CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela's biggest private company says it will boost investment next year and is committed to promoting growth for its food businesses and the country as a whole — despite expropriation threats from Hugo Chavez.
Pablo Baraybar, director of the Alimentos Polar division of Empresas Polar, told The Associated Press that the company plans to spend 580 million bolivars, or $134.8 million, in 2011 to set up a yogurt factory and to buy new equipment for other plants to increase production of canned fish, mayonnaise, pet food and other products.
"The main objective of this company is the growth and development of Venezuela," Baraybar said in an interview this week.
The largest share of the company's investments, about $86 million, will go toward the new yogurt plant, an initiative in which Polar is partnering with Spanish conglomerate Grupo Leche Pascual.
Empresas Polar this year invested the equivalent of $88 million to boost production of precooked corn meal, a product for which the company is Venezuela's market leader. It is used to make a favorite national dish — corn cakes called "arepas" that Venezuelans fill with everything from cheese to shredded beef.
Chavez, the country's socialist president, threatened to "go after" Polar earlier this year, calling it a monopoly and accusing it of evading government price controls on basic foodstuffs.
Polar has denied wrongdoing and has sought to demonstrate its commitment to doing business in Venezuela, while Chavez has recently ordered the expropriation of other companies including a subsidiary of Owens-Illinois Inc. that has supplied Polar with glass containers.
Asked if such moves have affected Polar, Baraybar said in the Tuesday interview that some private companies that supply containers "have had problems obtaining the raw materials." But he said Polar has managed to overcome that situation.
Chavez's government has taken over various companies in the food sector and now controls market shares ranging from 40 percent to 75 percent for some products, such as rice and coffee.
In May, the government ordered the expropriation of the food company Monaca, which also produces precooked corn meal, and began talks with its Mexico-based majority owner, Grupo Maseca, on creating a joint venture.
But Empresas Polar still dominates the food industry in Venezuela. Its work force of about 32,000 employees produces grains, sauces, cheese, canned foods, jam, beer, animal food and other products.
Chavez's government maintains price controls on many basic foods, and Baraybar said Polar is losing money on sales of some products, including precooked corn meal, rice, corn oil and pasta. He did not give any specific figures.
Polar's announcement last week that it would team up with Grupo Leche Pascual to invest in the yogurt factory surprised some Venezuelans due to Chavez's past threats to expropriate the company or its assets.
Asked whether the investment plans have managed to ease tensions between the government and Polar, Baraybar said: "I don't think so, because that's a subject between principles of private companies and non-private companies."