A global expansion strategy carried out by MTI Consulting on behalf of Limoneira, the Nasdaq listed and USA’s largest lemon producer has become an international business case study.
Titled ‘Making lemonade from lemons: The role of client – consultant knowledge as the Limoneira Company goes global,’ the case study by Jason Cordier and Tahir Hameed has been included in ‘Management Consultancy Insights and Real Consultancy Projects’ published by Routledge.
It illustrates how social capital and strong inter-personal skills and relationships positively influenced consultant and client learning, thereby influencing an array of project outcomes.
“At the end of the MTI project we decided to go-to-market directly with our lemon business utilizing our vertically integrated supply chain and the Limoneira brand. Looking back we are extremely pleased with that decision which has paid off significantly as reflected in our business performance and financial results. MTI played a pivotal role in this exercise and did so while getting the buy-in and inclusiveness of our team,” said Harold S. Edwards, the President & CEO of Limoneira.
The Limoneira Company established itself in the cultivation of lemons, oranges and walnuts in 1893. By 2000s Limoneira had become a leading global producer of lemons, oranges and avocados and the largest lemon producer in the United States. It also had interests in real-estate, solar farming etc.
At the time Limoneira was a member and the largest lemon producer of the powerful Californian citrus grower cooperative; Sunkist. Sunkist was the largest fresh produce shipper in the US at the time and the most diversified citrus processing and marketing cooperative in the world. It had developed a well-managed brand as well as an extensive array of market subsidiaries and channel partners throughout the world, which marketed and sold the growers’ products on its behalf.
Limoneira’s relationship with Sunkist (of which Limoneira was a founding member) was seen as double-edged sword by the company’s newly appointed CEO/President Harold Edwards and Senior Vice President Alex Teague.
Since the early 1900s, Sunkist had been responsible for almost all of Limoneira’s market access, and accordingly the vast majority of its revenue. Sunkist offered stability and the relationship with the marketing cooperative enabled Limoneira to focus on its specialization; growing lemons.
However this came at the opportunity cost of having the sales potential limited by the cooperative’s framework, restraining Limoneira’s future growth prospects. The number of fresh fruit lemons that could be sold by Limoneira was limited by Sunkist’s quota system, even if their fruit quality exceeded other growers, or if buyers specifically requested more of Limoneira’s product.
Alex Teague states, “The Sunkist system only teaches the class up to the level of the lowest level kid in the class.”
Limoneira’s strategic intent was to make a quantum leap in its production and sales from its then production level of 1.5 million cartons to 12.5 million cartons, which required a 365 day supply chain. However due to seasonality of lemons (market demand is met alternatively between northern and southern hemisphere growers) and being a California based grower’s cooperative, Limoneira could not operate a 365 day supply chain.
At the time United States held a solid position in medium-sized markets like Japan and Canada, while Spain, Turkey and Argentina were key suppliers to the EU markets where Sunkist had little presence. Around 2007 another group of importers emerged from the Ukraine, Saudi Arabia, China and Serbia.
Hence to tap into these markets and to operate a 365-day supply chain, Limoneira had to leave Sunkist.
Preparing for take-off
After being appointed CEO/President, Edwards, together with Teague, addressed the top heavy structure of the company by downsizing 29 management and supervisory positions without any lawsuits. They also changed what was deemed an entitlement process by hourly employees to a performance based incentives model.
Limoneira thereby had developed a lean and closely knit team as well as an exceedingly efficient production operation that resulted in high quality fruit which became sought after both nationally and internationally.
The preference for Limoneira’s fruit by domestic and international buyers – such as Japan – started to signal to Limoneira’s management team that perhaps they could go it alone and expand market share. However, while Limoneira held an excellent base of knowledge regarding the dynamics of producing lemons, it knew little about accessing alternative channels outside of where its fruit was currently sold, the value of these channels and what markets/product categories to optimally position itself towards.
Limoneira’s strategic intent to make a quantum leap in its production and sales from 1.5 million cartons to 12.5 million cartons required:
MTI Consulting, a management consulting firm headquartered in Bahrain, was selected at this stage by Limoneira to assess the viability of leaving Sunkist, as well as establishing a global expansion plan from which the board of directors could weigh the risks of leaving their lifelong partner Sunkist.
MTI Consulting had conducted over 400 projects across 40 countries going into 2008. While it operated in the domains of corporate finance, technology and market research, its bread and butter was strategic consulting.
MTI Consulting was experiencing a busy year with 35 projects occurring across the markets in which MTI operated. Capacity was limited, especially amongst senior consultants. The project also required dealing with a client in a country where MTI had no physical presence.
