It’s reminiscent of the fairytale of Cinderella, or the legend of the phoenix rising from the ashes. Whatever the metaphor, the story behind Fresh Start Limited’s rise over the course of two decades in the uber-competitive juice business—from a tiny, seat-of-the-pants enterprise to an international, award-winning operation—is a tale of innovation, hard work, and one very determined family starting from scratch not once, but twice.
Fresh Start’s story begins not in 1994, when the company was founded, but in the late 1980s. That’s when Patrick Sun Kow, Fresh Start’s founder, was running LSK Sales, a thriving produce business that sold fruits and vegetables both wholesale and in a medium-size, company-owned supermarket.
But in 1990, the Muslim group the Jamaat al Muslimeen attempted a coup against the Trinidad and Tobago government, and business ground to a halt. “During the coup, we were about to harvest a lot of items, and it couldn't happen because the country was shut down,” explained Patrick’s son, Marcus Sun Kow, 33, now Fresh Start’s managing director.
As a result of the chaos, LSK Sales lost hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of produce, and eventually the bank claimed the family’s house, car, and business. “He lost it all and went bankrupt,” said Sun Kow of his father. “It wasn’t an easy time for the entire family. There was nothing left.”
That’s not completely true: in fact, the elder Sun Kow still had strong relationships with farmers and others in the food and agriculture industry, and he leveraged those connections to buy fruit on credit. And that’s how Fresh Start—the name’s meaning was intentional—started. Patrick Sun Kow and his wife Ena began making frozen fruit snacks and selling them to primary schools and supermarkets, and soon moved into juice concentrates like mauby and other typical Trinidadian drinks.
“My dad is one of the best salesmen you’ll ever meet,” said Sun Kow. At that time, “He’d go anywhere and talk to anyone to get it on the shelf and into the hands of end users.” His persistence paid off: Fresh Start products were featured in local hotels, cruise ships, and on BWIA aircraft, and began to gain market share.
But the company—which had only one employee, besides Mr Sun Kow and his wife—had limited potential for growth. Because of the family’s previous business collapse, it was virtually impossible for Fresh Start to obtain financing. The family had no collateral and their name had a lien on it. As a result, every financial institution they visited turned them down. They couldn’t even get credit cards. All of the company’s funding for growth came from scrimping and saving.
It was 2004 when Marcus Sun Kow entered the picture. He was at the University of the West Indies, but decided to become an entrepreneur and dropped out of his studies, planning to start a landscaping company with a friend. His parents had other ideas.
“My mom saw me with a machete and said, ‘What are you doing?’” remembered Sun Kow. “I told her and she said, ‘No, you’ll join us and sell some juice.’ That’s how I made my grand entrance.”
He went back to study part-time, focusing on marketing, while simultaneously working as a salesman with Fresh Start. But Sun Kow wound up getting involved in all aspects of the company. And that injection of new energy was perhaps the best thing that ever happened to Fresh Start.
“When my parents were doing everything, they did the same thing over and over. In terms of changing their process and bringing in technology, that’s not something they were very adept at,” he explained. “They’d go to training courses, but implementing a lot of these technologies was either cost-prohibitive or labour-prohibitive.”
At the time when Sun Kow joined the business, Fresh Start was just launching its fresh—not from concentrate—juices. “I started pushing [my parents].” Sun Kow urged them to think bigger: add more flavours, put systems in place to help with finances and administration, take advantage of technology, and increase their marketing activity. And unlike his parents, Sun Kow was able to get credit that finally allowed the company to grow.
Those efforts paid off. Sun Kow doesn’t brag, but the results were obvious. “We went from selling five cases per day, to 10 cases, to 35 and then 40 and then 60, and it just kept growing. This was over three years: it went from nothing to something.”
Today, Fresh Start employs 36 people and has $7 million in annual sales. Using all-natural local fruit, it offers ten fresh juice flavours and eight concentrates. Two years ago, it was named the 2014 Manufacturer of the Year by the Trinidad and Tobago Manufacturers’ Association.
But even after the initial expansion after Sun Kow came on board, the company struggled for a while. “The juice market is very, very competitive,” said Sun Kow. Trinidad has a number of local brands, including SM Jaleel, the leading company; Nestle has a major factory in the country; and imported brands from all over the world, including the US, can be found crowding supermarket aisles.
