First Grade International Ltd
Supply in demand
First Grade International Ltd is a leading supplier of high quality food ingredients, with a focus on the importation and distribution of coconut-based products
Guaranteeing consistency and quality in the foods that it delivers, First Grade International Ltd boasts more than 35 years individual experience in the sourcing and supply of products that will meet its customers current or new product specifications. Looking back on the company’s history, General Manager of First Grade International Ltd Tim Withers comments: “A major milestone in our history stems from our creation in 2003 when our current owners became involved. There had been a previous business that was supplied by our colleagues in Singapore, however they saw an opportunity for vertical integration to shorten the supply chain through the purchase of a company that gave them the opportunity to access a sizeable market.
“There is a love affair with coconut in the UK, and our operations started with seven people setting up a sales and marketing operation to sell ingredients to manufacturers. This is the heritage that was acquired and built on many times over, in fact, our first year of business was just under £7 million turnover and in 2016 it was just over £50 million. Not only has the value increased, but volumes too. In the first year of business it was just a few thousand tonnes and now volumes exceed 38,000 tonnes across the product range.”
The reason for this growth stems from the company seizing a strategic opportunity to become a one-stop-shop for coconut ingredients. A more diverse product than people may imagine, First Grade International Ltd worked on becoming the one key source for coconut-related products to save customers from buying items from a range of suppliers. “Customers can come to us and buy all of the products they need, whether it is coconut creams, milks and powders, creamed coconut, desiccated coconut, coconut chips, flakes and shreds and toasted and sweetened products. Our decision to focus on coconut products came at a time in the market when industrial buyers were looking to limit their own supply chains and cut down; it was the time of the specialist, really.”
To strengthen this commitment to specialising in coconut products, the company worked with only accredited factories, something that became significantly more important in the manufacturing industry over the coming years. Additionally, First Grade International’s owners had acquired their own plantation. It’s one of the world’s largest plantations and extends to over 250,000 acres, as Tim comments: “With these plantations we can avoid potential challenges that take place in the market and ensure that the factories have something to work with every day. One reason for us to acquire these plantations was to ensure we have a stable supply for customers; although coconut is a tropical crop that grows 365 days a year, the reality is that only ten per cent of coconuts go to be manufactured into edible products – far larger is the coconut oil industry who use the other 90 per cent so it’s a constant fight to get enough coconuts.”
David Armstrong, Deputy General Manager at First Grade International Ltd, adds: “On top of this, we also have a healthy stockholding in the UK, which smooths out vagaries of supply as we are the largest stockholder of coconut products in the UK and probably Europe too.” Seeing further opportunities with coconuts, First Grade International Ltd launched KoKo Dairy Free, the first coconut based range of dairy free alternatives to launch in the UK in 2010. The initial product, KoKo Dairy Free Original one litre milk alternative is now available in both fresh chilled and long life packs in all major supermarkets. Additionally, the company offers a low-fat light version, an unsweetened version as well as a chocolate and a strawberry variant of the milk as well as a range of dairy free yogurts, which were launched in 2016.
“Our dairy free range has continued to grow extremely well, with new products launched and further listings with retailers in the UK as well as growth in European markets,” says David. “It is not only due to growing levels of diagnosed intolerances within the UK population that this product has grown in popularity; over a period of time we have picked up business from vegans and life stylers too. The success of this product is that it can match cow’s milk by tasting more or less the same and also being used the same, in cereal or tea or coffee, for example.”
Having developed a strong foothold in the coconut market, the company expanded its product offering to include cocoa ingredients, fruit ingredients and vegetable ingredients, as Tim comments: “Most of our coconuts come from Indonesia and the Philippines, however the company has widened itself to more than just coconut; it has always been the backbone of the business but we have wanted to widen our offerings to make ourselves a more important part of the supply chain. Having recognised strong links with a high-quality supplier for coconut, we thought why not recreate this in other commodities where we have the right level of knowledge?”
He continues: “With this in mind, we went to Turkey and met a number of potential suppliers that we slimmed down to two family-owned and run businesses that have a similar ethos to ourselves. We are owned by a large family business that is located overseas, which is why we targeted these two fruit suppliers and our cocoa supplier, who are all well-established, long-standing family companies that focus on good quality and high standards. Today we offer a comprehensive range of dried fruits and have a connection with one of the world’s largest producers of cocoa powder, which is again a large ingredient for many food manufacturers in the UK and across Europe.”
Fruit ingredients include pineapple, with supplies based on the renowned Spanish Queen variety, which is grown for its unique flavour and colour as well as its strong suitability for processing into both can and aseptic packs. Other products include dried vine fruits such as sultanas, raisins, currants and mixed dried fruit, and dried tree fruits; these include apricots, dates, figs and prunes. Vegetable ingredients are comprised of jalapeno, pepperoncini, cherry peppers and banana peppers; these are perfect in pizzas, sauces and ready meals.
By expanding its product offering First Grade International Ltd is enjoying great success – a trend that is set to continue as Tim steps down as General Manager after 14 years at the helm and David takes control later in 2017. “I will continue to work for First Grade International Ltd, but will instead look at business opportunities and help our continued growth. It is a time of change but we will keep a consistent approach on what we are trying to achieve,” Tim concludes. D