The man behind Chilean cherries
By Magdalena Rojas  ·  2023-03-03  ·   Source: NO.10 MARCH 9, 2023
Gonzalo Matamala displays Chilean cherry products sold during the Chinese New Year holiday (COURTESY PHOTO)

As one Chilean proverb goes: "Have patience to walk with short steps until you have wings to fly." This popular saying largely sums up Gonzalo Matamala's experience in China.

Throughout the past 15 years, he has forged a unique bond with the country and helped open new markets for a variety of Chilean export products.

Paving the way 

Matamala's first contact with the country was through an invitation in 2006 from the Chinese Ministry of Commerce. In spite of being a brief visit, Matamala was immediately impressed by the level of development that China was experiencing, especially at a time when Beijing was preparing to host the 2008 Olympic Games. "I saw that Chile was becoming more and more connected with China in economic and commercial matters," he pointed out. "However, there were no [Chilean] professionals specializing in China, and I saw the opportunity [here] to come to study."

The Chilean returned to China in 2008 on a scholarship that enabled him to study standard Chinese at Beijing Language and Culture University. From 2009 to 2010, he studied for a master's degree in management at the prestigious Tsinghua University. "Studying there connected me with academics, executives and professionals who today work at large corporations and companies," he said.

Gonzalo Matamala with his wife and children in front of the Shanghai Tower in Shanghai, the tallest building in China (COURTESY PHOTO)

Expanding fruit market 

After completing his postgraduate studies, Matamala joined the Chilean Embassy in China as a cultural attaché, a position he held from 2010 to 2014, during the first government of former Chilean President Sebastián Piñera. Through Matamala's involvement, an attempt was made to position Chile and its export offerings not only in large cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, but also throughout other areas of the country.

"We carried out many promotional activities in search of new buyers for Chilean fruit, wine, wood and other products in Tianjin, Qingdao, Dalian, Shenyang and Chongqing, among others," he said. These efforts are now also continuing through the opening of the Consulate General of Chile in Chengdu, the first by a Latin American country in Sichuan Province, in 2021.

Matamala highlights that there have been several very gratifying moments for which he has special affection. "During that period, I met President Xi Jinping twice, and received the president of Chile and various business delegations a couple of times."

During his work as a commercial attaché, Matamala had his first forays into the Chilean fruit market, but it was not until he joined the fruit exporting companies Gesex, and later, Giddings Fruits, that he fully entered this market. Regarding the first company, Matamala said the objective was to increase penetration in China, which was why he proposed opening a commercial office. "I structured a holding company in Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and a subsidiary in Shanghai, and we slowly started to import our fruit and sell it to local customers," he said. In this sense, he insisted on looking for clients in areas within the country directly, in order to avoid intermediaries, importers and distributors.

His previous experience working at the Chilean Embassy in China was essential to paving the way. "During the period in which I worked at the embassy and after, a huge number of phytosanitary [plant hygiene] protocols were enabled that allowed us to arrive with more fruits, such as kiwis, avocados, cherries, blueberries and grapes," he added.

Matamala said it was then that the importance of the fruit sector to Chile's exports to China first became apparent, with cherries being a major contributor. When he worked at the embassy, the funding allocated to campaigns to promote cherries ranged from $30,000 to $50,000 a year. Today, Chile's cherry industry spends more than $1 million on promotion, and China took over 90 percent of the total cherry exports from Chile during the Chinese New Year holiday in January or February, when they are most popular.

"Today, Chile has almost 95 percent of the market share for this fruit in China and there are other countries such as Türkiye, the U.S., New Zealand and Australia that have been trying to follow in our footsteps to be able to penetrate the Chinese market with fresh fruits like cherries," Matamala explained.

When Matamala joined Giddings Fruits in 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the business plan was similar to the one he had followed with Gesex: restructuring the company to establish operations in the country. In addition, through an office established in Shanghai, the company expanded to other Asian countries such as Thailand and Viet Nam. "All this was made possible because China allowed us to establish an office here and, at the same time, travel and support the development of our other businesses in the Asia Pacific."

Life lessons 

Matamala has been in China for 15 years, first with his wife, and then also with his two children, Santiago and Lucía, born in Beijing and Shanghai, respectively. Throughout this time, he has been getting to know the country better, including its culture and the distinctive traits of its people. In addition, he has witnessed first-hand its rapid development, which has translated into a better quality of life and access to material goods. "Currently professionals in their 30s and 40s are much better off than their parents, and their parents are much better off than their grandparents," he said.

As is the case for many expats, China has taught him to cultivate patience and to understand that strong ties must be created for things to last. "In China, you need to build a story, forge a relationship and nurture that bond so that it grows organically over time," he said. In contrast to the patience and time it takes to cultivate certain interpersonal relationships, Matamala admires the resolve with which the Chinese Government acts and its ability to execute. "When it sets out to do something, it does it very quickly and very well," he added.

The businessman does not see his professional, personal and family development in another part of the world other than in China. On the other hand, he feels that the country has given his children an asset that is fundamental, which has something to do with the ability to understand and respect different perspectives.

"Our future will continue to be in China. Our children will continue to grow as citizens with respect for different cultures and with a deep affection for the country that has seen them grow up," Matamala concluded.  

(Print Edition Title: A Fruitful Life) 

Copyedited by G.P. Wilson 

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