A surprise in the Top Suppliers list


James Wright, Senior Editor

Published on
March 28, 2013

SeaFood Business’ annual Top North American Seafood Suppliers list, to be released in the May issue, is nearly finished. More than 30 of the continent’s largest seafood suppliers have been contacted. It’s always quite a task, and I’m still awaiting answers from a select few. This year’s list should have some surprises in it.

Of course, the top of the list will be occupied by familiar names, including the top canned-tuna manufacturers, some of which posted significant year-on-year gains. Last year’s No. 1 — Tri Marine International — will unlikely be ousted from its top ranking after another big year with elevated market prices for tuna worldwide. Other names are shuffling spots and the impact of industry consolidation will be evident.

Since participation is completely voluntary, the list will also be missing some of the United States’ biggest names. Four companies that sell an estimated USD 1 billion (EUR 780  million) more of seafood annually — Trident Seafoods, Pacific Seafood Group, Maruha Nichiro Holdings’ U.S. subsidiaries and Red Chamber — will likely not be ranked. There are two publicly traded companies from Canada (High Liner Foods and Clearwater Seafoods) but all U.S. firms are privately held, and are under no obligation to report annual sales. We greatly appreciate the ones that do.

There’s a newcomer to the list, and it’s a name many are surely unfamiliar with. Yihe (pronounced yee-hee) Corp. of Pasadena, Calif., has been in business for 16 years (incorporated in 2004). Somehow it has managed to fly under the radar packing seafood — including vast amounts of Marine Stewardship Council-certified Alaska salmon harvested by its sister company Silver Bay Seafoods and processed at Yihe’s facilities in Qingdao-Yantai and Behai, China — for many of the other companies on the list.

I recently caught up with Dennis Morgan, executive VP for the company’s U.S. operations, to ask him about Yihe’s stunning transformation. It traces back to a decision made five years ago, when Morgan and his partner, company President Steve Chen, asked major retailers if they wanted to buy direct from the manufacturer, cutting a link or two in their supply chains. “Almost everybody said yes,” said Morgan.

“Making that decision put us on the map,” Morgan said, adding that annual sales were at USD 50 million (EUR 39 million) just five years ago. “We’ve been growing at about 23 or 24 percent per year. Even our banks are scratching their heads.” It culminated in a big 2012, when sales hit approximately USD 500 million (EUR 390 million). There’s simply no hiding that kind of growth.

Two reasons for the company’s rapid ascent? Salmon and Walmart. Morgan is bullish on the company’s retail brand, Ocean Eclipse Premium Seafood, and the wild Alaska salmon burgers that have earned Walmart’s business. The massive retailer is even moving the product into the meat department to be sold next to other beef alternatives like turkey burgers. That kind of placement could fuel even greater growth.

It sounds as if Yihe is up for it. The future is bright for the company, which plans to open its first U.S. processing site in Seattle this fall. The 41,000-square-foot facility is a former January Company property that will be cranking out — what else — salmon burgers. “The growth has been phenomenal,” said Morgan of Yihe’s “coming-out” party.

Nice to meet you.

Look for more from Morgan and other top seafood companies in the May issue of SeaFood Business.

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