How was Caimac (English kaymak) Dairy born and who are the corporatists who moved to the country to write the milk story?
How do you leave your rubber boot heels and how do you end up in debt for a product you believe in?
(kaymak is a creamy dairy product similar to clotted cream, made from the milk of water buffalo, cows, sheep, or goats in Central Asia, some Balkan countries, some Caucasus countries, Turkic regions, Iran and Iraq.) Madalina and Adrian Cocan (photo below) are the two young owners of the Caimac Dairy brand. Until a few years ago there were two corporate people from Bucharest, she in high-heel shoes and dressed elegantly in the marketing office of a corporation, he an advertiser with a motor and the green Beetle. Life made them meet and start talking about marketing as the only topic of conversation at the time. Not long after, they moved to the countryside, somewhere at the intersection of Ialomița and Calarasi counties, where Madalina’s parents have had a cow farm for about 25 years. A modern farm with investments of millions and many, many hectares of land. One evening, attending the discussions of the parents, they realized that they can and want to do more with the milk from their farm. So, they started writing the story of Caimac Dairy. They wrote 600,000 on paper as an initial investment, they reached 7 million, but they created a product that shines on supermarket shelves (photo below). It took me a few lines to write this, it took them almost four years to see their products on the shelf, and it’s probably going to take them a while to pay off their debts. Now, however, they are satisfied that their products are appreciated, which is why they have given a different definition of success. I met them on Skype – how else in this period? – and for an hour they talked about them, about their relationship, about Caimac Dairy, but especially about the difference between city life and country life. Have a good read!
Are you in isolation these days?
Madalina Cocan: No, we’re still working. I’m in isolation in the sense that I haven’t left the territory. We live very close to the factory and we haven’t been out of the area in a very long time.
For house shopping we only have one village shop, we are not in the coverage of the big delivery people, so we turned to the nearest hypermarket, Cora Pantelimon. From there, we can order and then we have to go pick them up. And I was looking at the receipts and I saw that I did this on April 8th, and the next order was on April 29th. So, we left the house just to go get our order and go back.
Let’s talk about Caimac Dairy. Has it become a successful business?
Adrian Cocan: It depends on how we measure success. If we measure it in profit, we haven’t achieved success. For example, this year, out of four months, we’ve only made a profit in one. It’s okay somehow because a business on a certain scale takes time to make a profit. We didn’t set out to work on big margins because we don’t save anywhere, we don’t discount quality and then the costs are high.
What’s your success indicator?
Adrian Cocan: If we look at the fact that we entered the market quite quickly, that we manage to successfully compete with the big companies, that we have a very faithful and very satisfied audience with the quality of the products, if we even look at the market share, then yes, it was a great success. If we compare our data with that of the market leader, by the time it entered the market, you will see that by now we are double. What will happen to us, however, is that although we are growing fast, we will stop quite soon because we will reach production capacity, and for us to reach some thresholds in production capacity is actually success.
When does the Caimac Dairy story begin?
Adrian Cocan: January 2014.
And how does it start? Somewhere by the fireplace?
Madalina Cocan: Not exactly by the fire place, but close, so to speak. It starts at home when neither I nor Adrian were at all involved in this. I worked in a nice multinational, he worked in another Romanian company, both doing our basic professions, namely marketing, and when we talked at home about what happens to the milk on the farm.
Milk from your father’s farm?
Madalina Cocan: Milk from my parents’ farm, a family farm. The farm has been in place since 1994 and since 2005 we have already been delivering milk in large quantities for processing. At the time the prices were absolutely disastrous, we were unable to sell the milk from the farm to a processor at a price to cover our costs. Not to mention profit, when we were a relatively integrated business at the time, which is we produced most of the feed. Even under these conditions, because we had made a lot of investments in the farm, because we had very good quality cows, we were unable to get afloat.
Adrian Cocan: To understand how serious the problem was, the loss was about 305. And that happens quite regularly with cow farms. This has made Romania from 7 million cows to 1.2 million, of which there are about 300 thousand of them. The average cost in Romania of milk production is today somewhere at 1.10 lei per liter, without transport. And at the time, the average selling price was 0.75 lei.
Madalina Cocan: Well, we were in a situation like this. Moreover, raw milk can’t be stored, you have to do something with it in 24 hours, otherwise you have to throw it away.
Adian Cocan: If you don’t process it yourself you have to sell it, if you don’t sell it, you have to throw it away.
Madalina Cocan: We said then that we needed to relieve ourselves of this pressure and try to do something ourselves. And so, the story began. That’s how we started thinking of a story about doing something with the milk on the farm. In the family, the discussion was like this: “We did everything we set out to do, for us it’s enough where we ended up,” the parents said. “If you want processing, it’s yours, you have to take care of yourself.”
