Antonio Bertelli expands his empire

Long-term resident Antonio Bertelli has always been seeking out uncharted ways. He is well known for his frozen fish import business, AGAP International Group, which is one of the most surprising activities in the Principality of Monaco. Yet, for Antonio there is no end to adventures as he recently decided to enter the paper world.

Antonio Bertelli has one of the most untraditional businesses in the Principality of Monaco. His example proves that Monaco offers a vast number of opportunities for those who dare to think out of the box.

Born and raised in Montecatini Terme, in a small Municipality located in Tuscany, central Italy,  Antonio Bertelli is a long-term resident of the Principality of Monaco. 

Let’s make the unexpected happen

Antonio Bertelli
Antonio Bertelli

Arriving in Monaco back in 1998, Antonio established a unique business in the heart of Monaco, focusing on frozen fish importation. His business AGAP International is an ambitious company, working with all the major fish producers to give customers excellent service.

Knowing Antonio one might wonder about the choice of his activity since he does not fish at all. As a child, Antonio often went hunting with his father. Therefore, most of his experiences were related to the forest animals, not to the sea. This passionate Italian man loves to play tennis and go cycling, but he also likes padeling and skiing, activities that are unrelated to water.

However, back in Montecatini Terme, Antonio spent 10 years with a local company, experiencing first-hand the frozen business with one of the industry leader companies in Italy. Stepping down as General Manager, Antonio brought his vast knowledge to Monaco.

What has been the biggest challenge you have experienced in Monaco?

Coming over to Monaco alone without the family and challenging the risk of losing everything I had and I loved if I fail. It was like heads or tails, but looking back now, both the business and family relationships became stronger.

You have a very unusual activity for Monaco. Was it easy to get the authorisation from the Government?

A “normal business” such as our frozen fish trading business was always welcomed at that time in Monaco. However, there were few conditions. We were not allowed to import, store and distribute in Monte-Carlo.

It seems to be a serious limitation for a trading business.

Actually, we were perfectly OK with it because global trading was allowed. Monaco was mainly known as an offshore place for global traders. However, the Government’s aim was also to let everyone know that the Principality is a good place to be in as an entrepreneur and a great base for international business players.

Understanding the rules of the game, Antonio diversified the production bases on a global scale. As it is today, the top strategic locations for AGAP International are Argentina, Namibia, South Africa, Vietnam, and China.

Antonio Bertelli
Antonio Bertelli

Did you have any previous experience in the Principality before you established AGAP International, a worldwide seafood trading company?

Yes, I was already operating in Monaco when I was working as an employee in a previous company. So for me, it was relatively easy to apply for a Monaco residency and to start my own company here,” – remembers Antonio.

What do you think, what is the biggest benefit for a business to be in Monaco?

As an Italian, I would say: to have clear and firm rules to follow as an entrepreneur. What I saw here in Monaco is that there is no grey zone. Everything is black and white. You can plan, make investments and take risks as everywhere else, but you can also rely on firm points, which for someone who likes to invest, are the base to build up solid foundations for a company.

Why did you choose Monaco for its location instead of another global city?

Actually, I needed a neutral place for my vision of trading. Monaco is not far from my hometown and it is easy to reach it by car,” – says Antonio. – “The idea was to play the role of the trader from a neutral place in order not to be identified by the customers for one market only. Also, I wanted to exploit the high banking level useful for a worldwide trading business.

Very few people know, but the Principality of Monaco is taking a leading role in responsible food consumption and protection against overfishing the sea.

The Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation is the South East regional coordinator for the „Mr Goodfish“ campaign to promote the responsible consumption of seafood. In association with the Mare Nostrum Aquarium and the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco, the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation is making hotel professionals, chefs, fishermen, and restaurant owners aware of the issue of sustainability. They propose and indicate which seafood products are preferable to select from for consumption. 

The goal of this initiative, which is already hugely successful in the Channel and North Sea areas, is to offer an alternative to consumers by encouraging them to try new species selected from a list established by the „Mr Goodfish“ campaign. 

