MEXICO CITY — Roberto Servitje, co-founder and former president of the Mexican bread and pastry giant Bimbo, is upright and elegant at 85 years old. He has plenty to stand tall about, having started a company with his brother 68 years ago that remains successful and in the family.
At a time when Mexican producers and household brands have been merging into multinational concerns, Bimbo has survived as a purely Mexican company. The Servitje brothers — Lorenzo being the other founder — resisted a veritable “siege” from foreign buyers to achieve this. One of the United States’ most important bread companies once warned them to “sell or face destruction,” says Roberto, laughing as he recalls those days.
Then the head of an investment bank asked them to sell most of their shares in the firm, insisting, everything has “a price in this world, give me a number.” Roberto responded by asking, “How much is your mother worth?” That was when the brothers decided they must expand abroad. They bought baking plants in San Diego and Los Angeles in the 1990s, and companies such as Mrs. Baird’s, a century-old Texas bakery. The U.S.-based Bimbo Bakeries was founded to run operations in the United States.
In fact, Roberto oversaw the group’s international expansion over previous decades and notes that Bimbo, one of the best-known household pastry names in the Hispanic world, benefited little from the 1994 NAFTA free-trade treaty, because it began exporting a decade earlier. Bimbo now has warehouses in 16 countries, including China, Brazil and the United States, its most important market where it began selling bread in 1984.
If Carlos Slim is present in nearly every person’s lives with his services and products, Bimbo too has become an essential part of that most Mexican of moments: parties. Beyond sliced bread and little cakes, Bimbo has become a supplier of appetizers, sweets, flour and baked pancakes, biscuits, prepared foods and more.
Bimbo will be 68 years old on Dec. 2. It has become one of the world’s most important food companies. Yet behind the cold figures – 125,000 employees, 10,000 products, net sales worth just over $13.1 billion last year — it carries with it a story of dramatic vicissitudes.
The Servitje brothers began their business in an “old building” on September 16 Street in Mexico City's historic quarter, where they served customers sandwiches and fruit juice. With money lent by a relative, they bought a plot on which to build their first bread-making plant. From then on, hard work, customer service, professional staff and daily van deliveries of fresh bread gradually yielded them their a loyal and growing customer base.
They imported plastic wrapping so that people could see the freshness of the four types of bread they sold. That led to “skyrocketing” demand they could not meet, which in turn produced furious clients. In 1947 they began to make different products, heralding both triumphs and unforeseen failures. One little cupcake failed, as it was sold unwrapped and gathered dirt on shop counters. People didn’t like that. But the strawberry-filled Little Goose or Gansito launched in 1957 seemingly worked wonders. In one week in 1961, Bimbo sold more than 10 million of them in Mexico City alone.
Sometimes the Servitjes visit their own business personally to observe its changes and growth. They went to one of their warehouses in Santa Fe in Mexico City a few months back, in the company of Lorenzo’s son Daniel, who is set to be one of the Bimbo heirs along with his cousin Roberto. The patriarch’s eyes seemed lost amid the immensity of corridors filled with breads, biscuits and cakes. “I think we’ve grown a little big, right?” Lorenzo asked his son after a pause.
The first-generation brothers no longer make all the decisions, but they still go to the office every day and remain an “essential presence” when it comes to the most critical decisions. Roberto resigned from his presidential post last May, and nephew Daniel has filled the role. He keeps a close eye on vital activities and seeks growth opportunities for the company. The brothers also take an interest in their employees’ wages — it is a “moral” duty, says Roberto — and check on warehouses around the world to be sure they are duly filled with Little Geese.
“My work now is to give my opinion. I have no responsiblities,” he says.
Asked if he likes Bimbo’s cakes, Roberto glances at his waistline. “Of course, nothing makes me happier than our Tía Rosa cupcakes.”