Tips to the industry from Trident Seafoods CEO Joe Bundrant on making it 50 years in business
Joe Bundrant is the CEO of Seattle, Washington, U.S.A.-based Trident Seafoods, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2023. The company was founded in 1973 by Joe’s father, Chuck Bundrant, who began fishing in Alaska off a single vessel, the Billikin. Today, Trident is one of the largest vertically integrated seafood companies in the United States, with 9,000 employees, relationships with 5,400 independent fishermen and crewmembers in Alaska, and 44 separate facilities processing and selling salmon, whitefish, and crab harvested in the North Pacific and Alaska.
To commemorate the anniversary, Trident has announced plans to host a series of events for its fishermen, employees, partners, suppliers, communities, customers, and other stakeholders throughout the year. The first celebration is taking place Tuesday, 31 January, the birthday of the elder Bundrant, who passed away in 2021. Future celebrations will take place at Seafood Expo North America, Seafood Expo Global, private events in Japan and China, and at Trident’s facilities around the world for the company’s “Fishermen’s Night” holiday in November, and its Christmas party in December.
“Our mission is to celebrate all of our stakeholders who have helped us in this in this journey and then share optimism for the next 50 years,” Bundrant said. “We will be honoring our past, celebrating our present, and sharing excitement for the future in our booths in Boston and Barcelona.”
SeafoodSource: How has Trident been able to grow into what it is today? What is the secret recipe?
Bundrant: I would say that my father set us on a course of being humble, being hungry, operating with integrity, and waking up every day to serve our stakeholders, not just our shareholders. Being humble and hungry is something that was instilled in the entire organization and into me from a very, very early age. Operating with integrity in everything that we do and making sure our word is our bond with every from your suppliers, your customers, your fishermen, your communities, your employees. And then just waking up every day and serving others. We always said if we can make all our stakeholders successful, Trident is going to be fine.
I also think our vertical and horizontal diversification is a huge part of our success. We started off as a crab company, and with the [difficulties in] the crab season this year, had we not diversified beyond that, we would have been in some trouble. One of my dad's early partners … said the reason the company is called Trident is because we knew we had crab in the middle, but we needed to get into salmon and herring in order to diversify. So I really think we’ve been helped by our continued diversification into cod, halibut, black cod, and, of course, wild Alaska pollock, and that the diversification of what we harvest in Alaska and then the diversification of where we ship around the world – we ship to over 50 countries. And then the ability to add value every step of the way [has been key] – ensuring the full utilization of our resources with our human nutritional and pet divisions that use the fish oil, hydrolysate, and fishmeal.
SeafoodSource: How did you maintain those standards and continue to instill those qualities as your company has continued to grow?
Bundrant: A question I wrestle with often is succession planning. We have a lot of tribal elders, people I grew up with in the business, and they’re like family. I count on them to do great succession planning not only with business knowledge, but with cultural knowledge, and we have a great culture here. Our human resources team is helping me to train that culture in a more methodical way to as we bring people on. I would say that in when people in our organization have challenges or they're celebrating life events, I want to make sure that we do that 10,000 times better than corporate America, that we come alongside them when they're struggling and we celebrate with them when they're when they're rejoicing. And so just making sure that that that is part of our culture. Additionally, we do a cultural survey every year, our employee engagement survey. This is our fourth year in a row doing it. And family it continues to be the number-one biggest word that people use to describe organization. So just continuing to instill that those values every day. And probably the proudest thing is when a company was small, it was just my dad and his wife Diane and myself and a few others, to the point where it has gotten bigger but those caring actions are still being taken. To see that as a natural part of our culture is really rewarding for me – it's just part of a broader way of doing what we do.
SeafoodSource: What are the biggest challenges facing the company now? How well do you think it’s positioned?
Bundrant: Covid draws closer together as a company made it stronger and I think coming out of it, we have a lot of momentum and optimism for the future.
Covid was a very challenging time. We house and feed at peak season about 5,000 people in remote Alaska. We came up with what we feel is an industry- or even a globe-leading quarantine process and it actually drew people closer together knowing how much we cared. We said that money is not an object – whatever it takes to keep our people safe and healthy. was really interesting. When Covid yet, the Governor of the state of Alaska came out with a mandate that allowed any town with less than 3,000 people and not served by the central road system to set their own Covid policies. That describes 12 out of 14 of our locations. We did have local leaders who said they didn’t care we the processed fish, but we were able to convince them that we would do whatever it took. And we did. We closed campuses, developed quarantine procedures, and I'm proud to say that we never brought even one case of Covid into any of those communities. We succeed in our mission of keeping them safe and healthy.
