Puerto Rico is Welch’s top international market, and as such, the family-owned company is constantly on the lookout for initiatives that boost the local economy and foster relationships with business partners.
So said Mariceli Rodríguez, vice president of Research & Development and corporate quality assurance at Welch’s, and a Puerto Rico native who joined the company in September 2014.
“As part of the leadership team, we make decisions based on the kinds of initiatives we do on the island. It’s important for us to foster Puerto Rico’s economy and jobs, and improve the lives of consumers,” she said.
Welch’s is a brand that has had local presence for 100 years. About half of the products that it sells in Puerto Rico — 18 in total — are manufactured by local partners, namely V. Suárez and PepsiCo. The Mass.-based company also has distribution agreements with B. Fernández and Tres Monjitas to deliver its juices islandwide.
Part of Welch’s local dynamic entails determining how it changes the mix of products and percentage of what is manufactured locally, which “helps our partners keep their plants open and create and keep jobs. It’s our opportunity to pay back for the loyalty,” Rodríguez said in an exclusive interview with this media outlet, during a visit to Puerto Rico last week.
Rodríguez, who earned her Bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the Universidad Catolica de Puerto Rico, and her M.S. degree in food science and nutrition from the University of Florida in Gainesville, said she’s “very attached” to consumers and the brand in Puerto Rico.
Immediately after back-to-back hurricanes scoured the island, she said Welch’s began working with its local partners to carry out relief work. Part of that was initiative was producing water bottles at its Pennsylvania plant to ship and distribute in Puerto Rico.
“Water was actually very important. But what we realized was that we were able to help Campofresco restart their production to keep supermarket shelves full of Welch’s juices,” she said, noting that local partners did not see big losses and Welch’s saw double-digit growth in the year after the storms.
As soon as she could, Rodríguez got on a plane with her former CEO, Brad Irwin, who has since retired, for relief work in Loíza.
“We distributed products, and most importantly, for me personally, it wasn’t so much about distributing the products. What really touched my heart was getting into people’s houses and learning about life after the hurricanes and how we could help them,” she said.
Welch’s sells about 2 million cases of its beverages in Puerto Rico on an annual basis. It holds 83 percent of the market, where it competes with local producers, such as both of its manufacturing partners.
“We’re partners who compete. But if we all work together, we all benefit and help our consumers as well. We find ways to compete that are fair to all of us and our consumers,” she noted.
Prior to her arrival at Welch’s, Rodríguez held top posts at The Campbell Soup Co. and Dr. Pepper Snapple Group.
The pipeline for 2019 and beyond
Looking ahead, Welch’s will be working to develop new formats for products manufactured in Puerto Rico and will also be concentrating on growing its sparkling juice business, she said.
The company recently introduced a non-alcoholic, sparkling Rosé product in a 25-ounce glass bottle format to Puerto Rico that she said is in its early stages of distribution in stateside markets.
“It has been very successful and has become a celebratory product for children, and an alternative for mothers who are expecting and want to avoid alcohol,” Rodríguez said, of the flavor in a product line that includes red and green grape sparkling drinks, as well as a Sparkling Sangria.
“Depending on how these new flavors do, we can continue to expand our portfolio in Puerto Rico,” she added. “Right now, because of the volume and capabilities that we have, we’re bringing them from the U.S. [mainland.] But once we see an opportunity, we look to see if there’s a partner available for local manufacturing.”
Such an opportunity may come up with its 64-ounce refrigerated juice cartons, which are gaining traction among local consumers, she said. Those juices are distributed by Tres Monjitas, which in the future could also be tapped for manufacturing.
“That product has a short shelf life. So, when we’re bringing that from the U.S. [mainland] it counts against us,” Rodríguez said. “It would be wonderful if that footprint increases here in Puerto Rico.”
Welch’s is a $610 million packaged goods company best known for its line of juices, frozen concentrates, jams, and jellies — particularly Concord grape-based products.