(Feb. 6) As competition with Mexican avocado suppliers heats up under relaxed import rules, two California shippers have merged to form potentially the largest supply of California fruit in the business.

Oxnard-based Mission Produce Inc. said Feb. 6 it had bought a 49% interest in Escondido-based Henry Avocado Corp. for an undisclosed sum.

The deal brings together two companies that combined for $250 million in fresh sales and 9 million cartons of fresh avocados last year.

“The target was to work together, to exchange fruit, exchange information as our ripe programs experience supersonic growth,” said Stephen Barnard, Mission’s chief executive officer. “I needed access to more supplies, and they were a good fit. They have the same philosophy. They’ve got some of their own ripe centers in cities that we’re not in.”

Henry Avocado, at 81 years old, is considered one of the pioneers in California’s avocado industry. The company has ripening facilities in San Jose, Calif.; Escondido; and Phoenix.

Mission has a network of ripening facilities in Oxnard, Denver, Chicago, New Jersey, Atlanta, Dallas, Seattle and Mexico. Mission also says it’s the largest importer of Chilean avocados.

“We don’t share locations, and we believe it makes a tremendous amount of sense to continue to expand in the existing markets where we are and into additional geographic markets and not compete against each other,” said Phil Henry, a co-owner of Henry Avocado. “So we can spend money on new ripening facilities and on personnel in our distribution system and not in different markets so that we are expanding the demand for our products.”

The deal, which closed Feb. 1, had been in the works for about six months, Barnard said.

“Our ripe distribution network that we built across the country has grown so fast, our biggest concern has been supply, and this just solidifies that,” Barnard said. “If it keeps growing, we might have to do something else. It’s a nice problem to have. You have to stay ahead of it.”

Henry said his company’s customer base, which is anchored strongly in foodservice, will meld well with Mission’s retail-oriented approach.

“Mission’s emphasis has been more on the large retail accounts, although they certainly have some key foodservice accounts, and our emphasis has been on foodservice and Western accounts,” he said. “Of course, we have some key retail accounts that we do the ripening for. So we found this a very good fit from that standpoint. We had very little overlap in our customer base.”