(Oct. 24, 2:00 p.m.) VERO BEACH, Fla. — As it celebrates its first 100 years, Seald Sweet International is keeping an eye on the future.

From its beginnings, the grower organizers of the former citrus marketing cooperative — founded as the Florida Citrus Exchange in 1909 — never stood still. Then, as now, Seald Sweet watches for innovation and change.

That forward-thinking helped Seald Sweet’s grower members develop and change many things, including handling and marketing practices, such as being the first to precool and export citrus, the first to propose starting a Florida Citrus Commission for marketing and the first citrus group to enter organics.

Despite the company’s rich heritage, its grower-directors understood the cooperative couldn’t sit on its laurels. It had to move forward, said Bruce McEvoy, Seald Sweet’s director of global affairs, who was the organization’s president and chief executive officer during the mid-1990s, when the cooperative began to change its business structure.

The cooperative’s leaders in 1998 reformed Seald Sweet as a limited liability corporation with De Weide Blik, a European holding company that specialized in produce and vegetable exports, enabling contraseasonal citrus imports.

In 2004, Seald Sweet’s growers approved the Belgium-based Univeg Group — one of Europe’s largest supply chain management firms — taking a controlling interest in Seald Sweet.

Just a month after Seald Sweet — legally called Seald Sweet LLC — inked the deal, back-to-back hurricanes swept through Florida and devastated the citrus industry.

If Seald Sweet hadn’t been working on diversifying and affiliating with a company that possesses global supply chain expertise, the loss in production from the storms could have meant the end of Seald Sweet, McEvoy said.

“Throughout Seald Sweet’s history, its main focus in the supply chain was mainly the marketing side,” McEvoy said.

“What we’re seeing today is that you need to control that chain. To do that, it requires partnerships and direct investments or joint ventures — whatever it takes to move the product from production site to ultimate consumption. That’s a very different type of business than what we had been doing.”

After the corporate change, Seald Sweet started looking offshore and in 2000 began importing Argentinean citrus and invested in Mouton Citrus, a South African shipper.

In recent years, Seald Sweet, with Univeg’s guidance, has begun entering the table grape, avocado and mango deals.

That geographic and product diversification, said McEvoy and Mayda Sotomayor, Seald Sweet’s chief executive officer, will keep the citrus grower, importer and marketer on top of the citrus game — and other produce items — in the future.

After a century in citrus sales, said there are few recipes for success, Sotomayor said.

“If you were to nominate a formula that gave us sustainability, it is the fact that we continuously changed and accepted and embraced opportunities for change,” she said. “We (our directors) did not settle for what was here. They always looked forward to something else and that everything could be continuously improved.”

Part of that vision, Sotomayor said, is the move to other commodities and services to fully integrate Seald Sweet as a produce marketer.

Sotomayor said Seald Sweet plans to market fruit from Univeg companies to retailers, providing more direct business and shortening delivery distances for opportunities through Seald Sweet’s own production and associated grower partnerships.

One example is Uruguay blueberry production by one of Univeg’s associated growers. Seald Sweet is working to gradually develop that business.

Seald Sweet, McEvoy said, doesn’t want to prematurely jump into a business. Instead, the company is studying the appropriate products and finding where it can make a difference through leveraging its corporate expertise and customer base, McEvoy said.

As it expands globally and moves into other produce items, Seald Sweet, which had more than $100 million in sales in 2007, hasn’t forgotten its Florida citrus heritage.

Florida citrus, Sotomayor said, remains Seald Sweet’s product base. The organization offers a range of category offerings, including the leading varieties of oranges, grapefruit, tangerines, lemons and clementines.

Seald Sweet’s 100th brings broadened produce focus
The Orange Queen in the 1920s reigns at the Orange Festival in Winter Haven, Fla.

Courtesy Seald Sweet International