NRTC Group CEO Mohammad Nassar Al Refaee leads one of the region’s biggest fruit and vegetable suppliers, and the UAE’s pioneer in the field, keeping the legacy of the freshest-produce promise alive.
Your journey began in 1973: please tell us more about your evolution as a business since then.
Nassar Al Refaee Trading Company (NRTC) caters to the demands of both the local and international markets through the import and export of fresh fruits and vegetables in the Middle East, partnering with local and international producers.
We’re a holding group of companies operating in the Middle East. Focusing on sustainable growth and growing steadily since 1973, the group has managed to turn a family business into an internationally recognised brand which now operates all over the UAE.
It was a very humble start in 1973; my father was the founder of the company, and back then it had just one business module – import/export. We used to depend on the Middle East region alone, and later in the 90s we expanded our reach worldwide.
Back then, we used to import all kinds of fruits and vegetables. Fostering relationships as the years went by, we established a network of more than 55 partners, eventually reaching a point when we were ready to bring any type of fruits and vegetables to the market – no matter the season.
Eventually, we were able to diversify the business module, adding a new, different line which catered to 5-star hotels and restaurants. We managed to build a good relationship, understanding their needs, engaging with the chefs, until we partnered with more than 100 hotels.
The next step was to add innovation to our offering through a pre-cut line, where we were able to provide a unique product offering with peeled, shredded, washed and sanitised fruits and vegetables – delivered ready-to-cook and ready-to-eat to chefs.
With the most modern technologies and equipment in play, ranging from peelers to slicing, dicing and chopping mechanisms, we maintain uniformity in our production.
With comprehensive quality checks and 100% traceability, all products leaving the production facility are guaranteed by our experts to be safe and delivered to our clients’ kitchens under the most hygienic conditions.
NRTC is among the top produce wholesalers in the UAE. With the support of exclusive trading partners across the world and an efficient supply chain, the company operates among various sectors such as HORECA (from top 4/5-star hotels to the lower-end segment), retail (supermarkets and hypermarkets), institutions (airlines and hospitals), and corporate.
We work very hard to ensure that our offerings are up to the highest standards, and have a total of 700 clients, for whom we do 1,800 stops per day, ensuring consistency in supply at the highest service levels.
Through our newest B2C venture, we’re directly reaching the consumer for the first time ever, widening our reach into a brand new challenge. Hence, we’ve massively expanded our digital offering in order to cater to their needs with an app and an extensive, user-friendly website.
With our online ordering platform, we hope to revolutionise the traditional way to shop and reduce any concerns associated with it. Our customers can now easily shop for their daily requirements of fresh fruits and vegetables on our website and get them delivered straight to their door, whether it’s to their home or office.
Please tell us a bit more about your mission.
NRTC Group spares no efforts to ensure that its products are up to the highest safety standards, in addition to being available to everyone. The company continues to be a leader in innovation and services in the fresh food supply industry.
We also always aim to be first choice for tops chefs and culinarians in the country, and understand our clients’ needs, exceeding their expectations every time, all through delivering fresh produce of the highest quality.
How do you ensure quality across your processes, and streamline the import process?
It’s a challenging task to handle fruits and vegetables, and that’s why we have a Quality Control (QC) department. From receiving time by the container, they inspect and cross-check each pallet, moving boxes from each. As they’re moved to another department, fruits and vegetables are picked piece by piece to deliver the best quality to our customers.
From handling, all the way to delivery, we need to ensure that the right temperature is maintained – especially during summer. Storage solutions vary for different types of produce, and that’s why we have more than one facility. This, among many other factors, sets us apart from other fruit and vegetable suppliers.
NRTC operations are designed following strict compliance to international ISO 22000-2005 and HACCP standards. We also aim to maintain a safe, healthy, comfortable and hygienic working environment for all our employees.
We’ve gained lots of experience by default, and are maintaining even higher standards than those required by the UAE Government – which are already very high, among the highest in the world: they are raising the bar for health and safety.
What about competition? How do you stay ahead of the game?