Adrian Cocan: We started doing a small project and we thought of an investment of 600,000 euros. We wanted to make a small hall and put a machine to bottle milk with a glass bottle – ever since then we had that idea because we wanted to keep the quality of the milk as much as possible.
But how did you know all the things about pasteurization, packaging and all kinds of technical data?
Adrian Cocan: Some things I knew because my father produced liquor bottling machines and had a little business in this regard and many other things I learned. From 2014 to today we visited about 200 factories, talked to a lot of technologists and got a consultant who no longer remembers how many years he has in the trade, but we know that he has jumped 30 years of experience.
Let’s go back to the first factory project...
Adrian Cocan: We started with that project and realized that it was not viable because the scale was simply too small to make a profit or to be noticed by a supermarket.
I mean, an investment of 600,000 euros was...
Adrian Cocan: It was far too modest to have production capacity, to be noticed by a supermarket even as a local supplier, not to mention the national. To list a large network of supermarkets and go to five cities, you need to have processing capacity of more than 10 tons per day.
Madalina Cocan: Especially since we had turned strictly to bottle the milk. Making the same investment to make cheese is completely different, it can be viable, but for milk, when it’s a basic, simple product, you don’t have much room to maneuver. We realized it’s not an effective option because we’re never going to get to support the factory just by bottling milk. And that’s when we started thinking about what else we could do besides milk: yogurt, cream, maybe a little cheese….
And that’s how much money you invested?
Adrian Cocan: The next step was about 1.5 million euros, which far exceeded the power we had. So, we started looking at bank loans and stuff. After we made this model and realized that the numbers don’t come out here either, we’ve reached around two million and something euros. At that point we realized that if we went to the bank, it’s not a bankable project in two respects: on the one hand the profitability was in the air, on the other hand we had no guarantees to put into the project.
Dad’s farm wasn’t working?
Adrian Cocan: It is a guarantee for the stable, tractors, and others.
Let’s go back to Caimac Dairy. At the bank you couldn’t go, but where did you get the money and how much did you invest?
Madalina Cocan: We have identified European funding and adapted our project so that we can qualify there. We applied for a €5 million project, half of which was funded by European funds. Finally, after all the implementation, I got EUR 2,457,000 in European funds, the rest was bank credit and our own funds, and to date we have invested towards EUR 7 million.
You mean you owe it to yourself?
Madalina Cocan: Of course. We find it very funny when the banks put us with our personal assets as guarantors, and I try to tell them: “Believe us you have nothing to take away from us. There are no valuables.”
Adrian Cocan: Madalina has an Opel Corsa and I have a motorcycle.
Madalina Cocan: This is about personal wealth.
From 2014, from the idea to the time you went on the market, how long did it take?
Adrian Cocan: We finished the construction of the factory in March-April 2018. From idea to factory, it took four years. We’ve been on the shelf since June 19, 2018, we’ve got a little bit left and we’re two years old. We’ve been counting ever since.
Madalina Cocan: What I wanted to say is that you and I have never been part of a similar story before and we have never worked in this area before. We have a background of marketing and communication, that’s what we did in the companies we worked in, and the step we took here took a lot of account for that. We wanted what we were doing here to be a story that we liked to tell. That’s what marketing people do: they tell stories.
Where did you two meet?
Adrian Cocan: We met absolutely by chance. We’ve been crossing our paths, but without seeing each other. I worked at one point in the advertising agency whose client was the company Madalina worked for. But we never met even though the two companies had been working together for a long time. But I was working on other accounts and we never saw each other.
And when did the meeting take place?
Adrian Cocan: In 2013, we met at an event and found ourselves a common topic of marketing.
Madalina Cocan: I was in a context where I didn’t know a lot of people and at one point, getting acquainted, I introduced myself and said that I work in marketing. Adrian said he also worked in marketing and it was as a relief that I had something to tell. I was glad the event was going to be successful and it turned out to be more successful than I expected at the time (laughs).
Adrian: I was impressed by her at the time that I was driving a green Beetle and I offered to take her home.
Home to the cow farm?
Adrian Cocan: No, no, home in Bucharest.
Madalina Cocan: I was a nice lady who worked in a corporation, in marketing, in the middle of the city…
Adrian Cocan: Shoes with high heels…
Madalina: She laughs at me for meeting me in high-heel shoes…
And now you’re in opinci, or what?
(opinca “peasant footwear made of a rectangular piece of leather or rubber, with the edges wrinkled and twisted upwards, tightened on the leg with the help of leather, animal hair, string, wool, etc. straps or shoelaces”) (photo below)
Adrian Coca: Not really, but you know what it’s like… on the farm… We also have good shoes, but we also have factory equipment and boots.
