With an intense dedication and focus to keeping his business all in the family, Bob Unanue's passion is reminiscent of characters you might see in an old-school style Italian restaurant business story.
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But the way to his heart isn’t through spaghetti and meatballs. It’s really through beans and rice – and an assortment of other Hispanic food offerings. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find an executive more proud of his heritage, and his company’s status as the nation’s largest Hispanic-owned foods company.
Everyone Has His Own Bean
The story starts in 1936 on Duane Street in Lower Manhattan.
Bob Unanue's grandfather
That’s when Unanue’s grandfather, Don Prudencio Unanue, had an inkling of a business idea that would focus on his Hispanic heritage. Don saw an opportunity to help foster what was a growing market for Latin foods like olives, olive oil, and packaged sardines, to New York’s Hispanic families. In the more than eight decades that have followed, Goya, a name he purchased for just one dollar from a sardines importer, has grown more than he likely ever expected.
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Bob remembers his start with the family business well: The year was 1964 and Unanue was just 10 years old, working the production line and packing olives at the company’s headquarters, which had moved from Lower Manhattan to Brooklyn.
Unanue’s love for the company has always been intense, but when he was college age, he decided to venture outside the family confines and try on a degree and career of his own. At 19 he moved to Spain, where he helped open an olive oil production facility before attending the University of Seville. After that, he tried his hand at the restaurant business, but it didn’t take much to lure him back to his roots.
“I was actually called back by one of my uncles to go to Florida and deal with an issue we had there, and to rejoin the company,” Unanue said. “My father had passed away, I [felt it was time] to come back to the company.”
Founded as a specialty distributor, Goya has grown to 16 facilities in the U.S., Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Spain, while employing 4,000 and distributing more than 2,000 products. The growth has provided Unanue with real-time, on-the-job training of how to run a multinational business.
He said the biggest challenge, though, is trying to figure out how to balance work and family.
“I like to place priorities with God, family, and then the Goya family as I call it,” he said. “Working hard as family members, we’re kind of called to work harder than everyone else. We say we work half a day, what we mean is we work at least 12 hours a day. We work hard, and we have to set the example for everyone else.”
Goya's original location on Duane Street in Lower Manhattan
As you might imagine, with all that growth and close family quarters, the environment can be ripe for conflict. In 2004 the company found itself in the center of a family leadership battle about the direction and future of the company. Eleven years later, Unanue said he learned valuable lessons from the public feud.
“I think you have to put your ego aside and to be successful, you have to surround yourself with talented people. Even though family is involved in the business, we have people who have been with us for 57 years…people have great pride in working for the company,” he said.
One of the biggest hurdles Unanue said he’s had to deal with is working to grow the company and help it advance through technological advancements, but also help it stay true to its family roots. The best way he’s found to do that is to hone in on his intense dedication to the all-in-the-family mantra. Unanue never misses a company get together, and isn’t afraid to drive the golf cart around the factory floor of Goya’s brand new Jersey City, NJ headquarters.
“My grandfather used to say if it was easy, everyone would do it. [Running the business] is not easy. You have to remain authentic. You have to stay up to date, and surround yourself with good people who know more than you. The business today is so complex in so many fields that it’s beyond any one person or family,” he said.
The work might be grueling sometimes, and there might be days when then button-down shirt sleeves are rolled up and late nights are spent at the office. But it’s that hard work Unanue strives for most.
It’s the part of his job he’s never been willing to part ways with.
And it’s one of the reasons he – and the Goya leaders before him – have continued to keep the business privately held.
“We’ve had offers [to take the company public], but we enjoy what we do,” he said. “There’s tremendous pride working for the company. Everyone who is a part of this company believes in what we call Goya blue, our colors.”
More than just a family or business connection, Unanue said it’s the customers who have continued to be a driving force in keeping Goya’s employees coming back to work day in and day out.
“[We] make a connection with our consumers as immigrants,” he said. “There’s three things you don’t lose: Music, language, or food. By providing food, reaching the dinner table of families around the U.S. and the world, we make an intimate connection with the family and that connection has led to people saying to us, ‘I grew up on Goya, this is part of me.’ We get involved with the community.”
And it’s more than just a passive involvement when a customer picks up a can of black beans from the grocery store shelf. It’s participating in local parades, organizations, and charities – letting consumers know Goya is part of their family on a more intimate level.
Unanuae also actively participates in the American Cancer Society’s CEOs Against Cancer.
“The Hispanic community is more obese and diabetic than the general community,” he said. “We were called by First Lady Michelle Obama to join her initiative Let’s Move and the USDA’s initiative My Plate…we feel its our responsibility to promote health and join organizations like that.”
It’s not only a lesson he teaches in Goya’s outreach efforts to combat unhealthy eating habits, it’s a practice he employs at home at his own dinner table as well.
One of Unanue’s favorite recipes is rice and beans – as basic as he said it sounds, it’s always been his go-to meal.
“A gentleman I work with now, he’s 90 years old and works in the Dominican Republic says “Latinos are united by language, separated by the bean,” Unanue said with a laugh. “As far as taste for me, and a lot of Latinos, a plate of rice and beans is as good as you can get…having all these exotic flavors and spices can make life more interesting and tasteful.”