The selection of suggested fish is planned at each change of season according to the region, the state of the resource, the size, and the status of the species (protected or not). The incentive enables followers to purchase fresh fish and at the same time preserve the resources of the sea. 

Did you ever have any problem with Monaco’s “Mr Goodfish” program?

Absolutely not,” – laughs Antonio. “In recent years, certifications, sustainability, and protection of the marine species became the key factors to distinguish ourselves from others. By doing this, we also follow the demand coming from our customers, the importers, and also from the final consumers of our marine products.

Antonio Bertelli
Antonio Bertelli

AGAP International’s competitors often focus on the easy origin products, while for Antonio one of the key elements of success is to take care of the assortment and availability of less strategic, but more profitable items. This separates AGAP International from other international companies and also allows it to set a high-quality standard that can make Monaco proud as well.

Generally speaking, Antonio is the concierge of the frozen fish industry. His customers appreciate his suggestions since he does not produce products, only trades them. This is why he can always offer products that suit their needs, understanding that a true business strives on satisfactory aspects.

What’s your favourite fish dish?

The Grouper from the Mediterranean Sea and the Sashimi Tuna Toro are my favourite ones. But the top of the top for me is the Patagonian Toothfish which is not easy to find and taste in Europe.

Do you supply restaurants in the French Riviera?

Not directly. Our main customers are the importers, who then  arrange the logistics and  delivery for catering horeca (Hotel-Restaurants-Catering) and wholesales.

Capitalising on his 30 years of experience, Antonio’s business exports frozen fish products to over 30 countries. Which is your number one target country?

At the moment our number one market is the USA. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, China was the number one, but many things have changed in the past years. 

It is incredible to see how,  during a short period of time, all the cards have been mixed on the table.

How did Covid-19 affect your sales?

Generally speaking, the food service has been suffering because of the lockdowns and restrictions which had a great impact on the restaurant industry all over the world. 

Since we are focusing on wholesale trading, we were in a lucky position to experience a heavy increase in our sales. 

Thanks to the great distribution, the supermarket chains as well as the online sales, we had a very successful period.

Being open minded to see the opportunities around

Do you have any good stories to share?

This happened early in 2000, one of the first times when I went to Shanghai, China,  before I opened up my office in Xiamen. I was travelling with an Italian customer, so we asked the concierge of the hotel to book a table at a restaurant where we could have the famous Beijing Duck at 20:00 /20:30. So we took a taxi around that time, handing him a card where the name and address of the restaurant were written in Chinese. At that time almost nobody spoke English and generally we were supposed to move around with someone who could be an interpreter, but that night our guide was busy. 

Generally, in China, the restaurants are inside anonymous buildings like this one and the taxi driver left us in front of the main entrance. We took the elevator to the floor of the restaurant. The doors opened and the big room in front of us with plenty of empty tables was dark. Apparently, nobody was there. A telephone was ringing in the silence. Ring… ring… ring…

A  woman came out from nowhere and went straight to the table where the phone was placed, without taking care of us standing in the lobby. She answered the phone and after a few seconds she came towards us and  said: “A call for you.” 

I went to the table and picked up the phone when a voice said: 

“I am the concierge of the hotel. I want to apologise because the restaurant is closed.”

The Chinese are often afraid to say no, or cannot, so they answer yes to everything, even when it should be a 100% no. It was only 20:15, but in Shanghai, the dining services were mostly over around that time. We went back to the hotel to have something from the room service to calm our hunger. 

When we came back one year later Shanghai was no longer sleeping. Dining was possible throughout the day and nothing was like before. I often mention this story just to show how a country can change its traditions in a few months without looking back to its history, tearing down entire neighbourhoods and building up new ones within a few months. Maoism, Taoism, Buddha, and Confucius became dust and this was the hint to look at China with different eyes. 

If a country can change this quickly, just by pursuing the God dollar, it is definitely the place to invest in. The run for gold started and I also wanted to be part of it, although  I did not know yet how. This was the hint why I decided to take that risk and open an office there to follow the changes from the inside and exploit the gold rush.

