Conversation with Luigi Sandei, protagonist and witness of the history of the Italian manufacturing industry.

It is the 50th year in business for Chairman Luigi Sandei. Born in 1944, he is the sole shareholder of Protec srl and keeper of the company’s historical memory from its birth until today. During his brilliant business career, Luigi Sandei, who always stood out for his sharp entrepreneurial skills and far-sightedness, witnessed momentous changes in the agri-food sector. Meeting him to talk about his career means to discover not just his personal and business history, but also an outright Italian case of innovation and growth, a true wealth of values supported by passion and sacrifice. Born in a small village near Parma, the youngest of 6 children, at the end of War World II, still a child, he suffered the loss of his father. In spite of many life difficulties, he managed to found, at the age of 23, his first company with a partner. Following some changes, in 1988 he bought 100% of the share capital. The new company, called Sandei srl, was later sold – in 1996, at the height of success with more than 100 self-propelled harvesters manufactured – to the American multinational company FMC.

Luigi Sandei has been a forefront protagonist of this portion of the history of Italian entrepreneurship. In his 50-year’s activity he has radically changed the agri-food sector, bringing innovation throughout the tomato supply chain and not only that. It is extremely important to understand how this has taken place, especially to hand down  the memory of a long-lasting success that is 100 percent Italian and started in the second half of the 60s, when Sandei took his first steps in this sector.

“Mine is a long story that goes back to the faraway June 1967, when I set up my first company. At the beginning the company produced lines for tomato seeds, but observing the long and exhausting work in the fields carried out completely by hand, including the transportation of the 25kg cases, I decided to build, better yet invent a harvester based on American technology”.

Mr. Sandei insists on specifying that starting the company was not really a walk in the park, rather it was marked by many physical and financial efforts.

We worked at night to do the first tests, in spite of the fact that we did not have the support of the tomato processing industry and the varieties suitable for mechanized harvesting had not yet been imported to Italy and Europe, though they were already used in the United States. Little by little we overcame all these obstacles, and we succeeded in having our machinery used firstly in the production phase, and later during the harvest”.

In the words of Protec’s Chairman, a most intriguing aspect on this matter is that:

“After a few years, in spite of some initial objections, the growers themselves adjusted to these new and more modern systems, as they began to approach the new varieties of tomato suitable for mechanized harvesting. In a very short time, we were able to put to use in the field our very first machine that was sold not just around Parma, but also outside of Italy, on the other side of the Alps, probably the French were a little ahead of us…”

The first model sold was followed by continuing successes, supported by a constant evolution in the machines’ technology, more and more advanced and state-of-the art.
The Sandei Company pioneered the mechanization of tomato harvesting in Europe, but the history of real optical sorters, indeed Protec’s history, is more recent:

“In the mid-80s we started to realize that sorters were needed in the harvesting process. At the beginning, for quality control purposes machines required the presence of a dozen people who removed unfit products from the sorting table and then delivered the product for processing”.

In truth, it is thanks to the combination of mechanized tomato harvesting with sorting  that today we can boast such high yield in tomato production and tomato products in our area and elsewhere in the world. This could not have been dreamed of without the implementation of automation and mechanization strategies:

“Let’s just think that one person can harvest at the most 100kg per hour, with enormous energy consumption, while a harvester with a crew of three people can easily reach 200ton per hour”.

Sandei succeeded in accomplishing a true revolution, first in mechanized harvesting and then in processing lines, which ultimately brought about the boom of the preserved food sector, so tightly connected to it.

In 1990, 23 years later, Sandei felt the need to produce sorters in-house for the harvesters and founded his second company, the current PROTEC SRL. The Company was created to manufacture sorters to be assembled on machinery and with the main purpose of adapting to the tomato supply chain. A few years later, the optical sorters started to be applied also to the tomato processing industry, firstly on the sorting tables, then also on tomato pulp, dices and extrusions, considerably improving the quality of the packaged product. Over time, with perseverance, Protec prevailed in other sectors, always adapting to new market needs and finding its own strategy in diversified offers.

“Protec, initially set up to sort tomatoes on board of the Sandei self-propelled harvester, started exploiting its own technology successfully also in sorting of other products such as olives, vegetables, corn, pulses, seafood, fresh-cut range, potatoes, walnuts, chestnuts, grapes for winemaking. The range of applications is almost endless. We are happy to meet the many new requests we receive from Customers, and we carry out a feasibility study for each one”.

“Our customer base is varied and our commitment through the years marked by constant and tangible improvements is proving us right; in 27 years in business we have produced more than 3500 sorters for different sectors”.

Among Protec’s many successes we cannot forget to mention those in the winery sector that gives Sandei and all his staff great satisfaction. In recent years the company has installed 50 sorters for winemaking grapes not only in Europe (France and Germany), but also in Japan, the United States, South Africa, Chile, and Argentina, thus becoming a reference point for the sector.

“The world of sorting machines is like the computer world, we constantly need to look for new applications. Starting from tomatoes, we have changed the entire production supply chain and with the experience gained in production plants, we have expanded to wineries. The grapes harvested both manually and mechanically contain many impurities when they reach the wineries, and if not thoroughly removed, they can jeopardise the quality of the finished product. The wineries, including some of the best French wine and champagne producers, have all reached very high quality levels”.

A true pioneer in mechanizing the industrial sector, Sandei is a symbol of Italian creativity and continued innovation in business, always raising the standards for quality. Luigi Sandei is not someone who loves taking all the credit for himself. He cares to stress that the support of his family, also in the business side, and the collaboration with his entire team, from the administration offices to sales, the engineers, the software engineers, the technicians and the workforce have been essential for his success. This is what he says:

“The key is to be surrounded by experts and skilled people, when the goal is to cross always new finish lines in business”.

For this very reason Protec is famous for its Research and Development department, as, needless to say, each application of the sophisticated machines produced requires lengthy research and ad hoc software design. Therefore, investing in research brings only benefits to a high-tech business such as the sorters are. Not surprisingly, Mr. Sandei announced a collaboration project with the University of Parma:

“We have just established a fruitful collaboration with the University of Parma, with which we have a mutual exchange of resources. On the one hand Protec can use the equipment for the kind of experimentations that only a university can carry out, and, on the other hand, we are giving young, brilliant and open-minded engineers an opportunity to interface with a modern and vibrant company, in line with their expectations“.

Luigi Sandei’s are valuable words, as they bear witness to a crucial chapter in the economic history of the area of Parma and Italy. This is the story of an entrepreneur that succeed in creating a solid company from a brilliant intuition, and in doing so revolutionized an industrial sector of fundamental importance in our country, such as the agri-food, that was still backwards before the coming of his harvesters. Most of all, with open mind and love for innovation, Luigi Sandei succeeded in building a booming Made-in-Italy business projected towards the future and reaching for the new generations.