When did you move to the country?
Mădălina. In 2014. When we decided to move in together, we actually moved here with my folks. There were also some events that made it so. I had a pretty crappy car accident and I spent my convalescence here so my parents could help us. And then we decided to stay here. That’s why, being at home, we all talked about what happened that the farm, what the problems were, somehow naturally came to dinner. Adrian decided to take the step much faster than me and come here with my father and work with him until the factory project started, but I left myself very hard. We basically started the actual work here in 2017, when the factory was under construction.
I was curious if you, Adrian, asked her to marry you before or after you moved to the country?
Adrian: We had already moved here.
And you said, “This is my way: from Bucharest, I’m moving to the country, I’m letting the green Beetle...”
Madalina: He wanted harder than me to move.
Adrian: I had already fled Bucharest. I was born, raised in Bucharest and by 2008 I left the city because I could no longer stand the crowds, the dust, the fights on the parking lots, I wanted a little peace and I moved to Mogoşoaia. At the time, it was very good there, but in the meantime things got very crowded.
What were your parents, Adrian?
My father is a refrigeration engineer and in 1993 he started an industrial machinery production business for small and medium-sized industry. He was a very good mechanical engineer, brought in technologies from out in the 1970s and collaborated with several companies in the Netherlands. And my mother was a teacher.
And your parents, Madalina? What were they doing before the revolution?
Mine have been agronomist engineers all their lives. My folks met in college and were assigned here. My family’s origins are not from this area, but they met in college and then worked together in Baragan, on various farms.
Are you a single child?
How old were you when they started the farm?
I was 10 when my dad quit. I spent my childhood somehow on the farm. In fact, I grew up quite a lot with my grandparents in Vrancea and stayed there until the third grade when my parents decided that I had to go to school and brought me to Bucharest. But yes, the childhood I remember, I spent on the farm, among seeds, grains, cows… My mom worked at a seed lab, and I knew all the stocks by heart, I knew how to make wheat moisture, how the machine had to stop so you could take a sample….
Adrian: That’s why she didn’t like it and didn’t want to stay here. Especially since at the time everything was done with great sacrifices. Tractors gained air conditioning in 2007-2008 in Romania.
Madalina: When summer came and there were harvest campaigns, my father would disappear completely from the landscape. We didn’t really meet because he was working on some absolutely inhumane programs, from 6 p.m. to 8 a.m., to take advantage of the cool of the night. We didn’t have summer holidays because summer was the main agricultural season and my dad said, “If I don’t harvest now and I’m going on vacation, it’s raining next week. What am I to do? I’m losing everything I’ve worked for.” Somehow, in my childhood I said that I would never end up like this, I would never come near this area. I went to economics high school, then I went to an economics college, I majored in marketing, I did everything I could to stay away from this area, until I ran into Adrian.
Who had a completely different vision ...
Adrian: And I ran away from my father’s work because he also worked hard, he was always black, from head to toe, of oils and Vaseline. He always kept the money for the purchase of an expensive lathe or a machine, he always experimented – over time he collected a few dozen patents – but hanging around him made me feel quite comfortable when I documented abroad because I met all kinds of machines that I had seen at my father’s and the people there were terribly amused because the young engineers didn’t know for example what those mechanical filling systems were because today everything is controlled by some computers. I was a kid at the time, and sitting next to my dad, all kinds of notions stuck to me.
Madalina: In our childhood, unlike our children’s childhood, parents didn’t work with us, they went to work and we spent time around them to keep us under surveillance.
Adrian: I learned physics in the slaughterhouse refrigerator, where my father worked.
Have you gone on those vacations you’ve long dreamed of in the summer?
Adrian: Yeaaaa! I’ve discovered other things. I discovered that a business is like a child and needs a lot of attention, at least in its first stage. Last year I wasn’t on vacation at all, two years ago I had a little break and I went on a short vacation. As entrepreneurs you imagine all kinds of things and what you imagine is that in a certain period you solve things and then you’re done.
Madalina: What you don’t know is that you solve things and while you solve the stuff, other things occur.
Adrian: Two years ago, we were happy that we finished the factory, that we put it into use, that we started selling and we went on holiday after two years.
Madalina: I left more for the children, I was 10 days in Greece.
Adrian: I haven’t gone on holiday since. We’ve been out of business before, but quite a bit, it’s a maximum of 10 days. For example, at the end of February we were in London, we had work to do and we took a day and a half off to walk around and visit some sights outside.
Let’s talk about the kids. How many do you have?
Adrian and Madalina, in a voice: Three!.
Madalina: We have a motto: go big or go home. The factory started at 600,000 euros, it ended at 7 million, we had no child, we ended up with three, we do not work with half measures…
In order of the numbers on the shirt, how old are they?
