A spice odyssey

The Baltimore Sun

When Albert F. "Al" Goetze III wanted to see chili crops growing a few hours outside of Karachi, even his Pakistani guide was uncomfortable leading a blue-eyed American there.

But McCormick & Co.'s chief spice buyer said he wasn't about to buy sight unseen. So off they went, passing chanting masses, street-side arms trading and machine-gun fire.

Arriving safely, Goetze said, he then had to survive lunch: lamb brains and scrambled eggs sprinkled with paprika. He dined dutifully to please his host -- then asked to see the crops.

While today's global spice trade often can be reduced to faceless electronic exchanges, Goetze is essentially plying it for McCormick the way Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama did for the glory of their rulers more than 500 years ago.

For 24 years, he has gone to the source -- wherever it might be. Besides lamb brains, the Baltimore native has eaten cobra, fried scorpions and camel hooves to secure good prices from spice merchants. He has ridden elephants, camels and rickety Russian transport planes, and fought off dysentery -- all in the pursuit of the world's finest chilies, pepper and paprika.

"I pretty much try to be me," Goetze said. "I'm just going to blend in with the population."

Goetze, 57, is one of the reasons Sparks-based McCormick rang up sales of $2.9 billion last year. He and his 14-member team travel the globe to bid on colorful bags of spices and herbs at street markets alongside the locals.

They make house calls to farmers and personally inspect the crops. They employ market intelligence experts in those countries to monitor government policy, economic trends, weather and even farmer psychology.

While few of its competitors could afford such an operation, McCormick believes it is time and money well-spent. Officials say the method of "global sourcing" forged by Goetze is the linchpin of McCormick's buying strategy.

"His contacts and relationships around the world have put us in a position to do what we do better than anyone else in the industry," said Alan D. Wilson, McCormick's president and chief executive officer.

Soft-spoken and modest, Goetze embodies many characteristics of the professor-adventurer played by Harrison Ford in the Indiana Jones movies. On a rare visit to McCormick's headquarters recently, Goetze was dressed casually, in an open-collared shirt and khaki pants. He is scientific when talking about herbs and spices, detailing their origin and history and the climate of the region where they are grown. He also recalls the first names of the farmers who grow them for McCormick.

And like his movie counterpart, Goetze said he has found himself in some unforgettable circumstances while pursuing his holy grail.

While flying to a remote village in China for cumin seed aboard an old Russian transport plane, he watched passengers check their knives before departure, then claim them from a flight attendant's tray upon landing.

In Albania, Goetze climbed a steep slope in the Dalmatian mountains to find sage, which grows wild there among thyme, oregano and mint. Thinking he and his guide were alone, Goetze was startled to see heads popping up at once around him. He said they happened to be villagers who harvested the sage and who were just as surprised to meet an American.

While pursuing the chili crops outside Karachi about a decade ago, Goetze said his U.S. citizenship and fair complexion worried his escorts. His host refused to take Goetze to the farm, fearing his Western roots made him a kidnapping target. Goetze said he persuaded someone else to escort him -- during daylight hours and in a nondescript car.

In each case, Goetze emerged unscathed and with new business for McCormick.

"We're buying 40 spices from 40 markets around the world, and each has a different story to tell," Goetze said.

The food trade is in his blood. He was born in Baltimore, where his grandfather founded the Goetze meatpacking company. After earning a business degree with a concentration in agricultural economy from Cornell University in 1972, Goetze worked in the family business as plant manager. The company closed two years later because of competitive pressure.

Goetze then moved to the Eastern Shore, bought a 17-foot skiff and became a waterman. "I loved the freedom of it. You are as good as you are at the end of the day, depending on how many bushels [of crabs] you have."

When crabs became scarce, he switched to oysters, but unpredictable weather and supply convinced him in 1977 to answer a newspaper ad about a McCormick job.

