Montserrat Gil de Bernabé: “What I most like about the markets are the human relations established there”

Interview with Montserrat Gil de Bernabé, managing director of Mercabarna

25th April 2008

The following interview took place barely a month after Montserrat Gil de Bernabé had taken office as managing director of Mercabarna. Her professional achievements have given her a thorough knowledge of the workings of the different links in the food chain. She is now putting this professional expertise to Mercabarna’s benefit.

Q. When did your immersion in the market world begin?
A. In 1993, when I took over the management of the Institute for Municipal Markets and Consumption in Lleida.

Q. And how long did this adventure last?
A. Eleven years. During this time, I became fascinated with markets and acquired experience in public management.

Q. What is it you like so much about markets?
A. The human relations that are established there, the result of the exchange of information, knowledge, ideas, opportunities and so on.

Q. When you left the Lleida Markets, you occupied several directorships in the Catalan Ministry of Agriculture and, later, the presidency of the export promotion organisation, Prodeca. How did all this professional experience equip you for managing Mercabarna?
A. My professional career has given me strategic insight concerning the agro-food sector, which I have gained from the perspective of production, trade and consumption. I believe this experience will benefit Mercabarna.

Q. As a Mercabarna board member since 2006, what was the aspect that most surprised you about this Food Unit?
A. The fact that Mercabarna is a company with drive and ambition. From the business viewpoint, I’d like to point out that what has most surprised and pleased me about Mercabarna has been its interest and capacity to adapt to the needs of each given moment and its ability to face future challenges in many areas. The development of the Complementary Activities Area, its environmental policy, the implementation of the new telecommunications technologies, the Training Centre and so on all attest to this. I was also surprised by this Food Unit’s good position and international thrust. I want to work to bring this awareness to society on the whole.

Q. Awareness by society...?
A. What I mean to say is that Mercabarna is one of the world’s most prestigious markets because, historically speaking, it has known how to communicate many groundbreaking aspects of its management to sector professionals the world over. This has made Mercabarna a model for numerous markets today. Now, however, we have to get all of this across to the general public, so that Mercabarna will be better known and acknowledged on a social level.

Q. Mercabarna as the larder of Catalonia...?
A. Exactly. Mercabarna supplies approximately 10 million people. What’s more, we have to make the most of the vast social awareness now existing with regard to food issues and the current international boom of Catalan cuisine as to explain the vital role that Mercabarna plays in all this. We also have to clarify that Mercabarna is the Mediterranean’s leading food industry cluster.

Q. Which key issue of Mercabarna management have you decided to tackle first?
A. We’re working on expanding concessions in the Fruit and Vegetable and Fish Markets. And to do this in the shortest possible timeframe and with an attitude open to dialogue at all times.

Q. What other challenges have priority for you?
A. Another important issue for our management is to make space available, in the short term, so that Mercabarna can grow. Here we are working jointly with the Zona Franca Consortium, which owns the 40 hectares (“Zona 22 AL”) adjoining Mercabarna, and soon space will have to be found for Mercabarna businesses to grow or for new businesses to be set up that will add value to the Food Unit as a whole.
Another priority issue, but in the medium term, is the modernisation of certain Mercabarna infrastructures so that they can be adapted to current needs.

Q. Can you elaborate?
A. We’ve just implemented the Slaughterhouse’s new lamb line and the new Mercabarna-flor will be opening in September. The focus will then turn to the Central Fruit and Vegetable Market, which must continue to be an international point of reference. And too, it is important that Mercabarna have a mobility plan, designed jointly with the representatives of the different business sectors, to make pedestrian movement more pleasant, and vehicle and goods circulation easier.

Q. Earlier you said that Mercabarna-flor would open its doors in September...
A. Mercabarna-flor is scheduled to open its doors to professional buyers on 1 September. This new Market is Mercabarna’s most ambitious proposal for the plant and flower sector, and I’m sure that the sector businesses will seize this opportunity to make it the major plant and flower supply centre that Catalonia has long been needing. A centre that will respond to the different needs of retailers, who are now faced with a considerable diversification of purchase channels.

Q. Certain plant and flower professionals have remarked that Mercabarna-flor is further way than the current Market...
A. While it is true that Mercabarna-flor is outside the Mercabarna precinct, its location is unbeatable and it is now easier to reach. It’s located off the Castelldefels trunk road, past the Viladecans exit. And it’s next to the airport city, only 15 minutes from Barcelona city centre and closer to the entire Baix Llobregat region.

Q. What are you planning to do with the Mercabarna property now occupied by the flower sector?
A. We’ve been working to employ this property for activities that will give added value to the fish and meat sectors, for setting up specialised service businesses and improving existing infrastructures at both the logistic and town-planning levels.

Q. Do you find living in Lleida and working in Barcelona to be a problem?
A. Not in the slightest. I’ve been living in Lleida and working in Barcelona for years now and, fortunately, improvements in the means of transport are making things increasingly easier for me.

Q. Following the preliminary meetings with the representatives of Mercabarna’s different sectors, what is your first impression?
A. I’ve found a great team of professionals specialising in hard-to-handle products: perishable foodstuffs. These are people eager to express their needs to Mercabarna, and with whom I intend to work shoulder to shoulder.

Q. Now after barely a month as managing director, can you say that this is the Mercabarna you expected to find?
A. As a member of the board of directors I was familiar with certain aspects of how Mercabarna worked but, to be perfectly honest, there were many things I was unaware of. I’m pleased to have found a smooth-running outfit and this is thanks to successful strategic management and a highly qualified, responsible team.
I should also say how pleasantly surprised I’ve been to see the economies of scale, the synergies established among the different precinct businesses, and the number of opportunities that emerge as a result of a good concentration of food businesses.