Not just a fruit

In telling ERNS GRUNDLING about his beloved ClemenGold brand, Stellenbosch-based mega farmer and businessman Abs van Rooyen reveals a passion that knows no bounds.


When Abraham van Rooyen, or Abs as he is more commonly known, praises the virtues of a ClemenGold mandarin, you can’t help but want to excuse yourself and rush to the nearest Woolies to buy a box of his delicious and prestigious citrus brand.

“My first connection with the mandarin was its fantastic orange colour, especially in an area where most other fruits are more yellow,” explains Abs. He initially experimented with the Moroccan Nadorcott variety in the early 1990s at his nursery near Letsitele in Limpopo Province. “I also found that this particular fruit is very easy to peel. Once you’ve peeled it, you experience its incredible aroma. That aroma is one of the fruit’s most important qualities – it permeates an entire home. I often tell people that we’re not in the fruit business, we’re in the perfume business.”

We are having breakfast at Melissa’s in Dorp Street, Stellenbosch, a few blocks from the ClemenGold head office. Abs is a mega citrus farmer and the chief executive officer of the ANB Group, the holding company of ClemenGold.

Soft-spoken yet passionate, he continues, his bowl of oats still untouched. “Then you get to the texture of the soft fibre, before it explodes into the delicious taste. The taste is sweet and sharp and distinct and it lingers for up to four minutes, like a zesty palate cleanser.”

Although Abs grew up on a citrus farm in Limpopo, at first he didn’t see himself becoming a farmer, or even a businessman. Nevertheless, he studied for a BSc agriculture degree with a bursary from Outspan, after which he worked for the company and gained valuable experience of the citrus industry.

In 1989, he joined a nursery in Limpopo, where he began to explore his love for plants and cultivars. A few years later he was involved in lengthy negotiations in Morocco to manage exclusively the cultivar rights to Nadorcott mandarins in the southern hemisphere. The negotiations proved successful and a company, Citrogold, was formed.

Although it’s almost 17 years since Abs saw a natural gap in the market for branded fruit, success didn’t come easily. “People were laughing out loud and asked me, ‘So you want to brand a naartjie?’ At first many doors were closed, but I persisted and now, years later, things are gaining momentum.”

ClemenGold mandarins have been available exclusively in Woolworths stores countrywide for the past 11 years. Only the best fruits are selected and packed under the ClemenGold name. Now a global brand, the ClemenGold fruits are produced in countries such as Argentina, Australia, Chile and Spain, and are shipped through 80 ports to 60 countries.

From the humble beginning of working in an orchard with the help of seven farm workers, Abs now stands at the helm of a company that has 1 000 permanent staff and up to 3 000 employees when all the seasonal workers are included. ClemenGold’s production area currently stands at 3 000ha but will soon expand to 4 000ha, while the total local industry is moving towards 20 000ha.

“A good and positive story attracts attention,” Abs says with a smile. “A brand is the manifestation of an entire system that works in an integrated manner. You can only achieve this if you have an organisation that works in harmony.”

While Abs was studying at the University of Pretoria in the early 1980s, a booklet, Motivating your Farm Labourer by Dr Arnold Mol, was handed out during an agricultural economics class. It changed his view of doing business forever. “That booklet contains a handful of very simple principles that I still apply in my business today,” he says. “They have to do with agreeing about expectations, proper feedback, the opportunity to correct and improve, and compensating someone in accordance with their performance. So it’s all about communication and ensuring that people understand each other. I really think it’s profound.”

Abs also firmly believes in planning and tells me about his ‘philosophy of the seven Ps’. “Proper Prior Planning Prevents Piss-Poor Performance,” he chuckles. He finds it most satisfying to observe someone who is capable and equipped to make good decisions. “My biggest fear in life is to make people feel they are in jail while working in the business,” he says. “I always encourage my staff to talk to me if they’re unhappy. If they can’t find happiness and satisfaction within the job, I will help them find something else.”

At ClemenGold, staff have the opportunity to qualify for bonuses twice a year, depending on their performance. There’s a comprehensive wellness programme for staff members and opportunities for further training and promotion. Abs is also proud of the company’s Level 4 BEE status.

In addition, staff and shareholders are encouraged to match what they love doing to the brand, whether it is music, powerboating or any other lifestyle adventure. All this seems to pay dividends. “Our staff turnover is less than 2%,” says Abs. “And that includes death.”

ClemenGold plays its part in terms of corporate social investment. This includes successful HIV campaigns among communities in Mpumalanga and Limpopo, the Aerials Up programme that takes children to adventure camps, and the building of crèches for babies and toddlers on the same properties where their parents work.

Another exciting recent innovation is the Clemengold comic contract, a binding agreement for employees that uses pictures instead of words. It is the world’s first officially legal comic contract and assists illiterate or vulnerable employees. It came about when Rob de Rooy, a Cape Town lawyer with a passion for contract simplification, approached Abs. “I supported his idea and we helped him to employ a design company to develop it,” explains Abs. “All I asked was that the first contract be known as the ClemenGold comic contract. We have implemented it among our staff as well.”

As we finish breakfast, Abs shows me a Facebook post on his phone. It’s a photo of ClemenGold products: ClemenGold gin, freshly squeezed juice, fruit mince pies, date bites and fruit leather. The person who created the post has captioned it ‘Richest woman in the whole wide world’.

Over the past eight years Abs’s passion for the brand has inspired ClemenGold-derived products that take the fruit’s unique taste and aroma even further. Currently 17 products are available, ranging from chocolates to date bites (a recent favourite among cyclists) and dried ClemenGold rings (a tasty snack and a wonderful garnish with ClemenGold Gin). “It is all part of ClemenGold’s commitment to promoting a healthy lifestyle,” he says.

Today Abs is wearing a light blue shirt, but he tells me that during the brand’s formative years all his shirts were orange-coloured. “I wore orange shirts for about 10 years,” he says, “when I really had to focus and give all my attention to the brand. I guess I can take a bit of a breather now.”

Nowadays one of his favourite pastimes is to sit back with a glass of ClemenGold Gin, the brand’s refreshing hand-crafted gin that is infused with nine botanicals. “The gin always takes me places,” he says. “When I take a sip it makes me smile. It reminds me of late afternoons, relaxing with good friends. When I open that bottle, the aroma takes me back to the farm, back to the orchards. It’s probably where I’m at my happiest, among those trees.”

Back to the farm where it all began. And where Abs’s beloved and innovative brand will continue to grow and bear fruit, far beyond the boundaries of those golden orchards. V