Exit interview with outgoing ASMI Executive Director Alexa Tonkovich

Published on
December 5, 2018

Last month, Alexa Tonkovich, the executive director of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI) announced she would be relinquishing her position in order to pursue a master’s degree in international business in London, U.K. 

ASMI is a public-private partnership between the state of Alaska and the Alaska seafood industry, created to market Alaska seafood globally. The organization recently named its communications program director, Jeremy Woodrow, as its interim executive director.

In an interview with SeafoodSource, Tonkovich discussed her tenure at ASMI, the state of the organization as she departs, and her thoughts on ASMI's future, and her own.

SeafoodSource: Why did you decide to leave ASMI?

Tonkovich: Actually, my work at ASMI inspired my choice to pursue a master’s degree in international business. Some of my proudest achievements have been on the international scene. I love learning about global markets and how international trade works, and that’s something I realized while working at ASMI. That has inspired me to go back to school, as I seek a more academic background to complement my real-world experience at ASMI.  And getting a degree overseas will give me a different and international perspective. 

SeafoodSource: Do you have any plans for what you want to do with the degree?

Tonkovich: Whether it’s the seafood industry or something else, I feel now that I want to get involved in international business after graduation. But I think this will hopefully open up opportunities or at least give me a different perspective on work I’ve already done.

SeafoodSource: What is your proudest accomplishment from your time at ASMI?

Tonkovich: I’m proud of the work I did with the international program. During my time at ASMI, our representation improved overseas. I was with that program for six years before I became executive director, and I helped open the Brazilian market for Alaska seafood. More recently, we’ve done a lot of exploratory work in Southeast Asia, and ASMI will be continuing that track. I’m really proud of that work we got started.

SeafoodSource: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced at ASMI?

Tonkovich: I dealt with a lot of changes as executive director at ASMI, but I think my biggest task was replacing staff. ASMI closing the Seattle office definitely played a role in that, but I pretty much replaced the entire staff. As hard as it was, I think we now have strongest team ASMI has ever had. All the directors are capable, talented, mission-driven people, and our newer staff are really creative and motivated. 

SeafoodSource: How have you dealt with ASMI’s shrinking budget over the past several years?

Tonkovich: I think one of ASMI’s strengths is that it does have so many different stakeholders. It receives state support, industry support, and federal support, but that can also be a weakness if any of those funding sources slow down or go away. Also, it means you have to prove your benefit to all of those stakeholders, and prove you’re being a good steward of those funds. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it does take a lot of time and energy. If you’re making a case for yourself inside the state, then you’re not making your case in China, Brazil, or the U.K. And even with making a case for why we should receive funding, sometimes it can still go away due to factors that may be outside of your control. 

As difficult as it is to have shrinking budgets, it forces you to be creative and prioritize programs that are the most fundamental, important things for you to keep doing. We look closely at who we can partner with to make our dollars go further, where we can achieve our best ROI. I will say it is harder to be a budget director when your budget is shrinking, but it makes you think hard and smart about how you spend the money.

SeafoodSource: How were you able to recruit talent to ASMI, given all the question marks that hover around the organization in regard to its funding and its state support?

Tonkovich: I think the people that come to work at ASMI really want to work at ASMI. They believe in the product and know it’s a great brand. ASMI has a great reputation in the seafood industry and among other food cooperative groups – even internationally – so people get motivated to work at ASMI. Part of that is being flexible, knowing things are constantly changing, whether it’s the budget, the harvest or marketing conditions – the world of seafood is dynamic and ASMI is ever-evolving. And that can be fun. 

SeafoodSource: Given the budget cuts, is the Alaska Seafood brand still as strong as it was?

Tonkovich: I actually think the Alaska Seafood brand is even better positioned in terms of what customers are looking for than when I started. It is known all over the world, and the brand is aligned with qualities that consumers are increasingly moving towards. Globally, the average consumer is much savvier than when I started at ASMI nine years ago. The consumer is getting more health-conscious, and thinking about nutrition in different ways. We’ve done a lot on that: Not just putting it out there that seafood makes you healthier, but explaining how eating seafood makes you healthier. More and more, consumers globally are very interested in knowing where their food comes from, how it’s caught; they’re more concerned about sustainability, how their fish is harvested and processed. I think the Alaska Seafood brand ticks all of those boxes – wild, natural, and sustainable – and that those attributes and that tagline are stronger now than they were a decade ago.

SeafoodSource: One of the biggest challenges ASMI is facing right now is the protectionist policies and positions of the Trump administration. How has ASMI been affected by the changes to U.S. trade policy initiated by Trump?

Tonkovich: Alaska seafood is an export-dependent commodity – 60 to 70 percent of its value comes from exports. With such a globally traded commodity, we are very impacted by international relations and market conditions, and to a large extent, those conditions and the economies of our trade partners are out of our control. I don’t think that’s a new thing; it has certainly been brought to the fore by the current U.S.-China trade conflict and other trade discussions with Europe, U.K., and Japan. ASMI can definitely play a role in providing education on our industry and in advocating for free, fair, and reciprocal trade agreements on seafood. But at the end of day, there will be things outside our control. So what’s left for us to do is monitor the situation closely and adapt to what comes our way. One of the nice things that the seafood industry and ASMI has going for it, is that we do have diversity in our markets – we’re not just dependent on one market. Alaska seafood products are sold in more than 100 countries, and ASMI has programs in 30 countries, so if we’re facing difficulties in certain areas of the world, we can either ramp up or down operations and we can try to grow other markets if we lose access to a market. It’s not cheap or easy, but we do have some ability to do that. 

