The giants of the California table grape industry must be shaking their heads in wonder.
For those fortunate enough to have made the journey, it usually took several decades — in some cases, nearly a century.
Thirty years ago, Marco Molina took that first step to join their ranks. The first vineyard of what was to become Grupo Molina was in the Hermosillo area of western Mexico.
“It was just 16 acres of flames and perlettes, a farm named Las Mercedes in honor of Marco’s mother,” said nephew Juan Pablo Molina.
“For the first dozen years, growth was slow but steady.”
The Mexican recession of 1994 torpedoed much of the hard earned growth, he said. But Marco Molina never wavered, never took his eye from the long-term goal.
Today, Grupo Molina — with Marco Molina as its president — farms more than 2,200 acres of table grapes. The varieties include sugraones, flames, perlettes, red globes, black seedless and summer royals, “and we’re testing several other varieties,” Juan Pablo Molina said.
“He is the largest table grape grower in Mexico,” he said.
Since 2000, the growth of Grupo Molina has been explosive — in the vineyards and elsewhere.
In 2004, the company acquired MJ Bros. Cold Storage in Nogales, Ariz. Grupo Molina is the majority owner of two other large cold storage facilities in Hermosillo. It added a fleet of trucks.
Fresh Farms, a new marketing division with Juan Pablo Molina, now 28, installed as general manager, opened in 2006 in Rio Rico, Ariz.
“In the last four years, we’ve been one of the fastest growing marketing companies in Arizona,” Juan Pablo Molina said.
The success of Grupo Molina comes as no surprise to Al Ybarra, vendor product development manager for the Fresno, Calif., office of So Fresh Produce Sales. He and Marco Molina have been friends for years.
“He’s always been an innovator, has always wanted to be a better grower-shipper,” Ybarra said.
To that end, Marco Molina made Juan Pablo Molina and his brother, Javier Molina, world travelers.
“He shipped the nephews, who are good growers themselves, around the globe seeking the best, newest farming techniques,” Ybarra said.
“Molina has developed very good farming practices.”
What the fresh produce industry may find surprising is that Marco Molina was not weaned on farming. His grandfather founded what became a chain of hardware stores, Juan Pablo Molina said. It was in that business Marco Molina began his professional career — until Las Mercedes in 1980, he said.
While the company spotlight is focused on grapes, they must share the billing with others.
“We’ve grown other commodities through the years, but now our major items are grapes, watermelons, squash and cucumbers,” Juan Pablo Molina said.
Marco Molina’s leadership style is lead by example, he said. He demands a lot of his employees, but he works as hard as any of them.
The hard work is rewarded, Ybarra said.
“The whole Molina family treats the workers with respect. They provide housing and food and fair pay,” he said.
Churches for employees and their families have been built at two of the farms, and a third is under construction, Juan Pablo Molina said.
“We are very Catholic,” he said.
The treatment of workers has had a positive result.
“One of this company’s most important assets is the loyalty of the employees,” Juan Pablo Molina said.
The Molina’s Quality seal goes on every case the family produces, Juan Pablo Molina said.
The future of Grupo Molina is continued expansion, especially of the table grape vineyards. Production has begun at the company’s newest vineyards deeper into Mexico near Guaymas, Juan Pablo Molina said.