Q&A with new American Seafoods CEO Mikel Durham

On 12 January, Mikel Durham was named the CEO of Seattle, Washington-based American Seafoods, a major harvester, processor and supplier of wild-caught pollock from Alaska. Durham, who previously worked as an executive at several food and beverage companies, including PepsiCo, Burger King, Cadbury Schweppes, Guinness Venture Markets, CSM Bakery Solutions and Yum! Brands, recently talked with SeafoodSource about her new role.

SeafoodSource: What about your background makes you a good fit for American Seafoods?

Durham: Well, way back, I was an Army brat so I lived all over the world. I started off my career in management consulting but pretty quickly after that went into consumer through PepsiCo. I have also worked with restaurant groups, so I have quite a bit of foodservice background, as well as with alcohol beverages at Diageo, in a regulated industry, and Cadbury Scwheppes, and finally back to PepsiCo. It was at PepsiCo I made the switch to business-to-business, where I ran their foodservice division. And I had my first private equity experience in the bakery industry.

SeafoodSource: And how was that?

Durham: It was good. They had some challenges from too much change at one time, but overall, it was a sleepy industry that needed some waking up and it worked out quite well.

SeafoodSource: Is seafood like that at all?

Durham: I certainly don’t think so, operationally. I think there are opportunities as a whole for the industry to communicate better to the consumer in retail and in foodservice. And I think everyone is working on it, but it’s not easy. So what I’ve learned from being in consumer and then moving to B2B is that customers are demanding more insight back further in the chain, so I’ll bring that experience and knowledge to American Seafoods, which has a fantastic operating capability. Our goal is simply to do more for our customers and to compete for more business.

SeafoodSource: Do you see any particular opportunities you’d like to pounce on or are you aiming for more of a steady build-up of the business?

Durham: The board made a decision to go outside of the industry [in my hire] to bring in a new perspective. And so my first goal is to learn the business, learn the industry, to do right by the talent that’s already there. And then to bring in a fresh pair of eyes when talking to the customers…[to find out] what are they seeing, how are they seeing it, and how might we need to morph over time to better serve them. So think of it as a very light touch early on as I get to know the business and the industry.

SeafoodSource: With American’s diverse group of financial backers, it sounds like you have a lot of resources to lean on as you settle into your role. How might those relationships benefit you and the company?

Durham: The great news is that American Seafoods is financially healthy. There was a recapitalization in August 2015 and, in the course of that, the board became comprised of great thought leaders in the seafood industry. Which is one of the reasons they felt comfortable going outside [the industry]. We have a great operating talent, a great deal of stability of talent at American Seafoods. We have the right leaders on the board who understand catching and processing. Some of the members of the board are dealing with retailers, so we have a pretty great representation of the different segments – everything from how retailers and consumers are feeling all the way to through to the processors. So I plan to take advantage of that.

And we’re a highly efficient organization. We generate good returns. Now that the business is recapitalized, we have the opportunity to invest that cash both to improve our operations and we have the luxury to look around and think about what we want to do to make ourselves more useful to our customers.

SeafoodSource: What is pollock’s strength in the marketplace?

Durham: I think it’s the most undervalued sustainably harvested protein in the marketplace. That, to me, presents upside. It checks every box that somebody looking for something healthy for their body, healthy for the planet, and well-managed, so that it’s going to be there for many, many years. I’m new to the industry but the industry leaders I’ve met with are committed to making sure those resources are available for a long, long time. So that makes us feel really good about what we can talk about and the qualities of the fish and the chain that brings it to the customer.

SeafoodSource: How does American Seafoods fit into the marketplace overall? Do you think seafood is a good industry to be in right now?

Durham: I do. The trends for the consumption of protein are rising in the United States and everywhere around the world, demand is growing. The choices for animal protein are increasingly well-managed, but they are not the only choices facing the consumer. There’s some growth in plant proteins as well, and a lot of research is being done as to how to deliver “performance nutrition,” I think they call it. So that would be whey proteins and all the ways people are, let’s call it “dosing” themselves.

I think the variety of seafood, the story, the flavor sets, are perfectly situated for the consumer, who is more diverse than ever, who is looking for ways to add protein to their body but also make it an enjoyable experience. So yes, I think it’s a good industry to be in. It’s fun to work with chefs and find new ways to eat the protein and prepare the protein. And the United States eats less seafood protein – other than shrimp – than other countries, so that’s an opportunity domestically as well.

SeafoodSource: Have there been any lessons or anything you’ve learned from your past roles that has helped you so far in your new job?

Durham: I’m trained to look at markets and what is shifting and changing. And usually, changes are not overnight – it’s not a big bang adjustment. It’s a question of where demand is going and how customers are going to satisfy those demands. How does one win in that environment? How do you make more money for your investors every year in that environment? So I think that is what I bring to the table, as I’ve done that before in other industries. This is certainly unique – this industry has its own constraints, but that just makes it more challenging and fun to figure out the puzzle.


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