`King of All Olive Oil' back, Pompeian's sales are rising

November 20, 2005|By JAY HANCOCK

Nobody was better positioned for the great U.S. olive oil boom of the 1980s and 1990s than Pompeian Inc. Its oil, imported, blended and bottled on Baltimore's Pulaski Highway, was No. 1 in the United States a quarter-century back. Olive oil was about to be revealed as a source of healthy hearts and culinary delight, and sales were going to boom.

But obscure young Brooklynite Bill Monroe stepped in front of the Pompeian parade. Monroe went to work for Italy's Bertolli family in 1981, played the olive oil craze like a Cremona fiddle, made Bertolli oil No. 1 in America and knocked Pompeian down to No. 4, with less than a fifth the sales of its rival.

Monroe has switched labels, however. He left Bertolli in 2001, started consulting for Pompeian three years ago and signed on as its CEO this year. He's counting on a revamped marketing strategy and his quarter-century reputation in the olive oil trade to push Pompeian back toward No. 1.

"He's back!" as in back in the industry, says a three-page color ad Pompeian recently bought in Supermarket News, a trade mag. "The King of All Olive Oil - Bill Monroe - has returned, as CEO of Pompeian, and you'll profit from it!"

Monroe did as much as anybody to get Americans to be promiscuous with extra virgin.

When studies in the 1980s began showing the health bonuses of olive oil and the Mediterranean diet, he was the first to put a "no cholesterol" label on U.S. olive oil. Bertolli introduced a light, low-odor oil that was a huge success, and Monroe later helped make gourmet olive oil prized by foodies.

"He was instrumental" not only in the growth of U.S. olive oil sales, but also in the founding and expansion of the North American Olive Oil Association in 1989, says association President Bob Bauer. "He was promoting the entire category."

Monroe prides himself on bringing innovation to an age-old industry. Pompeian's multibuilding warren has been a Pulaski Highway landmark from time beyond memory.

"We're stepping out of the 1990s, and now we're stepping into the 1930s," operations boss Kevin Lydon says as he leads a tour past a basement wall of foot-square cinder blocks.

Even in the 1930s, Pompeian was a mature company. It is said to have been founded by Italians in the late 1800s, was owned successively by Baltimore's Musher and Hoffberger families, and was sold in 1975 to the current owners, Spain's Moreno family.

Now, with a product once marketed to Moses and Jesus, Pompeian is trying to be new. The label is new. The Web site is new. The ad campaign is new. The management team is refurbished, as Monroe has brought former colleagues on board. And the revenue curve rises in an unfamiliar way.

Monroe says the company has doubled its sales in three years, to close to $100 million annually.

Privately owned Pompeian doesn't publish financial statements, but independent figures also show growth. Chicago-based Information Resources Inc. has Pompeian's olive oil sales rising 24 percent last year and 29 percent this year, and its national market share rising from 6 percent two years ago to 7.3 percent for the 12 months that ended Oct. 30.

Pompeian oil advanced from the No. 4 U.S. brand in 2003, not counting stores' private labels, to No. 3 now, behind No. 1 Bertolli and Filippo Berio. Pompeian is No. 3 in the Baltimore-Washington area, according to Information Resources.

Monroe is 62. He lives in New Jersey but is in Baltimore every other week. His ancestors were Irish, Austrian, Scottish and German. He calls himself "a mutt." His company with the Italian name sells 100 percent Spanish olive oil. He says the growth has only begun.

"You got taste" in olive oil, he says. "You got flavor. You got heritage. You got health."

What else do you need? You got Bill Monroe. Step one for him at Pompeian was expanding distribution and shelf space, which presumably is costing the company lots in promotions. He says the concern is profitable, however.

The company is using substantial consumer ads for the first time in years. Its 52 full-time employees - up from 40 in 2003 - have a health plan and make $8.50 to $18 an hour on the production floor, managers say. They're thinking about adding a second shift and shipping Pompeian to Canada.

Olive oil prices have soared because of unfavorable weather in Europe. But Monroe says Pompeian's million gallons of U.S.-based storage space, all in Baltimore, which rivals don't have, will give it a leg up.

That and perhaps the Once and Future King of All Olive Oil.

"I've been honored in my life," he says, "to be able to do it again."

Look out, Bertolli.

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