Death of Gidney Fisheries President Robert MacDonald leaves hole in company, industry leadership

Published on
May 23, 2019

Gidney Fisheries President Robert MacDonald passed away unexpectedly on 27 April, 2019, at age 49, leaving a hole in the company’s leadership and robbing the Canadian lobster sector of one of its most vocal advocates.

MacDonald was a major force in the expansion of Gidney Fisheries from a 10-employee company known mostly only in and around its base of Centreville, Nova Scotia, Canada, into a 75-employee firm with state-of-the-art processing technology, a global footprint, and one which now has international recognition, according to CEO Barry C. Gidney, pointing to a recent article on the company published in The New York Times.

“We shared a vision and he was the guy who executed it,” Gidney told SeafoodSource. “He was an innovator all the way, and we made huge progress under Rob’s leadership.”

MacDonald began at Gidney Fisheries in 2010, after stints as North American Sales Director for AKVA Group, an sales executive for Maritech, director of special projects at Atlantic Aqua Farms, general manager of Atlantic fish specialties at Cooke Aquaculture, and as production manager and quality control manager at Clearwater Seafoods, according to his LinkedIn page.

Gidney said MacDonald helped build Canada’s lobster brand in places like China and Europe with a “zero mortality” approach.

“It was all about quality. He wanted the lobster to arrive alive and have a long life after it landed,” Gidney said. “In order to do that, we had to select only the best lobster – the ones that would survive the journey. So we needed to work out a way to grade it properly and weed out the weaker ones, and then figure out what to do with those.”

The pair hit upon high-pressure processing (HPP), which uses pressurized water to separate raw lobster meat from its shell. They decided to commit to the process and build the company’s own HPP facility to process “B grade” lobster. Construction began three years ago and the plant opened two years ago.

“That took the company to the next level,” Gidney said.

MacDonald also had a gift for taking extra care of clients and prospective clients, no matter their background, Gidney said. He was “friendly to a fault” and “brought an enthusiasm for the business that enticed clients’ interest.”

“Clients would come to visit our plant frequently, and he would always have them at his own house and entertain them like they were royalty,” Gidney said. “His love of the business he was in and of people in general was contagious.”

MacDonald’s ability to engage with others helped on the supply side of the business, too, Gidney said. 

“We’re in a place and an industry whether relationships are so important. The great-grandfathers of the fishermen were selling lobster to my grand-grandfather,” Gidney said. “He helped people feel the pride off building up a local company into something global. Now people here take pride in what they do and what they’ve achieved. We’ve got a brand-new plant, sophisticated equipment, we have clients show up every day from around the world – people take great pride in that, and especially that the product is all local.”

Gidney Fisheries Controller Mark Croft said while MacDonald appeared to have natural gifts that favored him in business, he worked “endless hours” in the pursuit of improving and growing the company.

“He was such a big presence, we might never get back to business as usual,” he said. “We’re going to always miss Robert, but we will try to carry on his good works.”

To that end, Gidney has hired Greg Mitchelitis, a longtime veteran of Clearwater Seafoods, to serve as its interim president. Mitchelitis begins work on Monday, 27 May. 

“If he works out and likes the job, he’s definitely really qualified to stay,” Barry Gidney said. “We’re playing in month-by-month.”

Gidney said the company also retained a team of business advisors who told him “all the pieces are in place” to ensure the company’s future success.

“We just need that next leader to step into that role,” he said, adding, “Maybe two people, because Rob was doing the work of two people.”

MacDonald’s loss will be felt beyond Gidney Fisheries, according to Geoff Irvine, the executive director of the Lobster Council of Canada.

“He was well engaged with the industry as a whole and he cared about the future of the industry,” Irvine said of MacDonald. 

Barry Gidney called MacDonald an “ambassador of Canadian lobster.”

“He leaves a huge gap. There’s an emptiness there,” Gidney said, adding the company had brought in a grief counselor. “We are getting prepared to move on his honor. We know he’s looking down on us and kicking us in the ass and telling us to keep going. Gidney Fisheries is as much his company as it is mine. We need to push on in his honor and make it what it should be. That’s definitely what we’re going to do.”

Photo courtesy of Gidney Fisheries

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