STATE-OF-THE-ART RIPENING SYSTEMS

Chris Maat

interview-cm-imageManaging Partner
Interko

 

What does Interko do?
Interko produces and manufactures client-specific heat exchangers and ripening systems. Out of that we develop very special brands designed just for the fruit business. Our main focus is on reducing usage and energy costs as much as possible which is critical for many of our clients.

When was the company founded?
Interko was founded in 1968 by Cornelius Bolkestein in a city called Delft in the Netherlands. Bolkestein was an aeronautical engineer and he wanted to use his knowledge in aerodynamics in the field of cooling which was still quite a step change to make in the 1960s and ‘70s.

How has Interko’s mission evolved over those 40 years since?
Since air flow is very important for the fruit trade Interko’s aeronautical roots remain the core of the business but our reach has changed. Until the 1980s Interko was still a very small, local business although we delivered a lot in terms of fruit storage and made quite a few key changes in that field. But in the mid 1980s the company grew more in the area of fruit ripening and the business expanded on a more international level. Today, our ripening systems represent thebiggest share of our business in terms of turnover (approximately 70%), while heat exchangers account for 30% of our activities.

What are the highlights of running the business?
The fresh fruit business is very demanding. Schedules and margins are tight and demand is high for quality and reliability so that influences our business. At the end of the day no supermarket can live without fresh fruits on their shelves. But each market has its own culture and quirks which makes our business of matching the engineering culture and way of thinking with client requirements very challenging and exciting.

Which fresh produce sectors does Interko serve?
Bananas, mangoes, papayas and avocados are the biggest areas of our business. Of course, we can offer solutions for other fruits, such as kiwifruit, although technically-speaking it’s not the same ripening process – it’s more of a post-harvest treatment to enhance flavour and quality.

Do you mainly work with banana clients?
The banana sector is the main focus of our business and where we are strongest because it’s still the biggest fruit market as bananas remain a staple fruit for consumers. Ten years ago bananas were the only fruit that Interko worked with but we live and breathe with the market so as demand for other tropical fruits increases our business is growing step by step in that sector too.

Does Interko plan to expand its solutions to suit any other fruits?
Yes, we plan to expand but only within our technical limits. Areas like pre-cooling or postharvest treatments for fruits are definitely related to what we’re already doing so that’s where our knowledge and background in air flow could make a difference.

Interko offers everything from a simple plug and play ripening solution for a basic room in a developing country to high-end, multi-layer ripening rooms for big distribution centres used by established retailers, distributors or importers. We’re proud to provide solutions to ripen just a few boxes of bananas in the smallest room (usually for trials) to as many as 72 pallets in a large room, plus everything in between.

Are Interko’s solutions tailored to specific fruits?
In general, bananas, mangoes, papayas, avocados and other climacteric fruit can all be ripened in the same type of room but there are some slight changes in the set up. Every room that we manufacture is different based on the customer’s specific requirements and depends on the type of fruit, box and room that they have. No two rooms are exactly the same but the framework is the same in principle.

How do your systems operate?
There is a central fan serving a pair of pallets which produces an airflow over the top that cools the pallets. Longitudinally, these are fans behind each other that create the airflow. This way we can cool the entire room which is a big advantage in terms of energy usage. Plus, thanks to the large cooling area you need fewer temperature differentials since fruit dehydration is lower.

Why are your products described as revolutionary and state of the art?
The revolution started in the 1990s when we conceived the original ripening system. Since then we’ve continually improved our systems and their efficiency. We take the lessons learned from every client and put them back into the next products that we manufacture so they are always up to date. The next system is always better than the previous one.

Why is Interko a market leader?
Interko is the only independent manufacturer of ripening equipment. Since we are independent of our installation companies we have the ability to look at things differently, focus on research and offer a bespoke design. Our biggest advantage is that we have the resources to pool results from many different clients, countries and fruits. We use that feedback to continually improve our systems through testing. Our installation partners are also local to our clients which means the set up and servicing can be done locally.

What’s the most challenging requirement that Interko has faced yet?
Usually the biggest challenge is the result of very limited space because it restricts airflow and equipment. When you have an infinite space in which to work it’s very easy to come up with a solution. But more often than not we have to work within our clients’ existing buildings and structures which may have limited access or height. Having said that, we’ve done it in the past and we’ll do it again. We try to keep within our standard framework but sometimes you have to push the boundaries.

What are your plans to keep the business moving forward?
Over the next few years Interko will be looking to respond to the anticipated rise in demand for sophisticated cooling and ripening systems in markets like Asia and Latin America where retailers, distributors and importers are preparing to meet growing consumer requirements for top quality bananas and tropical fruits. But what’s absolutely key for the future is to continually improve our products by collating all the feedback from all of our clients in order to offer even better systems.

Interko through the years

1968
Aeronautical engineer Cornelius Bolkestein founds Interko

1975
Interko delivers its first fruit coolers for apples and pears

1980s
The company develops industry’s first patented banana ripening room

1988
Interko manufactures and builds its first modern pressurised banana ripening room

1990s
The firm develops its first three-tiered banana ripening room in Ireland

1999
Second generation of ripening equipment is introduced in Ireland

2002
Interko introduces lock sock ripening equipment

2004
Owner Bolkestein sells Interko to the management team

2008
Firm adapts existing banana ripening rooms for other fruits

2010
Chris Maat steps up as managing director and partner

2011
Latest generation of energy saving ripening equipment is launched in Germany

2014
Interko installs its largest ripening room in the UK to date for up to 144,480 boxes

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