Coming out of Covid, I feel very, very blessed again to have the long-term folks at Trident who understand who we are and what we do, and I think we're coming out of it quite strong. We used that time to implement some austerity measures to make sure that we kept a strong balance sheet through that time. We continued our core mission of taking care of our customers and I think we did an excellent job comparatively to other industries and other people in the seafood business just focusing on the basics … and getting back to the basics of our business and making sure that we were serving folks. So I think we weathered the storm and now I think we have a lot of momentum rolling into 2023. [There are] certainly plenty of headwinds – economic headwinds, supply chains are definitely opening up, fuel prices, labor prices, they're all climbing. The war in Russia and Ukraine also impacts our business – we ship to multiple countries and some countries allow imports from Russia, while others don't, so we’re moving raw materials around the world to adapt. But that's how we built that the company, to have the ability to respond to that.
SeafoodSource: What is the goal for the company? Where do you want to be in five and 10 years?
Bundrant: As a 50-year-old company, our vessels and our plants are getting to a point that they need to be replaced, so we're working on a plan to rebuild our infrastructure. Our commitment for the next five years is to get those major assets that need to be rebuilt – the plants and catcher-processors and catcher boats – that's going to be the five-year plan. The 10-year plan beyond that is continuing to bring value to everybody in the supply chain. There's a limited amount of fish coming out of Alaska, and if you create more demand, everybody in the system wins. The guy on the back deck who is pulling fish over the rail, he gets a raise when we create more demand and more unique products that that drive value.
SeafoodSource: How does Trident need to change or adapt to achieve those goals?
Bundrant: Trident has always survived because innovation is part of our DNA. The Billiken, the first boat that Trident Seafoods had and which is still part of our fleet, was the first boat to catch and process crab at sea. Our continued innovation through adding value through our “fleet-to-fork” approach is designed to bring value to everyone involved in Trident, from our fishermen to consumers. We’ve created incredible products like our salmon burger, which has totally revitalized the pink salmon fishery. Trident has done a great job of continuing to bring in fresh ideas not being not being stuck in our old ways.
There was a company that was in Alaska … that was 100 years old when they sold their final asset. And I was able to go visit with the patriarch of this company at the time, and I asked him, ‘What would you do differently?’ And he said, ‘I would bring out bringing outside advice.”
At Trident, we have a great blend of tribal and cultural knowledge and then I've got this team of people who described themselves as a corporate America refugees. They left corporate America because they didn't like to be working for the next quarter or the next month's earnings report. We're not looking at that. We’re certainly watching our balance sheet and [profit and loss]. But we're looking out for the next generation. Bringing in outside ideas, blending them with our cultural values, not to overdramatize it, but it has been kind of magical to watch and to be a part of helping to facilitate it or orchestrate it. I have really enjoyed being a part of this transformation.
SeafoodSource: Trident is looked at as an industry leader. Have you tried to be a leader for the industry, or is that just where you find yourselves? Do you act differently because you’re always in the spotlight?
Bundrant: I would say absolutely. We talk about that responsibility frequently. We really work hard to use that leadership position to better the industry as a whole, not just selfishly for ourselves. And whether it's working with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game or the National Marine Fisheries Service, or our elected officials, it's always what's best for the state of Alaska and what's best for our industry. I really believe that's the responsibility that we have and we do take that very seriously.
SeafoodSource: Do you have a message for the rest of the industry on what you’d like to see it become in the future?
Bundrant: Seafood is only 7.5 percent of Americans’ protein diet per year – there's 200 pounds per capita consumption, and 15 pounds of that is seafood. We were founding partners of the Seafood Nutrition Partnership and the work [president] Linda Cornish is doing in celebrating that message of the health attributes of seafood is something we can all agree on.
I also want the industry to continue to bring integrity to what we do. My dear friend who passed recently, [NFI President] John Connelly, and I were involved in starting the Better Seafood Board to bring economic integrity to our industry. Ensuring packing net-weights, stopping transshipping, not mislabeling seafood. There's a lot of confusion around seafood. Getting positive messages about seafood into consumers’ minds and uniting as an industry to tell that story of quality, positive health attributes, and low carbon footprint, is what we should be doing. Early on in Alaska, there was a marketing fight between farm-raised versus wild seafood, and I think what that did for consumers was, they would just go to the grocery store, get confused, and buy chicken. I want us to unite around what we can agree on.
What would I like to say to our competitors? I'd like to say thank you, because without them, we wouldn't be sharpening our axe every day to be a better company.
SeafoodSource: What lessons can the industry learn from your dad?
Bundrant: I’ve got to thank him for being so hard on me as a kid. I started working side by side with him when I was 13 years old. There were long, cold days, and it was a lot of rubber boots and dead fish training, and that instilled intestinal fortitude in me. But the words that describe my father were faith, family, humble, and hungry. He was the most unselfish person. He didn't build a great business so he could buy a bunch of fancy things. He wore blue jeans, flannel, and Xtratuf boots. He never finished college, I never finished college. And he said, he said, “Son, we’re not the smartest people, we are definitely not the best-looking, but damn, nobody's going to outwork us.” He was always the first guy in this office, the last guy to go home. He led by example, operated with integrity, and I feel very honored and blessed to be his son.
Photo courtesy of Trident Seafoods