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Atlante, turnover target of 350 million in 2026

Interview with Natasha Linhart: "50% of revenues from the export of high quality Italian foods"

Love and soy-milk substitutes were the two main ingredients: this is how Natasha Linhart, a thoroughbred Englishwoman (but Bolognese by adoption after her marriage to an Italian entrepreneur) began the adventure of her Atlante 30 years ago. And like the famous mythological character, Linhart envisioned the whole world by developing a business that today boasts a turnover of 250 million euros in turnover and was born from a rejected idea, as often happens. We meet the entrepreneur on the eve of a long trip to China and India and she herself tells how it went.

“At that time I was working for Nutricia and had built many relationships with the retail sector. With the birth of my son, who turned out to be allergic to lactose, I entered the then very expensive world of soya powder. I came up with the idea of suggesting to the company to launch a product at an affordable cost, which could also be sold at discount stores. The market was there, given the high percentage of allergy sufferers in Italy, especially in the south, but nothing happened: the group didn't believe in it. So I proposed the idea to Alpro, whose General Manager seized the opportunity. But I didn't have money, so they gave me credit for a truckload of goods. I sold everything in a few days, the soy drink flew off the shelves, and the credit expanded to 10 trucks... that's how it all began, I created the company and started importing products from abroad, both for large-scale retail and for the discount channel, and here we are".

Today Atlante is one of the main strategic partners trusted by main Italian chains for the selection, import and distribution of food products from all over the world, also active in the export of the best Made in Italy specialties abroad. “Our business model – specifies Linhart – stems from the idea of working for customers rather than producers, giving us absolute freedom to choose: this way the customer, especially the retailers, around the world and then in Italy, see us as allies rather than product sellers".

Can you provide an example? “Let me explain. The distributor is looking for a product, even something specific like pistacchio pesto, and we offer all the various solutions in terms of quality, reliability, price, production capacity, certifications. Basically we are creators of projects: currently we have 462 ongoing projects, meaning as many products we are working on before reaching production. Always starting from the customer's needs. And then we are often the ones who propose opportunities, based on our experience, and our relationships around the world. And we are considered reliable, given that a customer of the size of Sainsbury (the largest English supermarket chain) has entrusted us with all purchases in Italy, excluding wine and meat".

So it’s not just imports but also exports of Italian products abroad? Food sovereignists will rejoice.

“That's right. We work with 170 Italian producers and 50% of the 250 million turnover is Italian export: from pure commodities (tomato, pasta), then semicommodities such as pesto, condiments, appetizers, balsamic vinegar, bakery products (taralli biscuits, breadsticks, cantucci ), to specialties like capers from Pantelleria, very particular oils, and so on. In Switzerland we sell highly appreciated products under the “Da Emilio” brand, such as pizzoccheri from Valtellina or Sardinian gnocchetti. And then we distribute, in addition to Great Britain, in South Africa, Israel, the USA, Greece, Hungary, etc."

How do you select them?

“We start from very high quality standards, sometimes we find producers who make amazing products but don't have export certifications. For example, I think of of a Campanian pasta producer we’ve worked with for 10 years, Labor, near Salerno: they have made exceptional quality progress and we brought them to the UK and even Japan".

The company is Italian but you have a special relationship with Switzerland.

“Definitely, given that we have a 20% share in the Migros group, a giant cooperative conglomerate that ranges from supermarkets to discounters (Denner brand), from the food industry to finance, up to Hotelplan services. I believe it is the largest employer in the commonwealth. In 2016 they wanted to buy us, but we didn't feel like letting go of our creation, and so we reached an extremely advantageous agreement for the sale of a minority share. For us it meant a boost for growth, the possibility of entering a multinational world, with a prestigious partner, with a large distribution network hungry for Italian products".

Who are your typical customers? 

“In Italy the entire large-scale retail, mostly working with Private Labels where, thanks to our expertise, we make an important contribution to product innovation, intercepting new trends, etc. We also serve discount stores, with low-priced but high-quality products. And now we are also definitely focusing on foodservice, a sector where many producers have a dedicated division, so we believe there is definitely space. Already in the UK we serve coffee chains such as Costa, Caffe Nero, Starbucks. Otherwise, abroad the customers are essentially retailers".

 Where do you also go with branded products?

“Exactly. In addition to the mentioned Swiss “Da Emilio” range, we recently had a recent a successful case with Saputo, the Canadian cheese giant, also known here in Bologna for sponsoring the football team. We tried to launch their brand of cheddar cheese, Cathedral City: it was an incredible success story, we discovered that for Italians, cheddar is not just a fast food product".

Who are your competitors? 

“There are competitors for individual products, but there is no competitor that covers all the products like us. In Italy we have competitors in the products we import; for example we are exclusive distributors of a specific product, but of course there are others similar. Expecially individual companies that work on specific products, but overall there is no company like us in Italy".

Natasha Linhart is passionate about her work and we could talk for hours: but at the end of our chat it is useful to talk about development forecasts.

“We have a challenging business plan that will bring us a turnover of 350 million by 2026. With growth plans especially for Italy, UK and Japan, focusing heavily on the foodservice segment, especially in Italy. We will also invest in new offices, IT and then in people: the team will grow to 130 collaborators, from the current 100. Among these,the strengthening of the R&D team is also strategic for sustainable products, both in terms of the supply chain and nutritional contents, with increasingly less processed foods. 'We protect, we grow and we innovate' is our mantra. And, attention – concludes Linhart – being a company of good people who do things well, respecting people and the planet, is a business matter”.

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