Wednesday, April 14, 2021
 

Exporting quality

Seafood executive upholds the legacy of his company’s founder

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CARLITO AUSTRIA
Chief Executive Officer, RGE Agridev Corp.

“Discipline, consistency to purpose and looking at the bigger picture are the lessons that I have lived by in my career, and I have tried to share with the future leaders of RGE.”

If there is one thing the Philippines, whose 36,289 kilometers of coastline was named the world’s fifth longest by The World Factbook, can take pride in, it is the diversity of the marine creatures found in its waters.

One of these is the blue swimming crab (portunus pelagicus), popularly known as alimasag. The harvesting of this crustacean, which can be found throughout the waters of the archipelago, is an important source of livelihood for Filipino fishermen. The most important crabbing areas in the Philippines are the Visayan Sea and Guimaras Strait, which reportedly contains about half of the country’s crab-picking stations. Alimasag is part of the Filipino seafood cuisine, but it takes a lot of effort to enjoy because one has to go through dismantling the tough crab shell to get its delicious meat. Some people even avoid eating this delicacy because of that.

Crabmeat craving
One person turned this “problem” into a business opportunity and introduced frozen, pasteurized crab meat. In 2000, entrepreneur Robert G. Eduardo established RGE Agridev Corp., a company that exports Philippine seafood products, particularly frozen, pasteurized crabmeat. He played integral roles in forming both the Philippine Association of Crab Processors Inc. and the NFI Crab Council, where he served on its executive committee.

Ready-to-eat crabmeat

Pasta sprinkled with alimasag

 


(from left) Austria, Elmer Rosario, RGE North America sales manager, Richard Barry of the National Fisheries Institute and the late Roberto G. Eduardo, RGE founder, at the 2016 Seafood Expo North America in Boston.

Eduardo’s launch of RGE was timely as the US earlier experienced a crab shortage. The taste of alimasag, which is said to be similar to Maryland’s blue crab, attracted well-known US crabmeat brands to import crab meat, and RGE became the premier supplier. The US market continues to be important for RGE due to the policy of the Trump administration, which limited the hiring of foreign crab pickers.

Sadly, Eduardo passed away in 2019, and the RGE board voted Carlito Austria as the new chief executive officer (CEO).

Austria joined RGE Agridev in 2009 with the specific task of putting up a marketing arm in the US, to tap the big demand for crabmeat in the east coast. He worked alone and had to do everything himself, from market research to applying for state and federal permits, among others. Once RGE became a legal entity, he proposed to establish their own brand, Pier 717. The name evoked fresh products from sea-to-table, and the figure 717 (July 17) was the anniversary of the Cebu plant. Pier 717 was then positioned to the consumer segment of the US market.

Austria, a De La Salle University graduate with an industrial management engineering degree, first worked at San Miguel Corp. He recalls: “At a young age, I was logistics director for Greater Manila operations, responsible for ensuring that the plant had everything it needed to produce beer and that the beer got to the various distribution offices.” The job involved a lot of coordination, with suppliers, truckers and the distribution centers.

In the nondigital era, Austria had to devise his own system. “First thing in the morning, while I was in the shower, my wife read my pager messages,” he recalls. “So even before getting to work, I had a picture of the day’s situation. This allowed me and my team to identify the priority areas and tweak production schedules.

“Discipline, consistency to purpose and looking at the bigger picture are the lessons that I have lived by in my career, and I have tried to share with the future leaders of RGE.”

Austria and his family moved to San Francisco in 1996, during the Silicon Valley boom, and where he saw firsthand how information technology (IT) revolutionized industry. So, to complement his education and logistics experience, he earned a post-graduate diploma in network engineering from the University of California, Berkeley. “My next challenge was to transform a freight forwarding company into a total logistics provider, since by then, I knew logistics needed a strong IT backbone,” he says. That experience helped prepare Austria for his promotion as RGE president in 2014.

Committed to employees
Among the priorities Austria identified when he took over the post was the diversification of RGE’s markets. “Focusing on just one market was a weakness, so we looked for new markets in Europe and Asia. It was not easy, as each one was different, in terms of labeling, specifications, logistics, regulatory approval process, customs processes, etc. It was long and arduous, but I am very proud to say that through RGE’s team’s efforts, we now have regular clients in Hong Kong and the European Union. And through the initiative of our current president, Martin Eduardo, RGE is making inroads in the domestic market.”

Like most businesses last year, the pandemic made a major impact on RGE with the closure of restaurants and the lockdown that affected buyers and the shipment of RGE products. RGE had to temporarily suspend operations when orders were canceled. But the management dipped into company resources, continuing to pay salaries and provide for their daily paid pickers and sorters. The company may have taken a big hit, but it remained committed to protecting its most important resource: their people. “We resumed production under different conditions with strict protocols in the plant for safety against Covid-19, difficult logistics and continued lockdown,” Austria declares. “We, along with the whole world, continue to grapple with this situation, and by God’s grace, we will get through.”

As a relief from the stress, Austria looks at his family. He has been together with his wife Mei-An for 36 years, and the couple celebrated their 30th anniversary last year. Mei-An Austria is a public servant and serves as the Philippine consul general in Vancouver.

They have three daughters: Trish Austria-Ramsey, who is is a full scholar in post-graduate studies at Yale University; Abby, an alumna of Ateneo de Manila University who now works for Electronic Arts, a major game development company; and Gabe, currently in her junior year at the University of British Columbia, majoring in economics and also works as a graphic design and marketing coordinator. Austria, a new grandfather, welcomed his first grandson this month from daughter Trish.

“The team and I are humbled to see RGE’s vision for the enterprise [he founded], not just take root, but also thrive,” Austria says. He regards his place as RGE chief executive as a steward, preserving its founder’s legacy to conserve marine resources and sustain the company’s growth and profitability.

He says: “I see my role as helping the company realize its full potential. My vision for RGE is to make Pier 717 a household word in the Philippines, and a brand — a high-quality Filipino seafood brand — that speaks to the world of who, we, Filipinos, are as a people.”

CONTRIBUTED PHOTOS


 

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