CONCORD — Phil Villers has founded several high-tech companies, but the one he oversees now offers something much more basic: a way to alleviate hunger in developing countries. GrainPro, Inc., which Villers runs out of Concord, makes airtight, impermeable bags of polyvinylchloride, similar to the material used by the Israeli Army to protect its tanks in the desert heat.
The bags are critical because about one-fourth of grain products grown in developing countries or shipped to them — rice, peanuts, maize, seeds, beans — are lost to insects or rodents, or rot in cloth or jute storage bags.
GrainPro’s “cocoons” are made of the same material as the company’s bags, and serve as huge “ultra-hermetic” encasings for grain bags. They can reduce grain losses from 25 percent to less than 1 percent, Villers says, and the company concentrates on hot and humid countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
“The insects suffocate, and the rats can’t get a tooth-hold,” says Villers, who joined GrainPro as a board member in 1996 and took over shortly after, when the company’s president was injured in a car accident.
“We eliminate the need for pesticides, and we can protect food supplies against all kinds of calamities such as typhoons and earthquakes,” Villers says.
During Typhoon Haiyan, which recently devastated the Philippines, the rice, cocoa, and seeds stored inside the cocoons were protected. In fact, GrainPro’s products are all made at a factory on the former US Naval Base at Subic Bay, 75 miles from Manila.
“The cocoons are massively solid when filled with bags,” Villers says. “They’re like a brick outhouse. They just don’t move.”
The bags and cocoons are used in 97 countries, from small villages to national food authorities. Villers deals with the US Agency for International Development, the World Bank, and other agencies and private companies. “We know that there are over 100 million people who don’t have enough to eat in Africa alone,” he says.
GrainPro is, as he calls it, a “not-only-for-profit” company. “We take our social mission very seriously,” he says. “But to be successful we have to be profitable, and we are. We’re growing at 50 percent a year.” The smaller bags sell for $2 to $3 each, while the cocoons start at $1,000. The company is developing a thinner, cheaper line of cocoons.
One of their biggest customers is the Ghana Cocoa Board, and in Rwanda, hundreds of cocoons are protecting corn, seeds, and rice.
GrainPro also has a minor market of coffee growers and roasters in the United States. “We tell them we can’t change bad coffee to good coffee, but we can make sure your good coffee stays good,” says Villers.
The walls of Villers’s small office bear some health care posters and awards. The staff consists of him, an administrative assistant, and a financial manager. In Washington, there’s a vice president for food security.
The rest of the 125 employees are in the Philippines, in research and development, and production.
Martin Gummert is a senior scientist with the International Rice Research Institute, a nonprofit headquartered in the Philippines and dedicated to improving the yield and quality of rice in poor countries. The agency has collaborated with GrainPro to develop the grain bags.
‘We eliminate the need for pesticides, and we can protect food supplies against all kinds of calamities such as typhoons and earthquakes.’
“GrainPro is a company with a big social conscience,” says Gummert. “They started small, promoting hermetic storage against many odds in the initial years.”
That his company is doing well while doing good makes Villers a happy man. “I love what I do and I’m trying very hard to make sure my life counts, not just to me and my family,” he says.
Philippe Villers was 5 years old when he fled Paris with his family two hours ahead of the German Army. His father, a member of the French Army, left for London disguised as a Polish officer. Once there, he joined the resistance.
Philippe, his sister, and mother headed to the safety of Montreal. After the war, the family was reunited and moved to New York. At age 10, Philippe became a US citizen, and his life since then has unfolded like an immigrant version of the American Dream.
He graduated with honors from Harvard and earned a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from MIT. He founded companies and made good money. Long a social activist, he put his money where his mouth was.
In 1982, Villers and his wife, Kate, started the nonprofit Families USA Foundation, dedicated to achieving quality health care for all Americans, and they’ve been cited by President Obama for their work.
Kate Villers is also the president and founder of the foundation’s sister organization, Community Catalyst, a nonprofit working in more than 40 states to build support for improved health care and insurance rights.
The couple, who live in Concord, apparently have passed along their helping hands philosophy to their daughters. Their oldest runs a foundation in Costa Rica to improve preschool education for poor children. Their youngest is executive director of the Mass. Senior Action Council, a nonprofit grass-roots group of senior citizens fighting for social justice. Their son, who is in the film business, lives in Budapest.
Though he can talk on and on about his pet subjects — alleviating hunger, providing affordable health care — Villers is less talkative about himself. He’s not interested in discussing the motives behind his do-good work.
“My lifelong goal has been to make a difference in this country,” he simply says. Is it because of the opportunities the United States provided an immigrant boy? “I’ll leave that to psychologists,” he adds, with a bemused half-grin.
He won’t even give his age, but will say that he graduated from Harvard in 1955, along with David Halberstam, “a great guy.”
Villers is a member of the
ACLU’s President’s Council and the executive director’s leadership council of Amnesty International. He describes himself as “a change agent and a human rights activist.”
Just don’t ask him why.Bella English can be reached at email@example.com.