CEO Profile: At Goya, it's all in la familia

Bob Unanue and his three brothers grew up mostly in suburban New Jersey speaking English instead of their father's family language, Spanish, and eating their Irish-American mom's meat and potatoes.

But today, Unanue is as fluent in Spanish as he is in the world of yucca, cactus and chicharrones.

As CEO of Goya Foods since 2004, the 53-year-old leads the third generation that's running the privately held company. Talkative and alternately serious and dry-witted, Unanue is most passionate when talking about Goya's mission and its customers.

"We are the nostalgia," says Unanue (pronounced oo-NA-new-way), the eldest of six children. "We welcome the immigrants into the country with food."

The company fills the pantries, refrigerators and freezers of the growing number of U.S. Hispanic households. It has 3,000 employees, excluding hundreds of sales representatives and truck drivers, and is estimated to generate more than $1 billion in sales per year. It's the USA's largest Hispanic foods company and one of the biggest family-owned companies.

Goya was started 72 years ago by Prudencio Unanue to give Spanish immigrants authentic ingredients.

Prudencio Unanue initially sold Spanish condiments in New York until the Spanish Civil War cut off his supplies. By then, he had a wife and four sons to feed, so he began importing "Goya" sardines from a Moroccan cannery. He bought the rights to the Goya name for $1 because it was easier to pronounce than his own name.

The company's longevity makes Goya a rarity. Just 10% of family-owned businesses reach the third generation, with most failing due to family rivalries, says Joe Astrachan, a management professor and executive director of Cox Family Enterprise Center. The businesses that succeed typically have members who take pride in their mission, as opposed to working only for the money, he says.

"If you don't have that sense of legacy, it's going to be real hard to get past it," Astrachan says.

Unanue faced family conflict head-on about five years ago when relations grew strained among board members. An uncle died, and Unanue and his cousin Francisco disagreed with Joseph — Prudencio's last surviving son who'd been running the company since 1974 — about leadership because they said Joseph had been making decisions without their input. The result drove Bob and Francisco, with the blessing of family shareholders, to oust Joseph and his son Andy from the company.

That rift has been healed, Unanue says, as family members have settled business matters and reconciled. Joseph will soon return to the Goya board, where he will join Bob and Francisco.

"There were differences of opinion as to the direction of the company," he says. "Now, we're all on the same page."

On a day-to-day basis, Unanue runs the company with two brothers and four cousins.

"We're all hands on," says Peter Unanue, 41, Bob's younger brother who joined Goya almost 11 years ago and oversees Goya's distribution network. Another brother, Tom, runs the Florida operations with their cousin.

Since the change, Goya has reinvested more profits, Peter Unanue says. Family members and top executives, for instance, recently approved construction of a $26 million facility to expand its reach into central and South Florida, where more Hispanics have been moving.

Outsiders can practically chart immigration patterns by Goya's growth, which has risen in places such as Columbus, Ohio; Pittsburgh; Raleigh-Durham, N.C.; and Moab, Utah.

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