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‘Mr Meatball’ is hungry for more

Per Ågren imports Nordic food and drinks to Hong Kong, not only to Swedes, but to big retailers, hotels and restaurants in the city. Starting with meatballs, he is now entering new areas such as Tex-Mex.

TEXT: Jan Hökerberg
25 OCTOBER, 2019

After 25 years of shipping goods between Asia and Europe, Per Ågren decided in 2018 that it was time to fully focus on his side-business of five years standing – distributing Nordic food and beverages to retailers, hotels and restaurants in Hong Kong and Macau.

“I’d just turned 50 and I thought, if I’m ever going to start a new career, now’s the time to do it, before I get too old,” says Ågren.

Known as “Mr Meatball” by some Swedes in Hong Kong, in 2013 Ågren encouraged his wife Carol to open SverigeShoppen (the Sweden Shop). It is now an established community shop where the Nordic community can buy-over-the-counter – or order online – Nordic food and drinks that cannot be found elsewhere in Hong Kong’s supermarkets.

When a representative of an upmarket retailer visited the Sweden Shop in 2015 and asked if it was possible to buy more, Ågren got the idea of expanding the couple’s business. They had already founded a company, Pear & Carrot Ltd – which refers to the Ågren couple’s given names, Per and Carol – for importing the items to the shop.

“We realised that to be able to create a platform for our imported food and beverages, we had to actively promote the Sweden brand. So, I started frying Swedish meatballs at trade exhibitions and events that we participated in. That’s probably how I got my nickname – or it could perhaps be because of my rather big body” Ågren says with a smile.

In 2017, they hired their first salesperson. Today, the company has grown to become the leading importer and distributor of Nordic food and beverage brands in Hong Kong, Macau and South China.

There are now six employees who handle the business from a combined office and warehouse in Fo Tan in the New Territories. Supermarkets such as City’super and ParknShop are among the customers, which also include leading hotels and restaurants with brands like Mackmyra Whisky and Napue gin.

1993

The year when Per Ågren was recruited to come to Hong Kong to work for the logistics company Jet-Speed.

Ågren grew up in Uppsala, north of Stockholm. Since his mother had her roots in Lapland in north Sweden, he spent most of his school holidays there. His father worked in a supermarket chain all his life, so food handling is something Ågren has in his blood.

He grew up eating mainly traditional Swedish home-cooked food and didn’t taste a hamburger until he was 17.

“I’ve always been interested in food, but have never really had the possibility – until now – to spend time on it,” he says.

He specialised in chemistry, first at upper secondary school and then at Uppsala University. To get some extra income he worked evenings at Arlanda airport, sorting parcels for United Parcel Service (UPS). He must have impressed his bosses since the rumour about his abilities spread all the way to Hong Kong, from where a freight forwarder called one night in 1993 asking if he would like to come to Hong Kong and join the company which was called Jet-Speed.

“I was flattered,” says Ågren. “I’d just bought a flat, but I also had a broken heart since my girlfriend had just broken up with me. I thought, if I could get as far away as possible, maybe I could start living again. So, I said yes.”

Enjoying the 2018 SwedCham Gala Dinner are, from left, Carol Ågren, consul-general Helena Storm, trade minister (at that time) Ann Linde and Per Ågren. PHOTO: Jayne Russell

One year later he met Carol, a Hongkonger who two years later became his wife when they were married in Sweden.

They have two children – Sebastian, who is 23 today and studies game design in Sweden, and Ida, who is 20 and a final-year student at an upper secondary school in Uppsala.

In 2000, Ågren was sent to Sweden to work for Jet-Speed’s new Swedish agent, the Danish freight forwarder Mahé. After four years, he returned to Hong Kong to head Mahé’s office in the city.

However, in 2006, the company was taken over by a competitor and Ågren left the company. Shortly after that he was approached by Bengt Sjöberg, the successful Swedish entrepreneur and investor who had been a major shareholder in the Swedish logistics company ASG, which had been sold to Deutsche Post. Sjöberg, who had been able to buy back the Asian operations – now called APC Asia Pacific Cargo – asked if Ågren wanted to join.

“I said yes immediately and was part of a fantastic journey,” Ågren says. “We opened offices in Sweden, Norway, Taiwan and China and expanded our business substantially. The company doubled its turnover during the 12 years I was there. Bengt sold the company to Japanese owners but tragically after that he passed away with lung cancer.”

We’re selling the Swedish brand. We have the willingness, the motivation and the experience to do it.”

After leaving APC in 2018, Ågren’s focus now is to develop Pear & Carrot. “We’re selling the Swedish brand. We have the willingness, the motivation and the experience to do it,“ he says.

He has many ideas and is always hungry for adding more success stories. Among the ideas is to work with the Swedish concept of “cosy Friday” – when Swedes relax after a workweek and eat tacos and snack up on the sofa together – and make it a consumer concept.

“Mexican cuisine and Sichuan cuisine are the two fastest-growing cuisines in the world. We think that Hong Kong could be ready for more Tex-Mex,” he says.