Back when we first started, there were less traders, so competition was limited. As Dubai has grown, we grew with it. The real revolution was in 2001-2002, when we realised that we needed to move to a larger-scale operations model, one where we could tie up with a lot of traders around the world.
How has the digital sphere been helping NRTC Fresh promote and sell products, and what’s the role of technology in your chain?
In terms of social media followers, things are picking up rather quickly – engagement currently stands at 130%. We have our app and website, which both perfectly complement our offering.
We’re always rolling out offers, promotions and competitions, in addition to seasonal and special-occasion boxes.
For this past Valentine’s Day, for example, NRTC Fresh offered a ‘couples box’. Priced at AED 120, it was specially-curated for two. The box included a range of products such as cauliflowers, mushrooms, white onions, romaine lettuce, spring onions, oranges, apples, bananas, strawberries, avocadoes and more.
In addition, the online fruits and vegetable delivery platform offered a free pack of strawberries with every purchase from February 9-14, 2020.
What are your predictions for market growth in the UAE and region, and how do you plan on keeping up?
People nowadays want to be healthier, more efficient. In the UAE, there’s no supply shortage, so consumers can afford to have large quantities of fruits and vegetables every single day.
Being strong importers, we’re able to cut the middle man – the broker, hence having a competitive advantage when it comes to pricing. We import more than 400 tonnes of fresh fruits and vegetables daily from Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Morocco and Jordan. The products are transported by land and sea to the Dubai Central Market.
In the case of certain kinds of produce with a short shelf life, products are imported by air. The department has 11 chiller sites with a total of 35 cold storage rooms, where the products are repackaged for immediate distribution within the UAE.
As for Expo 2020, hotels are expecting around 25 million visitors in six months, which translates into higher demand. As for NRTC Group, we might have an area where we’ll sell ready-to-eat products.
What are some of your best-sellers across different channels?
We have different categories: we cover fruits, vegetables, and herbs – all sold either whole or pre-cut. In terms of sales, oranges are the top-selling product in the fruits category – almost 11 million kg annually. Statistically, avocadoes come second.
If we look at retail, the top-selling fruit is the banana, and by retail I’m mainly referring to supermarkets. As for vegetables, we have tomatoes, onions and potatoes.
Who are some of your biggest partners in the region and how do you work with them?
We collaborate with some of the biggest organisations to ensure a win-win situation for all business stakeholders, including Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank (ADCB) and Commercial Bank of Dubai (CBD) for banking, and suppliers such as Roha Premium Potato Ltd, Alliance Fruit, and Freshlink.
Our relationship with our partners is founded on confidence and trust, ensuring that all objectives are met, ethically.
Please tell us more about your team.
We have more than 1,100 employees across all departments. The logistics team, which is among the most important units for us, ensures that products are delivered at the right time. They are responsible for receiving containers, delivering to the warehouse, and manage around 300 vehicles covering the UAE’s ports.
Our scale of operations is massive, and hence on-the-job coaching and mentoring is very important. In every department, there’s a vertical hierarchy, and managers work very closely with their teams. Most of our employees come from an F&B background; our priority is always to retain talent, and so we identify their needs and send them for additional training as needed.
What do you prioritise as a company?
We prioritise innovation in line with the modern lifestyle, always trying to find new ways for consumers to enjoy fresh fruits and vegetables of the highest quality.
In the past four decades, we’ve dedicated all our e¬fforts to delivering not just quality produce, but also trust, which is reflected in the many awards we’ve won over the years.
Each and every day, our dedicated food specialists work tirelessly to achieve and deliver our brand promise. We’ll continue to pursue greater goals for the satisfaction of our clients, and aim to achieve a niche in the GCC market, upholding industry values as the best suppliers of fruits and vegetables in the region.
What’s in the pipeline for NRTC Group?
We’re now targeting Saudi with a copy-and-paste module. Fortunately, big hotel chains also operate in the Kingdom, so we have the advantage of being known in that market. We’ll start with B2B and then gradually expand our offering.
Within a couple of months, after the Riyadh launch, we’ll move on to Jeddah. We’re also planning further GCC expansion to Oman, where we currently operate through a broker.