SeafoodSource: What is ASMI’s position on the specific topic of the ongoing trade war between the United States and China? What is the organization doing in response?

Tonkovich: We have stayed in close contact with our industry to see how they’re doing in regard to trade with China. And what we’ve found is that many Alaskan seafood companies are still selling into China. Some are still selling very high-end products like black cod – I’ve heard it’s the most expensive fish to buy in China right now. So some businesses have been able to adapt at least temporarily to the tariffs. But overall, China is such a huge market for us. We still see a promising future there, with how many consumers they have there, especially in their rapidly growing middle class, and their willingness to spend on good-quality food. We will not give up on China, but we need to monitor the situation closely to see where to put our funds and attention. We see some promising signs that the U.S. may work through a resolution with China. If not, we have done some exploratory work in Southeast Asia, and long-term, I could see that becoming a bigger focus for ASMI in years to come. And we think some products we currently send to China we could build markets for in the U.S. We’ve also been doing some exploratory research in South America, out of our office in Brazil, and we have been looking there to see if there are other markets outside Brazil that could be good landing spots for Alaskan seafood. 

SeafoodSource: Another major challenge facing ASMI and the seafood industry in general is climate change. What is ASMI doing to react to the changes being brought about by issues like warming waters and ocean acidification?

Tonkovich: We’re already starting to see some changes from climate change, in terms of when, where, and how things are caught. That’s difficult to adapt to in real-time, and looking only at forecasting models based on previous years. The most important thing that can happen for Alaska’s seafood industry outside of ASMI is a continued investment in fisheries management. We need good scientists at the state and federal level to study these new patterns so we can set accurate catch limits and get the best benefit to fisheries and communities without harming the environment or species stocks. Certainly we hope the state of Alaska and the Alaska Seafood industry will continue to emphasize fisheries management and the benefits of good science, which are more important now than ever. 

In terms of ASMI, we’re in more a reactive position. We don’t have much control over what’s happening with the climate. So for us, it’s really about messaging and marketing as things change. We’ll need to put the work in to understand the changes enough to educate our consumers. ASMI is ready to play a role on messaging and outreach in explaining any changes that occur to consumers and to the media. We’re going to work in conjunction with the industry on how we want to message these kinds of things.

SeafoodSource: What are the biggest challenges that your successor will face?

Tonkovich: In the most immediate future, Alaska has a new governor coming in. There will be a lot of work for ASMI to position itself from an in-state perspective in terms of working with the new administration, especially potentially getting back into the state budget in the near-future. Further out from that, I think Alaska Seafood has all the things that today’s consumer globally is looking for. But we’ll need to continue to adapt to stay relevant. It’s a tough marketplace. People now get information very quickly, and they have millions of choices at their fingertips. There’s a great opportunity for ASMI to tell its story, but that will require the organization to work hard to stay relevant. And that involves knowing what platforms people are on, where they’re shopping, and what impact that has on behavior. That’s changing more rapidly than any time ever in the past. So there’s lots of opportunity, and lot of work to be done to keep pace with it all. 

SeafoodSource: With all the changes and extra work you see ASMI as having to take on over the next few years, it sounds like ASMI could do with some more funding?

Tonkovich: It wouldn’t hurt. Overall, I think we would be better positioned to take on these challenges and opportunities with more funding, but that’s not to say it will be impossible without it. On the reverse side, if we have to cut budgets further, it will become pretty challenging to stay competitive, particularly when we know a lot of our competitors are spending more than us. Because change is happening so quickly, a lot of research needs to be done. And on the outreach front, just to be present on the proliferation of platforms out there is difficult and expensive, and requires a decent-sized budget.

SeafoodSource: What qualities do you think would be optimal for the next leader of ASMI to have?

Tonkovich: It has been a difficult period for ASMI with a lot of transition and challenges. Fortunately, I think ASMI is relatively stable compared to how it was when I took over as executive director, but there are always going to be some challenges. So it’s going to take a good, strong leader to keep ASMI on a steady course. Leadership skills are very important, particularly being able to lead when facing challenging times. In addition, it would help to have some knowledge of the organization and the industry. Good relationships in the seafood industry and within Alaska are a benefit. It helps in this job to be diplomatic – being able to get along with a lot of different people is key when you have to deal with so many stakeholders between the state and federal level, as well as local, national, and international industries. And communication skills, such as being able to give both good news and bad news in a way that’s palatable. Besides keeping the ship moving in the right direction, the executive director has to do a lot of advocating for ASMI, so being a good public speaker and presenter is important.

SeafoodSource: Will you continue to be involved or associated with ASMI in any way after your departure?

Tonkovich: I’ll always have a spot in my heart for ASMI, so I’ll help out however I can, whatever that looks like. After nine years, I’ve invested a lot in the organization and I want it to do well.

Photo courtesy of Alexa Tonkovich

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