Additionally, the kind of super-fresh, ready-to-drink juice that Fresh Start sells, made from Trinidadian fruit, often has very low profit margins, given the price of produce and the cost of refrigeration. “For a mom-and-pop business to become a national brand and grow the company to something that stands out and can be at the forefront of consumers’ minds…We had a lot to learn.”
At times, Sun Kow faced internal resistance from his parents. “They didn’t believe in advertising,” so they butted heads often. One of the first things he tried to change was the company’s packaging. Fresh Start’s juice originally came in a generic bottle with a small paper label.
The company couldn’t afford a unique bottle, so Sun Kow pushed for a well-designed label that would differentiate the brand. But Sun Kow’s parents pointed out that the current label cost $0.12 to produce, but his model cost $0.23—a 100 percent increase. “I lost that battle,” he said.
In 2009, though, the government sponsored Fresh Start’s trip to an international food and beverage show in Miami. The company’s juices were well received there, but the packaging was criticised. As a result, Sun Kow finally succeeded in persuading his parents to adopt a new design and shrink-wrap packaging, which was only beginning to gain traction in Trinidad and Tobago at the time.
Fresh Start got another boost when his sister Khadine Hosein-Deane became its finance and administration director. An accountant, she had worked at Price Waterhouse and other multinational corporations, but decided to join the family business when she had a son and needed a more flexible work arrangement. “She revolutionised things financially,” said Sun Kow, by giving structure to the company’s finances.
In 2012, the company won a 30,000-euro grant from the EU through the Caribbean Export Development Agency that helped it turn a corner. Before then, Fresh Start had done everything by hand, including bottling. “It sounds nice and romantic, but in reality, it’s very expensive and difficult,” said Sun Kow. The grant allowed the company to begin mechanising its bottling process and vastly increase production—and profitability.
“We were finally able to really compete,” said Sun Kow. The firm began gaining more market share and increased its B2B sales, as well as its exports. In 2015, it started exporting within the Caribbean in small amounts. The next year, it penetrated US and Canadian markets, selling to ethnic stores there.
That year, 2016, was also when Fresh Start received major financing from DFL, enough to allow the family to upgrade its factory massively. “They saw our vision and realised that, yes, we have potential.”
The upgrade will be a game-changer for Fresh Start, which had been working out of 1,800-square-foot premises in La Puerta, in Diego Martin, that the family had gradually converted from a home. The new factory—over 11,000 square feet in Diamond Vale Industrial Estate, which will include new processing machinery and better refrigeration facilities—will be fully operational by mid-May, and will likely increase the company’s production by 800 percent.
Sun Kow and his family plan to take advantage of that new potential. They have new product ideas, for one, that move beyond juices and include snacks, allowing Fresh Start to capitalise on its current presence in major local supermarkets and restaurants. Sun Kow is tight-lipped on details, but says the new offerings will require an entirely new strategy.
Fresh Start is also aiming to sell its products in Europe—its concentrates, not fresh juices, which are prohibitively expensive to export. The firm is in the process of acquiring international food safety certification, which would allow it to enter the European market more effectively.
Meanwhile, it has just begun working with Trinidadian distributor Wanis to sell its products in the UK. Its sales rep had pursued the distributor for four months, “And finally they said, ‘Let’s try this,’” said Sun Kow. “We’re going to try a couple pallets and see how it goes.”
After all his successes, Sun Kow’s parents no longer view him as the guy with pie-in-the-sky dreams. “Now, I have experience. They trust me.” Still, his father—though ostensibly retired—is engaged in the business on a daily basis, overseeing his son’s decisions.
Fresh Start’s success may be due in part to the fact that it’s a tight-knit family business. But that sometimes held it back, as well. “It was very informal, and we’d make changes any which way,” said Sun Kow, speaking of the company’s past. But now, “Everything has to be above board, people paid on time, everything has to be done. You have to create structure and a culture within the business—and that’s an ongoing battle, an everyday battle.”
ONE-MINUTE ENTREPRENEUR: MARCUS SUN KOW
What’s one book every entrepreneur should read?
"Rich Dad Poor Dad," by Robert Kiyosaki
What’s one brand you admire?
I admire Kiss Baking because of their longevity and their logistics. It's easy to admire global brands but difficult to apply their principles locally.
How do you measure success?
The number of days I get to go surfing 🏄
What's the best thing about running your own business?
The sense of achievement and the ability to create and implement.
The one Fresh Start juice everybody should try?
My personal favourite is our lime juice and the orange-pine comes in a close second.