to United State government programs, schools and prisons.

We also started to supply the United States government dry peas. We are supplying all the prisons, food banks and associations of California.

Investment in a Fully Automated Line

In order to support this big growth, we also had to make big investment in our packaging equipment. The goal was to lower our labor costs and to increase considerably our volume capacity. This fully automated line helped us to triple our volume capacity; however, our goal to lower one-third of our production cost didn’t really happen that year. On the contrary, this cost considerably went up. The explanation is very simple: this equipment was new to us, and during the first months of installation, we incurred important costs of maintenance in order to find the right settings for a smooth and consistent volume of production. So, 2018 was the learning process for this new acquisition. We also hired a full-time mechanic in order to lower the outsourcing expenses for fixing or maintaining our equipment.

Trading Department

In 2017, we opened a trading department, in addition to our packaging business. The trading department facilitates the transaction and acts as the middleman between farmers/processors and the customers. We deliver bulk containers direct to our customers. We organize the transaction and the shipping, but the product leaves our supplier's facility and gowa straight to our customers' warehouses. So 2017 was a very successful year with more than $340,000 earned in profit. Unfortunately, we had to face, in 2018, the trade war with China and Europe, and our trading department was greatly affected.

Goals and Objectives

Our goals for the coming years are, first of all, to lower our cost of production based on what we originally planned when we invested in our new equipment. We also want to continue and grow our business with the United States government since we already started and currently in contract for 145 truckloads that we need to supply to food banks. We also want to keep the good work on developing our domestic brand, Celia’s, which is dedicated to the Hispanic market. Our goal is to make Celia’s a major brand in the West Coast market.