You travel a lot. Based on your opinion, why is it important to nurture these personal, long-term relationships?

Yes! I realised in the past years that success will always depend on the solidity of the relationships you succeed to build up during the years. In addition to this, I came from the school of face-to-face discussions, shaking hands and more importantly loyalty that you can develop  only by actually meeting people.

What has been the biggest challenge in your business?

To open the office in China when China was just at the beginning of its revolution. I had the vision but sometimes dreams like this one can remain unrealised because of the many obstacles coming from investing from a distance and the different mentalities. Nevertheless, I pursued this idea no matter what and it strategically revealed a good decision in the long-term.

Entering into the paper world

In the recent year, Antonio decided to take on a new adventure as AGAP International Group acquired shares in Ekart srl, a historical company located in the middle of Tuscany, Italy.

This new world of packaging provides an attractive opportunity for us, especially considering the decreasing demand on plastic items. I wanted to participate in a company that is able to offer promising and high-end packaging solutions,” – Antonio reveals his motivation.

Ekart is one of the legendary Italian companies that started from a small garage in the 1960s. Utilising seven decades of expertise and know-how of the top management, Antonio has great plans to expand the possibilities.

During the 10th Anniversary Celebration event of the Living in Monaco magazine at the TWIGA Monte-Carlo restaurant, the first female master chocolatier in the World, Cecilia Rabassi introduced her latest chocolate selection wrapped in the luxury packaging of Ekart.

There are plenty of printing houses producing items from wedding cards to luxury cases/boxes/envelopes, however, what really attracted me is Ekart’s edge diversifying solutions for the major fashion companies worldwide.

In addition to this, Ekart is a leader in high-quality and niche papers in multiple industries, including food packaging and restaurants, beauty and cosmetics, pharmaceutical and winery.

I really like this new involvement. We are pushing the production units to explore new sectors which are intriguing and promising for the years to come.

Knowing Antonio, who is a man of deep family values, it is easy to see how he was  influenced by the story of Ekart. 

The family-run Italian company was founded in 1963 by Franco Focosi in a small garage. Mr Focosi’s two sons Luca and Marco, have followed his footsteps and they are running the company into the future.

It is a fantastic and innovative company. Therefore, we created a seven year plan to reach a solid consistent turnover which will allow the new  generation coming up in the family to continue the path of the founder. 

I truly admire when families can hand over the key to the next generation and by that they are able to build up a long-lasting legacy.

Family is the greatest asset in life

Antonio Bertelli with his eldest son, Alberto
Antonio Bertelli with his eldest son, Alberto

Tell us more about your book, called “I would be your father”.

It came by chance. I was trying to communicate with my younger son Niccolo. He is only 18 years old and I was striving to explain to him that life cannot be only sweet, but should be also bitter to distinguish the differences and to appreciate most of it. 

I realised that the perception that children sometimes have regarding their parents can be partial. They have no idea of what one has gone through, and the idea came to put my experiences around the world into writing. 

This could be a useful heritage that would have been lost after me,” – continues Antonio. – “It made me feel better to leave something written which could be either a memory, stimulus, and vision for my sons and nephews, but also for the younger generation who has curiosity and hunger for life. 

It is meant also for all the friends, who have been living that incredible period with the same good spirit.

Do you think your son will overtake your business one day?

Antonio Bertelli with his daugther, Gaia
Antonio Bertelli with his daugther, Gaia

Yes, my eldest son is 26 years old. He approaches the business in the right way with great curiosity and humility. 

These are two very important qualities, the base to succeed. 

In addition to this, he is much smarter than his father,” – laughs Antonio. – “I am confident that he will continue my vision and I hope one day, he will do that together with my other children, Gaia and Niccolo.

What would your advice be for the future generation of entrepreneurs?

Even if you are a business owner, start humble and act as an employee of your company. Give all that you can, and try to be an empty bottle filling it up with all that you can from your experiences. This is how you can make them yours. 

Once you succeed in covering all aspects of your company, being able to perform the tasks, you will be able to teach and control the others. That’s when you are ready to become a true entrepreneur. All the rest is inside you.

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