He started in dry-seasonings packaging, moved on to vanilla extract production, then ingredients purchasing. There he first got the bug for spice buying, traveling out west to find the right green chilies for Tio Sancho flavorings, a line that McCormick has since sold.

McCormick tapped him to run the spice mill in Hunt Valley when it opened in 1984. Back then, the company bought spices from New York City's trade market, but Goetze felt he would get better quality and prices by going directly to the source.

Durkee, the No. 2 spice buyer behind McCormick -- and about half its size -- also travels for its spices, albeit with a smaller staff. Spokeswoman Nancy Macklin said it gives companies more control over quality and taste.

"It's more than just that the cinnamon tastes great on your cinnamon roll," she said.

Of the hundreds of spice companies in the world, about a quarter buys directly from the source, said Jerry Tenenberg, chief spice buyer and founder of the Great Spice Co. His San Marcos, Calif.-based firm also buys organic herbs and spices from around the world, but he said McCormick has "pioneered" the way he and other spice buyers do business.

"They're the type of company that creates an industry," he said.

But as Goetze has learned, not everything is within the spice buyer's control.

Crops have been wiped out by earthquakes in Indonesia and hurricanes in Grenada. War and political strife have made it difficult to buy saffron from Iran, sage from Yugoslavia and cumin from Syria. And then there is the occasional string of bad luck.

Two cyclones in two years damaged vanilla crops in Madagascar, which pushed the price of vanilla from $30 per kilogram in 2000 to more than $200 in 2003. Fearing higher prices, McCormick locked in $50 million worth of vanilla that year. When the price dropped drastically soon after, McCormick was stuck with expensive inventory, which hurt earnings into 2005.

The situation led McCormick's then-Chief Executive Officer Robert J. Lawless to accuse the president of Madagascar of manipulating the price of vanilla for short-term gain, though some industry experts questioned the notion.

At the same time, demand for vanilla fell because manufacturers switched to artificial flavoring to combat the higher prices. The vanilla market never fully recovered, said Wilson, the company's current chief executive. And there was nothing Goetze or the company could do, the CEO said.

Still, Goetze said it's hard not to take it personally when deals go bad.

"I'm not just taking the risk, the whole corporation is," he said.

Vendors are salespeople, after all, and Goetze knows that they will do whatever they can to get top dollar for their goods. It's a lesson he learned from his days as a waterman: He would put the largest oysters on top to cover up the inferior "squiggly S-shaped" ones when selling his catch at the end of the day.

That's why trust and relationships are so important. And it's why Goetze has cultivated sources around the world.

Kazim Gurel said his family's spice and herb supply company, Kutas, would not have annual sales of $200 million without Goetze and McCormick.

Gurel met Goetze more than 20 years ago while starting his family's business. Goetze handed him Frederic Rosengarten Jr.'s The Book of Spices, which Gurel calls the "spice bible" and told him to study it.

"You feel very comfortable with him," Gurel said from his headquarters in Turkey. "When you look at him, you trust him."

Goetze, who has twice served as president of the American Spice Trade Association and as a director of its board, doesn't travel to meet growers as much as he used to. His team is based in the Cayman Islands where McCormick's spice-buying division, McCormick Global Ingredients Ltd., is headquartered. Goetze is one of two American citizens on the international staff.

Goetze tries to tag along on buying trips at least three times a year. He typically stays in hotels during his travels. But in remote areas, such as the spot outside Karachi where such accommodations are lacking, Goetze stays with the locals in their homes. He relies on guides to shepherd him through various countries. And Goetze writes a blog about his travels on McCormick's Web site.

In April, he is heading to Vietnam -- a market that Wilson said Goetze opened for McCormick -- to inspect black pepper crops. He wants to ensure that farmers there are happy growing black pepper, which takes seven years to mature.

"I see the real country, I see the real people," he said. "The farmers are some of the friendliest people in the world. They are so curious. They want to know, 'What are you going to do with my spices?'"


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