Chances are you have bought one of Sun-Brite Canning Limited’s products. The Ruthven facility produces canned tomatoes, sauces, condiments, beans and pasta, just to name a few. Its brand names include Unico and Primo, and its client list includes Campbell’s and Heinz. Its products make their way to stores from the Maritimes to Vancouver Island. So how has this local business succeeded in the ever-competitive food industry? “Success is based on honesty, integrity and hard work,” says Henry Iacobelli, president and founder of Sun-Brite. Iacobelli started the cannery with his wife, Lina, in 1973.
The couple, who met in a local cannery where they both worked, bought a failing cannery facility and worked in the plant alongside their employees. “Everything was done by hand. We had 30 ladies peeling tomatoes,” Iacobelli says. That first year, the 5,000 square-foot plant produced 33,000 cases of canned whole tomatoes. These days, the processing facility is now 140,000 square feet, plus 300,000 square-feet of warehouse, and produces 70,000 cases of tomato products a day. Growth has not come overnight, but gradually over the past three decades as Sun-Brite upgraded to new, more efficient processing technology, added new products and took opportunities to expand its operations. One such opportunity came in 1997, when Sun-Brite bought Unico Inc., one of its larges customers. As the market became tougher, Sun-Brite management knew they needed to expand their business with a brand name product to remain competitive. The Unico acquisition provided that opportunity, with a long-standing, recognizable brand that has helped double sales over the last decade. Started in 1917 by Edward Pasquale, Unico’s product line includes pastas, cooking oils, tomatoes, beans, peas, fish, marinades and rice.
In 1993, Sun-Brite and a group of employees bought local Countryside Canners Co. Ltd., in a profit sharing purchase that has “done very well for [the employees],” Iacobelli says. In August, the company also purchased Primo, which along with a variety of products added a pasta-making plant to the Sun-Brite facilities.
Growth has not just come from acquisitions, however. Research and development have been key to producing quality products cost-effectively and efficiently, allowing Sun-Brite to increase its production volume. “We put a lot of time and effort into R & D,” says John Iacobelli, Henry’s son and director of sales and logistics. “We reinvest a lot of money.”
Sun-Brite’s research and development includes new equipment and technology, new product lines and working with customers to develop new recipes for items such as pizza and pasta sauces. During the past year, Sun-Brite has updated its labels, both to modernize the designs and to comply to the government’s new nutritional labeling regulations. The company also introduced several new products, including new pasta sauces, tomatoes packed in thicker juices with seasonings, and new condiments under the Unico brand. “Whatever we can come up with that will complement our existing products,” John says. “We’re on track for some good growth we’ve increased sales [in 2006] by seven to eight percent, which is really good in our business.”
Processing has changed dramatically since the days of ladies peeling tomatoes by hand. One of the first changes was a switch from self-harvesting to contract crops, which allowed the business to concentrate on quality packing of its products. They now contract largely within southwestern Ontario, including Harrow, Chatham, Leamington and Wallaceburg. In the 1980s, Sun-Brite introduced new peeling techniques and continuous rotary pressure cookers to increase yields and improve the quality and consistency of its packages. The company also installed a five-effect evaporator in 1981, which allowed it to begin producing crushed tomato products, including sauces and puree. In 1990, installation of a four-effect, five stage evaporator, allowed Sun-Brite to process 60 tons of tomato per hour. An aseptic processing system added in 1991 produces product for bulk packages as well as an ingredient used internally for off-season specialty sauces. Anew hot break unit installed at the Ruthven facility in 1996 allows Sun-Brite to produce a more consistently uniform quality paste and concentrate product. A few years ago, two new non-chemical steam peelers were introduced.
The last 30 years also has seen a growth in personnel. Many of its 90 employees at the main Ruthven facility have been working at the site for more than 15 years. One woman has been working at the cannery since before the Iacobellis bought it in 1973, Henry says. Full benefits and competitive wages have kept the turnover rate at a minimum, he adds. Sun-Brite also employs 85 people at the Unico plant in Toronto and 120 workers at the Primo plant, also in Toronto. During the harvest season (August 1 through mid-October), Sun-Brite employs approximately 150 more people.
The key to being successful has been taking the right opportunities at the right time, and fulfilling commitments made to clients, Henry says. “I take pride in my work, whatever it is. I take pride in doing a good job, an honest job.” Henry has also turned to faith for strength and wisdom. “I never go through a day that I don’t have God in my mind,” he says. And according to John, “The best advice[my father] ever gave me was that you’re only as good as your word. You better do everything in your power, even if it costs you money, to keep your word.”
John, who has worked in the plant since he was 13 or 14 years old, has two sons in university who also have worked in the plant since they were teenagers. “But I don’t expect that they have to come work at Sun-Brite”, says John. What Henry does expect however, is for the company to move forward in whatever direction opportunity takes it, and “… to provide good solid employment, to be a good community citizen,” and to continue to provide “really good, high quality products at a fair price,” he says.