Chuck Bundrant, titan of Alaska seafood industry, passes away at 79
Trident Seafoods Founder Chuck Bundrant passed away at age 79 on Sunday, 17 October at his home in Edmonds, Washington, U.S.A.
Bundrant, born in the U.S. state of Indiana, dropped out of college in 1961, when he was 19, and moved to Washington state to work in the seafood industry. His first job was processing crab in Alaska, and he eventually worked his way up the industry’s food chain, founding Trident in 1972 and building it into a multibillion-dollar company by 2017.
A key component of Bundrant’s success was his championing of pollock in the 1980s, when he convinced Americans to consume what was then considered a “trash fish." The campaign has had staying power – Trident continues to ship pollock, alongside cod and salmon, to numerous fast-food chains and retailers across the country, including Costco and Safeway.
“He knew nothing about fishing boats, or catching and processing crab and salmon,’’ Bundrant’s son Joe, Trident’s chief executive officer since 2013, said in a company video. “He’d only watched a movie with John Wayne in it called ‘North to Alaska.’ And he heard there was money to be made on the fishing grounds, thousands and thousands of miles from home.’’
When Bundrant drove to Seattle in 1961, he was said to have been taking time off from his studies in pre-veterinary medicine in Tennessee. In Bristol Bay, Alaska, Bundrant happened across two other crab fishermen, Kaare Ness and Mike Jacobson, who pooled their money together in 1973 and built the Billikin, a 135-foot vessel that was the first vessel operating in Alaska that could catch, cook, and freeze crab. Building off Trident’s initial success, it expanded both its fleet and its footprint, focusing initially on frozen salmon sold to Japan, and eventually shifting to Alaska pollock. In 1981, it built a fish-procesing plant in Akutan, Alaska, taking advantage of a newly enforced 200-mile exclusive economic zone around the Aleutian Peninsula. Trident continued on a path of vertical integration and now operates 40 fishing and fishing-related vessels and 16 processing plants.
Bundrant, who was a close friend of U.S. Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who died in 2010, and of former Alaska Senator Clem Tillion, who passed away on 13 October, was adroit at landing political decisions favorable to Trident and the Alaska seafood sector. According to the Seattle Times, Bundrant played a role in pollock reallocations conducted by the U.S. government in 1988, and was intimately involved in the North Pacific Fishery Management Council’s overhaul of Alaska crab harvest rules in 2002.
“While Chuck is remembered for his shrewd business skills, toughness, and determination, his generosity and belief in others were equally recognized and key to his success. Every business partner, fisherman, community leader, supplier, customer, employee and competitor was personally important to Chuck. His love for the state of Alaska, his loyal independent fishermen, his employees, and customers around the world was evident to all. To him they were all extended family, and that spirit infuses the people of Trident who will carry on his legacy of servant leadership,” Trident said in a press release.
Chuck Bundrant had “a unique ability to motivate success with a combination of high support and high expectations,” Trident said.
“I find I get a lot out of people when I push them,” Bundrant was known for saying, according to the company.
“But he was never immune to his own tough love. He pushed himself harder than anyone else and was always the first to show up if others needed help,” it said. “Chuck will be remembered for his genuine desire to forge a sustainable Alaska seafood industry that benefits all stakeholders. Chuck led and invested in a lasting future for North Pacific fisheries resources. His processing innovations will drive improvements for generations. He made many sacrifices to create opportunity for his family. He risked everything early on to nurture a stronger seafood industry in Alaska and to solidify the reputation of one of the largest seafood companies in the world.”
Bundrant had Parkinson’s disease for the past decade and died of natural causes, with his family and many friends by his side. Plans for a memorial service are still pending.
“Chuck has remained strong, both spiritually and physically. For more than a decade, he has grappled with an incurable degenerative disease,” Trident said. “Thanks to Chuck’s strength and stubbornness, as well as unending support from [wife] Diane and others close to him, he kept doing what he loved most: watching his family grow, spending time fishing in Hawaii and Alaska, and visiting remote Trident operations each summer to personally thank members of his Trident family for their important contributions. Chuck’s business instincts remained sharp, and he actively served as Trident’s board chair until the very end.”
Chuck’s son, Joe Bundrant, became the CEO of Trident Seafood in 2013.
“The family and business have prioritized succession planning to safeguard the Trident brand and secure its continuity for future generations. Joe and the rest of the Trident leadership are committed to honoring Chuck’s legacy and building on the incredible company he founded,” Trident said. “Thanks to Chuck’s foresight, Trident’s path forward is solid.”
In a written statement, National Fisheries Institute President John Connelly called Chuck Bundrant “a man of contrasts.”
“A young man from southern Indiana who partnered with a Norwegian to build a seafood company spanning the globe; a dreamer who took a 130-foot boat and from it built an enterprise that included reshaping a mountain to build a fish processing plant that fed millions of families, and; a man of few words, but who, when he did speak through that gravelly voice, was listened to from Cordova to Capitol Hill,” Connelly said. “Those that knew him well will relay the stories of his fierce competitiveness in building Trident Seafoods. But the same competitors will share the stories of Chuck flying a helicopter to bring to safety and medical care crew members from a stranded competitor’s boat. And they are likely to remind us all of the special attention Chuck paid to the communities in Alaska in which he built or operated his seafood plants. Few women or men can know that they bettered the lives of thousands of people by creating livelihoods for families around the world. Chuck Bundrant could say that.”
U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) also issued a statement on Monday, 18 October.
“I’m saddened to learn of the passing of Chuck Bundrant, a man who valued faith, family, and strong work ethic. Known for his leadership and founding Trident Seafoods, I will remember him as a fisherman who forever changed the seafood industry in Alaska,” she said.
The Association of Genuine Alaska Pollock Producers said it was mourning “a true legend in the Alaska seafood industry” and the Seafood Nutrition Partnership praised Bundrant’s “leadership, tenacity, and compassion” that “shaped the seafood industry as we know it today.”
Trident Government Relations and Seafood Sustainability Director Stefanie Moreland said Bundrant’s true passion was caring for his family and his employees at Trident, “all of whom he loved dearly and touched with his passion, vision, generosity and unwavering determination to create opportunity for all.”
“He leaves us with his great expectation and abiding challenge to achieve the impossible while looking out for one another along the way,” Moreland said.
Photo courtesy of Trident Seafoods