Q&A: New Contessa CEO shares outlook

By

Fiona Robinson, SeaFood Business associate publisher and editor

Published on
December 1, 2011

When you’re a seafood supplier, you need to focus on the changes happening with your customers, or else you risk leaving the door open for the competition to swoop in and take your account. This was just one of the lessons learned from the rise and fall of Contessa Premium Foods, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in January.

Many changes have occurred since the San Pedro, Calif., company was purchased by Sun Capital Partners in July. One of the first things the Boca Raton, Fla., private investment firm did was hire Don Binotto as president and CEO. Binotto previously worked at StarKist, bringing both seafood industry and retail product experience to Contessa. Prior to StarKist, Binotto held various executive leadership positions at both Del Monte and the H.J. Heinz Co.

Binotto recently discussed changes at the company and what Contessa’s future holds.

Robinson: What changes has Contessa made since you joined the company? 

Binotto: A couple of things stand out. First, the company itself has a wonderful lineage of great-tasting products. We have a line of bagged products that are extremely high quality, but it’s only well known on the foodservice side and has limited distribution at retail. Our key strategy is to take to it to retailers; we’re gaining distribution in key accounts there.

The other big change is that Contessa’s philosophy prior to the sale was focusing on store-brand manufacturing. We’ll continue to look at that, but the Contessa name is a nice name that is strong in several markets and it has high brand recognition. Our strategy is to take the brand back into the market with more contemporary packaging. We’re not compromising on product quality; we’re tailoring to store programs. We’re looking at several celebrity culinary personality experts to endorse the brand. 

You have two different lines at retail. Can you describe the strategy there? 

We’ve developed a seafood line of value-added shrimp items that will be sold in the seafood section. We’re moving items now (the product line has been pared down from 32 to 16 products). We’re taking our best sellers to the store perimeter and selling them under Contessa and store brands. 

Our bagged meal line sold in the center of the store frozen section is more of a world cuisine line. We’re selling that under the Contessa brand. 

What changes have been made with your foodservice products? 

We’ve changed the way we’re going to foodservice entirely to appeal to a much larger group. White tablecloth customers may want shell-on, QSR’s may want something different. One is a center-of-plate item, the other is an ingredient. We now have a line that services both those needs. We haven’t been playing in that market. We’re now listening to our customers. You can still stand for greatness, but we have to provide the customer with their requirements as well.

Are you changing how you source shrimp? 

We’ve made significant improvements on the quality of our shrimp products. It’s as close to “just harvested” as you can get. We’re aligning with a few suppliers in Vietnam and Thailand. We’re also going beyond that and looking at India and South America. Once we were confined to a few sourcing countries, now we will be much more global. If there’s an outbreak or disease at a shrimp farm, you have to have a backup plan. 

How about sourcing U.S. shrimp? 

We are looking at Gulf shrimp in our one- to two-year plan. There is some wonderful supply [from the Gulf]. It’s something we’re looking at, but not in the short-term. 

What is the biggest challenge related to bringing a company back from Chapter 11? 

Making sure costs are in line. We’ve done that prudently. We’ve reduced our manufacturing overhead, and on the procurement side we’ve gotten delivered costs down. The company went bankrupt because costs were much higher than what they were bringing in. We’ve got to get costs in line, and that has been a monumental focus. 

Compare working at Contessa to your previous job at StarKist. 

StarKist was a much larger company. This a smaller group of people doing multiple functions. It’s critically important to work as a team here.

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