Furthermore, the project scope required looking at Limoneira optimally operating across a great portion of the world and accordingly entering new markets. This would entail time on the ground in markets where MTI had no presence, dealing with a product category that MTI had no previous experience with, and accordingly possessing no market contacts.
Approach & Methodology
The extensive number of markets involved in the project, the nature of the project, and limited codified market data availability brought complexity to the project.
From experience MTI CEO, Hilmy Cader had come to believe that the most successful projects were ones that were highly integrated between the client and the consultant. This factored into the approach MTI used on this project and the consultants whom MTI deployed. A strong relationship with the client leverages the client’s knowledge, which is most critical, particularly in larger international strategic projects where unknown variables can compound quickly.
Hilmy states, “We resist the urge to imply we know more than the client in their domain as a means to justify our value and fee, as we don’t. They know their business. We deliver our value by working side by side with the client.”
The project required searching, collecting, analyzing and synthesizing explicit and tacit knowledge available within consultant’s own team, client, client’s partners, customers, competitors, and industry and global supply chain. It also required prioritization – with focus only on that information which supports the project objectives
The information-related challenges were addressed through a very strong consultant-client relationship where MTI was granted deep access from the top of the organization. This was further facilitated by the consultants and the clients warming to each other quickly at a personal level.
MTI used its in-house 8-step strategic planning process called the ‘8S PlanScape’ for the Limoneira project. It rests on established business theories and industry experience with practices comprising of external and internal environment scanning, forecasting, planning, organizational design, control systems and social responsibilities.
For the project, each of the PlanScape tasks were then broken down into sub-tasks and mapped onto nucleus modules. The nucleus is another proprietary scoping tool developed by MTI which helps project teams identify specific elements of knowledge for the task or project. It also identifies the sources of business intelligence (BI) and how it could be acquired.
In sum, the nucleus’ role is to help the project team define the BI activity, gather a sense of the required knowledge management technique (i.e. explorative or exploitative) and develop methods and strategies to acquire the BI. These focus around capturing both explicit and tacit knowledge.
As the Nucleus moves down into more specific subunits, broader questions are replaced with more detailed project questions. As the Nucleus is only a project plan, it often evolves considerably as phases of the project are implemented. While knowledge is not static, a solid basis outlining what needs to be asked is however required at the planning stage. Outlining BI methods acts as a foundation to allocate resources, identify areas where knowledge exists and map out where knowledge does not exist.
In the case of MTI consulting, such plans often work on lean documentation that attempts to remove unnecessary text from internal documents.
What was of considerable significance for this project was not only the value created by varied forms of BI, but how they resulted in strategy formulation and particularly the creation of new knowledge. The matrix of BI was employed to deliver a business solution that the client not only bought into, but held a strong role in the developmental process and the final solution.
The exploration of knowledge for MTI was first based on client domain knowledge. The acknowledgement that MTI were not lemon specialists, had not worked in the lemon or even citrus market before, acted as a pillar for inquiry – although MTI had worked in the agricultural sector before.
The client knowledge is also initially explored as MTI employs the concept of a ‘clean slate’, where consultants would initially resist the urge to draw from pervious experiences to develop a solution – which could be sub-optimal.
Limoneira’s performance culture also strongly supported learning and explorative knowledge positioning. This culture was particularly a result of Harold Edwards’ leadership approach when becoming the CEO and the legacy of how Limoneira had operated in an open and inclusive manner.
MTI leveraged Limoneira’s good relationships to develop open forums from and applied cross-market learnings and to address the complexity.
While MTI itself faced knowledge transference issues with its project team working across multiple markets, a strong and supportive culture within MTI resulted in knowledge sharing. The firm’s culture challenges its consultants never to think of themselves as experts on a position.
War gaming, market analysis and channel strategies were presented to the executive management and board. The board – while largely excited about growth prospects beyond Sunkist – was initially uneasy about leaving the cooperative given the business climate created by the global financial crisis.
The executive management however, having worked very closely with MTI were more bullish in their position. The final MTI-client solution that was presented to the board shared the position of the executive management. Arguably, MTI’s status as outsiders, coupled with the client’s strong industry knowledge made the initial unease of leaving Sunkist more palatable to the board of directors.
A close partnership between Limoneira executives and consultants – in which areas of strategic concern had been worked through and challenged from often differing positions – resulted in a strong yet balanced position being presented to the board.
Limoneira listed on NASDAQ in May 2010 and also announced that it would be leaving Sunkist as of November that year. The market would react favorable over the coming days with a 19% increase in the value of Limoneira’s shares.
Photo: Hilmy Cader, CEO MTI Consulting and Jason Cordier, MTI’s International Consultant and Case Study Author, Harold S. Edwards, the CEO & President of Limoneira and Photos of the Limoneira and MTI team at Strategizing in California