Brad Oberwager: Aiming for big slice of the watermelon market

Coming out of the dot-com boom and bust with several companies started and sold, Bradford Oberwager took a travel break in 2003 from his back-to-back startup efforts. He went to Asia. There, the San Francisco resident saw the fruit of his future.

“I realized that watermelon is an international powerhouse of a fruit,” he said. “You cannot be in a restaurant in the Philippines or Thailand and not see watermelon juice on the menu. To us, it’s a summer fruit. To the rest of the world, it’s a staple.”

Populations from the “rest of the world,” of course, are growing much more prevalent in the U.S. People from Latin American and parts of Asia are accustomed to eating watermelon year-round, Oberwager said. Combine those culinary traditions with the American tradition of big-branding, hot-weather fruits such as Sunkist oranges and Dole pineapple, and Oberwager is sure pink and green will be his gold.

His company, the privately held Sundia Corp., now accounts for some 35 percent of the watermelons sold on the market, each with a little “Sundia” sticker designed to make customers recognize and seek out his branded fruit. To start his firm in 2004, he partnered with Tim Colin of California produce-distribution company Timco Worldwide Inc., a major source of many supermarket watermelons. Sundia also brands other melons and produce.

“He agreed to convert all of his [melon] stock into Sundia, and we gave him a lot of stock in the company,” Oberwager said. “All of these shippers out there havea brand, but the brand is mostly to the [store] buyer. Safeway knows it. Albertsons knows it.”

Customers generally didn’t know it, and that’s the niche Oberwager hopes to fill with Sundia. He said his brand stands for predictably good fruit, with high sweetness levels, no sun-bleaching and no hollow heart. A small personal-sized melon, the Sundia Mini, has sold particularly well, Oberwager said.

Even with planned sales of some 88 million pieces of fruit in 2007 and a plan to launch an organic line within six months, straight produce is not a huge money-maker. Therefore, Sundia has already begun sales of four watermelon-blend juices — straight, blackberry, pomegranate and limeade — and launches a prepackaged cut-fruit line today.

The juices are a product his executives are very familiar with: COO Dan Hoskins and VP of Manufacturing James Kairos both came from Odwalla Inc. Oberwager holds a formula and patent for watermelon juice, according to industry trade magazine BevNet.com. The firm has attracted attention, sparking talks with cut-fruit leader Del Monte, Oberwager said.

Oberwager started his business with “friends and family” loans, which is perhaps unsurprising. His entrepreneurial father Washburn Oberwager “never worked for anybody,” Oberwager said. His own first business was a personalized-vitamin manufacturer, Acumins, which he created in 1996 because his sister had cancer and couldn’t take regular iodinated vitamins. He also was a co-founder of online pharmacy more.com, and was CEO of the defunct OpenWebs.

In addition to Sundia, Oberwager serves on several corporate boards and is an investor. He lives with his wife, former CPMC executive Karmi Oberwager, and their two children Lauren, 6, and Luke, 3.

Brad Oberwager

BUSINESS

New project: Sundia: the largest watermelon brand in the world and fastest growing produce brand in the U.S.

Number of e-mails a day: I tend to respond with one word answers, so people don’t send me long emails … fewer than 100

Number of voice mails a day: Fewer than 30

Essential Web site: seatguru.com; gizmodo.com

Best perk: I run all of my companies from my basement office.

Gadgets: All of them

Education: Wharton MBA; Georgetown; starting six companies

Last conference: Produce Marketing Association

First job: Removing poison ivy from a neighbor’s house for $5; ended up in the hospital

Original aspiration: Same as today, leave the world a better place than when I got here

Career objective: Make money while achieving my original aspiration and enjoy the process

PERSONAL

Details: 36, 5’10″ I envision everything I do.

Hometown: Philadelphia

Sports/hobbies: The older I get, the better I was at lacrosse (played for Georgetown); now I run as far as I can as fast as I can as many days as I can

Transportation: I am the only person I know that can get carsick while driving

Favorite restaurant: Isa’s

Computer: A Samsung that is not available in the U.S., imported from Korea, weighs less than 2 lbs.; of course some of the keys are in Korean

Vacation spot: Jamaica

Favorite clothier: Dung Custom Tailors, Saigon

Role model: Father, who taught me that the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.

Reading: Jonathan Livingston Seagull (to my daughter)

Worst fear: That I won’t get “there”; and if I do, I won’t enjoy the journey

Motivation: My worst fear

kwilliamson@examiner.com

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