Established in 1974, Associated Brands Industries Limited (ABIL) has developed into one of the biggest business success stories to emerge from Trinidad and Tobago. The company is now the leading manufacturer and distributor of snack foods, chocolate confectionery, biscuits and breakfast cereals in the Caribbean and its wide range of branded products are distributed to more than 30 countries worldwide.
Having initially started out as a chocolate company, ABIL has expanded progressively over the years by regularly adding new products to its lines and continuously looking to enter new markets. The company has always been export-oriented and was quick to establish a foothold in the region by setting up distribution operations in countries such as Jamaica, Barbados and Guyana.
For the first 30 years of the company’s existence, the focus was on penetrating markets within the Caribbean. However, there remained a determination to gain a footprint in other regions and opportunities to reach new customer bases are eagerly grabbed as soon as they arise.
The firm’s first extension outside of the Caribbean came through a joint venture with a local partner in Malta and, today, ABIL does business as far afield as Ireland, Jordan and Taiwan. This expansion of operations has seen the company rapidly grow and it now has four manufacturing plants in Trinidad and Tobago and employs more than 2,800 people around the world. “First of all we set up distribution in Barbados, St. Lucia and Jamaica. We rented warehouses, bought trucks and put management in place so that we could ship and distribute our products,” explains Nicholas Lok Jack, CEO, ABIL.
“This remains a core part of our business and, in the last six years we have accelerated that business model. We now have distribution hubs in Guyana, the Dominican Republic, Panama and Miami.”
Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, ABIL continued with its expansion efforts and built a cereal factory in Bogota, Colombia. “We saw an opportunity in the Colombian market. The factory is now up and running and we
feel we can pick up a good market share,” says Lok Jack. “We recently inaugurated a new snack factory in Malta as we look to increase our supply. The market in that country has now become big enough to require an expanded factory with state-of-the-art equipment.
“This will allow us the capacity to supply more European markets. As we go ahead, we want to penetrate more markets in this manner and to consolidate around Colombia, Panama and the Dominican Republic, where we have our own distribution centers and our own people on the ground.”
Exploring the US market
In recent years ABIL has secured a foothold in the Middle East with its products now distributed to the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. The company also entered a third European market — in addition to Malta and Ireland — in 2021, when the signature candy bar from its Charles Chocolates division, Catch, began to be sold and distributed within Cyprus.
At the launch of its latest European extension, Minister of Trade and Industry Paula Gopee-Scoon said: “A chocolate such as Catch entering a new business market in Cyprus is a great accomplishment for not only ABIL, but for us as a country. We feel extremely proud of this new venture and I know the company has been working tirelessly to increase its presence internationally.” While the company aims to further enhance its offering in Europe, Lok Jack is also keen for ABIL to conquer the US market. “Internationalizing the business is vital and if you’re going to be considered a global player then you’ve got to be strong in the developed world. That means the US,” he says.
“We have to make sure the company is in the right position to support a thrust into that market, but that’s why we are starting with distribution in Miami, which will be the tip of the spear for entering and properly understanding how the market works.”
One step into the US has already taken place, with ABIL acquiring the OCHO brand. Originating from Oakland, California, it specializes in producing organic chocolate candy bars and is already an established player in the organic and fair trade market.
“The OCHO product is different as it is not only organic, but it is more of a Swiss-type of Bon Bon chocolate,” explains Lok Jack.
Over the course of close to 50 years, ABIL has developed an extensive portfolio of more than 200 products that are marketed under the brand names Sunshine Snacks, Charles Chocolates, Devon Biscuits, Sunshine Cereals and Universal Cereals. Nevertheless, the company is always looking to explore new areas and makes bold decisions when it comes to diversifying its ranges.
This is helped by Lok Jack having grown up in the company that his father, Arthur Lok Jack, founded. Having worked in departments such as merchandising, sales and even supermarkets, he has become comfortable in making critical decisions. And he believes that organic products have a lot of potential moving ahead.
“We’re now looking at plant-based products and eco-labels that are good for the planet,” he states. “It’s important we understand this growing market as plant-based demand is here to stay and it has very engaged followers.
“Internationalization and product innovation are the two main areas we are concentrating on, so it’s important that we understand the different markets’ demands. Ireland, for example, wants chocolate to be milky and sweet, while Taiwan has a preference for low sugar.
“Therefore, it’s vital that we remain customer focused and are always innovating with new products. We recently developed fully plant-based caramels with no dairy or milk under the OCHO brand, for example, and it’s innovation such as this that we want to continue pushing.”