3 and a half years and a year and a month.
Madalina: The first are twins, boy and girl, and the third was in the promotion, 2+1.
How do you manage things with them? Who’s helping you? Or do they raise each other as in the old times?
Adrian: There is a small distance between them. Fortunately, there’s someone to help us because otherwise we wouldn’t be able to do it, because we work from morning to night.
Madalina: I made the transition between the old job and the new job going on child-rearing leave after the twins were born. When they turned one, I reintegrated into work, straight to the factory. While they were very small, I was kind of a consultant to Adrian. He started the project, we talked about what we could do, but I wasn’t involved in anything. After a year I came to the office, I had the flexibility of the schedule and the fact that I was doing a few minutes to the factory, it helped me a lot. When they were two, I gave the twins to daycare.
In the village?
Adrian: You need to know that the village is small. There are about 600 inhabitants and at least 400 of them are retired and there are about 16 children in the whole village.
Madalina: We have in the village only an elementary school with grades I-IV.
And you’re taking them to Bucharest?
Madalina: Yes, we take them to Bucharest, so that it is easy for us. I chose this version because I preferred them to spend eight quality hours there, even if I spend two on the road, than spend eight bad hours and make a 10-minute drive. Because we live far from Bucharest, they are accustomed to sleep in the car and they sleep very well in the car. In the meantime, the third came as a surprise, but he’s little for now. We have an internal nanny who helps us a lot. When I was pregnant with my little one, my last day of work was Friday and Wednesday I delivered. I went back to work when he was six months old.
And they’re staying with the nanny?
Adrian: Sitting in the country, it’s a little better because they can sit in the yard, they can play, they can run, we’ve got a puppy and they can chase the dog and the dog can chase them, they’re active most of the day, which is a great benefit. When the weather is bad, they’re more nervous, much more agitated…
Now you’re happy, but let me see you when they become teenagers...
Adrian: Yes, there are always pluses and minuses. Madalina: We are optimistic, we said that indeed when they become teenagers living in the country will be our biggest problem, but we hope that by the time they are teenagers Bucharest will expand and we will be right on the edge of the city.
What’s the name of the village where you live?
Madalina: We live in Mărița, Calarasi County, and the factory is in Drăgoiești, Ialomița. It is the intersection of three counties and the distances are very small, so between the house and the factory we have only 7 kilometers.
Why Caimac Dairy? Why is it called that?
Madalina: It’s called that because that’s what we wanted.
Adrian: That’s what I wanted it to be, I wanted it to be a dairy, to be milk first and to do things somehow at the level of the best products outside. To do this job you have to be a dairy, not an industrial milk processing company, where processes are more important than the product. Here milk is the essence and we have adapted absolutely all the equipment, the number of people and their work around milk and around products that are rather artisanal, although they are obtained with some industrial resources. Why am I saying this? For example, in cheese, we process three and a half tons of milk at a time, it flows into a huge valve and there are huge arms that mix and cut the shell at the end, but from that point, all the other operations are done by hand. In cheese making, automation is 10%, and the star is milk and the milkman is second in the hierarchy. And we wanted it to be whole, to be everything the way it used to be, and that’s where the kaymak is from here. When we started researching the subject, I think we talked to seven or eight technologists with a lot of experience in this country, and everyone but one who’s been silent said, “Stop that, that’s impossible to do. You have to do what everyone else does: mass-market products, big volumes, telemea (cheese in brine), you have to process like everyone else does, you have to put powdered milk to make yogurt, you have to put starch to keep the cream.” We refused at the time any kind of such conversation. Only one specialist said: “You want to do what was done in the old days, but I’m not sure if it can be done and if it can be done so that you can make a profit, get the money back and give it back to the bank.” But he was open, he trusted that we were feeling pretty good in the direction of the market and that’s how we became a dairy and that’s how we got the Caimac Dairy.
Madalina: Our bet was somehow related to the fact that those who consume Caimac Dairy products don’t need those perfect things, that they’re ok and if it’s whey above the curdled milk, that they’ll understand that the whey is part of the product and that there’s nothing there to be scared of. Although it was a much bigger job to do, given that there are no other producers on the market that do that, we came with it in plain sight and it turned out that we were right. Consumers are people who think, ask questions if they want to know more and who want to do that.
Adrian: We have very smart equipment that we can adjust to tenth of a degree. Whatever I did to him, I couldn’t get rid of the whey. The technical solution accepted by the industry was that of some stabilisers. We didn’t want to put anything in. Our yogurt was made for our daughter. She hasn’t eat any kind of yogurt on the market.
Madalina: When we started our production, I said we would not make yogurt until my daughter ate it because I couldn’t supply the market a product that my child refuses. So, all the products were first tested on our children.