As the largest food distribution company in the Caribbean islands, St. Maarten, Netherlands Antilles-based Prime Distributors is not just celebrating its 30th anniversary – it’s celebrating 30 years of continued success, Managing Director Danny Ramchandani says.
Prime Distributors has come a long way since Ramchandani founded the business in 1981. A native of India, he immigrated to St. Maarten in 1972 to work in the electronics industry. After nearly a decade, Ramchandani felt he had accomplished all he could in the electronics industry.
However, there was plenty left to do in the importing business. “Imported food costs were very high at that time,” Ramchandani recalls. “I noticed we could do a lot better at pricing and saw an opportunity to diversify, so that’s what motivated me to get into the food industry.”
Ramchandani started Prime Distributors out a 2,000-square-foot warehouse with two em ployees by his side. Today, the company has 150 employees, a 150,000-square-foot warehouse and a fleet of 23 trucks. “We’ve grown by leaps and bounds,” he says. “We had to move to [a new facility] every year for the first five years.”
Prime distributes products to customers in St. Maarten, St. Martin, Anguilla, Antigua, Cayman Islands, Dominica, Grenada, Guadalope, Guyana, Monsterrat, Nevis, Saba, Statia, St. Barts, St. Kitts, St. Vincent, St. Lucia, St. Thomas, Tortola, Turks & Caicos and other islands.
Prime Distributors has a dominant presence on the islands. It distributes to 80 percent of the hotels and restaurants in the Caribbean and nearly 150 supermarkets and grocery stores. The company also is the prime supplier to Le Grand Marche, the largest supermarket chain in St. Maarten and St. Martin.
In addition to supplying frozen, chilled and nonperishable foods, Prime Distributors is the leading supplier of alcoholic and nonalcoholic beverages. Ramchandani estimates the company retrieves about 75 percent of its products from the United States and about 25 percent from Europe.
Approximately 90 percent of these items are sourced directly from major manufacturers such as Conagra foods, Kellogg’s, Kraft, McCormick, Nabisco, Pepsico, Philip Morris, Proctor & Gamble, Pillsbury, Quaker and Sysco, he says.
Its fast order processing and delivery combined with its ability to supply a broad range of products to both retailers and foodservice customerssets Prime Distributors apart from other distributors in the Caribbean, Ramchandani maintains. “It’s a small island,” he explains. “So, what we’ve created here is one-stop shopping where supermarket owners can get about 70 to 75 percent of their supplies from one supplier.”
Prime Distributors also prides itself on maintaining low prices for its customers. Its wholesale division, Prime Cash & Carry, offers the best wholesale prices in St. Maarten and St. Martin for a variety of products, Ramchandani says.
Working in St. Maarten has its advantages and disadvantages, Ramchandani admits. “Our economy is based on tourism; 90 percent of our tourism is from the United States,” he says. “So, if the American economy is suffering, we are suffering as well. Lately, there have been a lot of hard times. We are not seeing a huge improvement in tourism right now, but we are hoping things will improve soon.”
To be a successful distributor, Prime Distributors must rely on dependable shipping methods and fair weather. “We live in a hurricane zone here,” Ramchandani notes. “Nothing is produced here; everything is imported. So, if the ship is delayed, there is no way to get product right away. We have to wait until the following week for the next ship to come.”
The best thing about working in St. Maarten, he says, is its easygoing approach to business. “The island is only 37 square miles, so it makes it easier to do business,” Ramchandani remarks. “There is no red tape, no customs, so less paperwork. The lifestyle is not too stressful, and you have a personal relationship with all of your customers. In the U.S. you’re just a computer number.”
This year, Prime Distributors intends to grow its foodservice customer base and also expand geographically. “We’d like to distribute to bigger neighboring islands,” Ramchandani says. “To expand geographically, we would need to acquire a company based there, so we are aggressively looking for acquisitions to grow the business.
“We’re also going into health and beauty supplies – those you might see in the aisles of the supermarket,” Ramchandani adds.