Mar. 17, 2015

Colin Smith

UAE, Abu Dhabi

Colin Smith

Managing Director, Abu Dhabi Vegetable Oil Company (ADVOC)

"At ADVOC we have built a culture based on health and safety among our employees."


Colin Smith has been with the ADVOC group for more than 15 years, first as General Manager then as Managing Director since 2011. He began his career in the FMCG sector in the UK, where he held Senior Management roles with Gillette and British American Tobacco before relocating to Dubai in 1983. During his time in the Middle East he has held General Manager roles with several of the leading FMCG companies in the GCC including Spinneys, Binzagr, and Savola, where he was instrumental in establishing their leading brands in several countries in the Middle East and Iran. He originates from Scotland in the UK, where he studied Economics and Business in his hometown of Dundee.

What have been the milestones for the company over the years?

First of all, ADVOC is in a strategically located port. In the early days, the company was set up with the primary aim to supply Iraq. While this plan had some success, the demand was not consistent and thus the company revised the business model with a view to ensuring the factory was fully engaged on a regular basis. ADVOC began producing Coroli brand products in Abu Dhabi in 2000 and in 2004, and bought Cebag Middle East Limited, the owner of the Coroli brand, amongst other brands. ADVOC thus acquired the Coroli brand ownership rights for the MENA region, plus the Cebag trading business. This proved to be a significant milestone because it got the company away from relying on government tenders, which came on an irregular basis. In addition, the company also launched a range of other branded products as well to meet demand across several sectors in the major retail outlets in the region. Between 2004 and 2009, we built up a significant distribution network in all of the countries around here, from East Africa to Pakistan and we now deal with all of the GCC for Coroli and other ADVOC brands. We also make private label brands for selected major clients. In 2010 we began a major program of upgrades and installed several automated sections to our plant including high-speed filling lines plus robotic packing and palletizing. In 2012 we expanded our factory capacity by about 25% increasing both efficiency and output. In 2013, we added a custom built modern PET bottle making plant. We are now capable of making most of our own bottles and we plan to add further capacity as demand increases. In 2014, we also acquired a plot adjacent to our refinery that will double our current factory area.

What is your strategy in terms of innovation and automation?

Over the past five years or so we have undertaken several projects and have taken away many of the manual elements of filling, capping, and packing. There is one line, which is capable of producing a significant percentage of our filling and packing, and everything is done automatically, right to the end when the product exits the building on pallets ready for dispatch. As part of our current five-year plan we will introduce more new high-speed lines to meet projected increased demand. Our PET bottle making is pretty much fully automatic. The bottles are blow-molded and fed straight to the filling area by a series of conveyors. It is pretty much seamless production. The same applies to the refinery itself. The refinery is PLC driven, with minimal manual intervention. There our team set up the parameters and the refinery runs itself with supervisors observing the process. Our refinery works 24 hours a day and we have a staff of around 250 including administration, shift workers, and logistics staff plus teams in our branches.

“At ADVOC we have built a culture based on health and safety among our employees."

What is your company's HSE policy?

At ADVOC we have built a culture based on health and safety among our employees. And this is put into practice by assuring the protection of our most valuable resource; our manpower, prevention of loss or damage to lives or resources, the constant promotion of health and safety awareness throughout the company, and collaboration with all relevant authorities in line with the UAE's ceaseless effort in the overall development of its workforce by complying with all legal safety requirements. ADVOC is also certified with ISO 9001:2008 (Quality Management System) and ISO 22000:2005 (Food Safety Management System) and we continually strive to meet and exceed these internationally recognized standards.

What is your company's strategy for being as customer orientated as possible?

We check our audit data to see how the product is perceived. We always get feedback through our people and solicit feedback from the trade. The Coroli brand has been around for 35-40 years and it has built a good client base throughout the region as well innovating a lot with the packaging. You need to provide a quality, competitive product and you need to provide support for advertising and promotion in order to keep the trade and the consumers happy.

What countries are you present in at the moment?

Most of the business goes to the GCC and up to the Levant with Saudi Arabia being probably an even larger market than the UAE. Despite the various conflicts in the region we are still able to continue to supply parts of Syria plus Lebanon, and Jordan, and down to Tanzania and some of the top-end African countries. We have had a long business relationship with Pakistan, Nepal, and the Seychelles. It is quite a spread over all of these places, although the bulk of the business is done nearby.

What is your plan for the future?

We intend to expand into the African markets, and in time we will also further expand and upgrade into other nearby countries such as Iraq and Iran when matters improve. We have traditionally dealt with Iraq; however, when trouble starts, business goes down; it is a difficult place to do business. However, these are quite attractive and sizable markets. In the future, ADVOC will increase the output capability of the refinery further, including adding specialty fats like shortening, margarine, and fats for the bakery, hotels, restaurants, and catering segment. This will not just be here in Abu Dhabi, but throughout. This will give us a wider range of products. We have a substantial network of distributors, so it is easy for us to tack that on. We are also going to improve some of the product types that we make and widen the range of our existing products.

What kind of partnerships is ADVOC looking for?

ADVOC has distributors that go back to the 1960s and 1970s. We have been in discussions and been approached many times by potential strategic partners from the Far East who see us as a potential vehicle to enter the Middle East region since Abu Dhabi and the UAE is a great hub. We have also had interest from some of the major players locally. Some of them have talked to us about joining forces. This is definitely the way forward. We have been approached by individual investors as well and this is part of the reason for us to expand the business—we are aware that people see this as a place for expansion and we are a prime candidate to either attract additional investors or to merge and join other companies as part of the food business.

What is your recommendation for export-oriented companies that want to come to Abu Dhabi?

You only have to look at the map. First of all, it is a safe and peaceful spot in this region; it is like an oasis of calm when all around us is trouble. Furthermore, there are large countries all around us—Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran—meaning there is great potential. The transportation links are great from this country. We do in fact frequently use the road links, plus we are close to the port and the new port is in a great location. Looking to the future, as Khalifa Port builds up it will be an additional asset to anyone coming here. Overall, it is easy enough to do business here as it is transparent and there is good support from the financial institutions and the government.

How would you assess government regulations in the food business?

I see the government's work as successful. There is significant work being done to bring price stability to the sector. That is positive for us, for all companies doing business in this sector, and also for the ones that want to enter the market, not to mention the consumers. I also see the government working hard toward food safety. This boosts quality in the sector and motivates companies to create more value added while staying competitive. We are definitely looking for inward investment to grow the business, either from institutions or other investors. That is something we believe in because we have some good value to add to the economy.

© The Business Year - March 2015