A conversation with Kristen Eshak Weldon

Part Two: The future of food

“Joining Dreyfus is a tremendous opportunity for me in terms of innovation and disruption,” Kristen told me, “and my initial focus is on the future of food.”

“So where do you start?” I asked her. “You arrive at LDC, you are given a long business title and then what?”

“The first thing I had to do was to understand what makes LDC successful as a company. I initially spent very little time in London and instead tried to go to the places where LDC has a major presence. I visited the industrial assets and wanted to understand the industrial processes, but more importantly I wanted to meet the people and understand the culture of the company.

“During this initiation period I realized that people were often working on the same challenges in different regions, but without necessarily sharing their experiences. It is essential that we leverage best practices across regions, so my first task was to try and link the dots.

“The second thing I had to do was to define our investment thesis. The future of food topic is so vast, there are so many things we can be doing. Upstream is logical in terms of looking at helping farmers to be more efficient and more effective, but it is a really crowded space, and more the domain of the seed and technology companies. The downstream part has more opportunities and is adjacent to what we already do, but we have to decide what is relevant to us, and where we can be impactful.

“Could you tell me a little about your company’s investment in MOTIF?”

“I joined LDC when the due diligence was nearly done. This investment is really exciting, cutting edge and I would place it on the far right hand side of our range of opportunities as it relates to adjacency. MOTIF leverages biotechnology to create innovative ingredients that replicate animal proteins in terms of texture or taste. The company is based in Boston and was the second start-up to launch from Ginkgo Bioworks. Investing in MOTIF was a way for us to help us understand more about the future of food.”

“The other agricultural commodity traders have already been serial acquirers in the sector, moving into specialty areas. What will you do differently?” I asked.

“Our intention is not to provide all of the F&B companies with a blanket solution for all their specialty ingredients, but we will do it in specific areas and regions. And we will do it differently. We are looking to work in partnership with other companies in the form of joint ventures, or by bringing in external co-investment capital on the innovation side. This will allow us to move quickly.”

“Don’t you think LDC is starting the process a little late in the game compared to your competitors?”

 

“Maybe, but one thing that gets drummed into your brain at business school is that there is no such thing as a first mover advantage. That and “fail fast.” I would have liked to have had some lessons learned from previous acquisitions, but we are certainly not too late. The timing is still right, and we can add value in the areas and regions that are less trafficked.”

“In the late 90s Continental Grain decided that the risks in commodity trading weren’t worth the rewards, and they sold their commodity trading operations to Cargill. They then became a major investor in the faster growing parts of the food chain, almost as a venture capital fund. Is that something that LDC might consider doing, selling off their bulk handling operations?”

“Absolutely not. The trading part of our business is the DNA of our company. That won’t go away. When we look at new areas we have to ask what we bring to the table and how, are they adjacent to what we know and do best. We can bring industrial scale to a business, as well as our risk management skills. Our geographical footprint helps massively. We already operate in countries where a start-up may not be able to go by themselves—countries where we already understand the regulatory landscape, the political issues etc.”

“What about brands?” I asked. “LDC has a crushing plant in China, and if I understand correctly your plan is to take beans all the way from Argentina through to branded bottled oil in China. That’s a new venture for you: a branded consumer product.”

“Branded consumer products are not new to LDC per se. Over the years, we have created a number of branded consumer products, including edible oil brands “Vibhor” in India and “Vila Velha” in Brazil, or “Zephyr” coffee in the US, together with rice and sugar brands. Today, we plan to go downstream in a more structured approach where we leverage our matrix structure and take experts from our platforms that know these products, and then use our regional resources that understand local consumer demands.”

“And that leads me on to my most important question: what does the consumer want? Is it sustainability, health, human rights, a fair income for farmers, or what?”

“You are asking the wrong question. Different consumers want different things. That’s what makes this job so interesting, and provides so many opportunities.

“First, it depends on where you are in the world. If you look at Europe and the US, then health is probably the number one issue, followed by environmental sustainability and human rights. Farmer welfare probably comes last but that does not mean that it is not important. In China and other Asian countries, consumers are looking closely at quality and safety, for example. In the poorer parts of the world, the first question usually is, “How can I meet the daily needs of my family?”

“Second, regardless of where they are, different people have different priorities. They may be vegetarian, vegan, flexitarian, or whatever. There are opportunities in providing different consumers with different solutions.

“As a company, our downstream approach has to be crafted differently for each region and for each market segment. At the same time we have to keep a focus on the macro picture of feeding the world safely and sustainably. We have to be aware of what our global goals are. We have to look at the entire value chain and where it is impactful.

“Everyday when you leave the office you should ask yourself, “Am I doing the right thing? Is what I am doing beneficial, and do I feel good about it?”

“That is what is really important about what I am doing at LDC, especially on the innovation side. We want to know that we are delivering a food product in a safe and environmentally sustainable way, that we know exactly where it comes from, and that the labour that produced it is being paid market wages.

“I want to be someone that does positive things, and I want to work with aligned parties that share our values, whether it is the companies that we invest in, or fellow investors in these companies.”

“Thank you Kristen for your time.”

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