Conversations in Management: Joseph Unanue

We’re united by language. We’re separated by the bean.

Joseph Unanue

UnanueIn 1936 Prudencio and Carolina Unanue—Spanish immigrants living in New York—were bitten by the entrepreneurial bug. They opened a storefront business and began distributing traditional Spanish food to the tiny Latino groceries or bodegas that dotted the city. Like many family owned businesses, they pressed their sons into service and Joseph Unanue grew up packing olives, olive oil and sardines for distribution. World War II found him in the Army and caught up in the Ardennes Counteroffensive, better known as the Battle of the Bulge. When his sergeant was killed in action, the 19 year old was field promoted to sergeant, led his platoon to safety and earned the Bronze Star. After the war, he completed a degree at Catholic University and headed right back into the family business.

 When he finally assumed the reins from his father in the 1970s, Unanue found himself leading a business that had grown from nothing to $8 million in annual sales. By all measures, the company was doing well. After years of trying, they were now distributing to grocery stores and Goya was gaining recognition as a quality brand. But Unanue was every bit as entrepreneurial as his parents. Before almost anyone else, he spotted two new trends that Goya was ideally situated to exploit. The first was the nationwide growth of the Hispanic community. The second was the emerging popularity of Hispanic-influenced cuisine in the non-Hispanic community. Capitalizing on these trends, Unanue powered Goya into an international company with over 3,000 employees and annual sales exceeding $800 million. Unlike many CEOs of his era, he did all of this with very little flash. Instead he stayed grounded and centered on the things most important to him: family, faith, community. Goya’s corporate attorney observed, ““The buttons never popped off his coat jacket. He never thought of himself as any more than Joe Unanue, an individual working hard.”

Unanue’s humility and natural amiability provided the source for his genius of the bean. While demographers were focused on the growth of the Hispanic population, he intuitively understood that this “demographic” was made up of a lot of individuals—not all of whom shared the same tastes. He recognized that language was a unifying element that also encompassed significant cultural diversity. To that end he expanded Goya’s line to include products from the Caribbean, Mexico, Spain, Central and South America. That amounted to more than 1,500 offerings and included 30 varieties of beans.

There’s a lot that unites us as we go about our daily lives but we shouldn’t forget about the bean. In our families, at work or, in the community we tend to be surrounded by like-minded people. Our differences are often modest. Yet from time to time we or one of our group may prefer a different bean and that can lead to trouble. We’re not always tolerant of someone who sees things a bit differently. Unanue celebrated the similarities and the differences and we should too. Next time you’re faced with an outlier in your group, think first about what you have in common. Then graciously accept the there are at least 30 varieties of beans. They’re all good—to someone!          —Ebert

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