Retiring NFI president reflects on the “crazy and wonderful” business of seafood

Published on
March 13, 2022
Retiring National Fisheries Institute (NFI) President John Connelly

National Fisheries Institute (NFI) President John Connelly recently confirmed he will retire in February 2023, the date of his 20-year anniversary at NFI.

Connelly helped to build NFI into the leading U.S. seafood industry trade group. He told SeafoodSource in January he believes next year will be the right time for him to step away.

“As many as 10 years ago, I began developing ideas of what was important in developing my succession plan. I’ve now been with NFI for 20 years, and I think the organization is in a strong position. From the perspective of our lobbying, communications, our technical skills, we provide good value to our members,” Connelly said.

In this SeafoodSource exclusive, Connelly reveals his most memorable Seafood Expo North America moments, his best and worst days at work, and his advice for the industry’s future leaders.

SeafoodSource: What was your first Seafood Expo North America event trade like?

Connelly: My first Boston seafood show was in the old Hines Center – readers under 40 will have no idea what I’m talking about! I had started in my role as president only two weeks before, and the show was a whirlwind of hugs (we always tell our incoming staff that this is a “hugging” industry), firm handshakes, and unbridled opinions from strong men and women. I knew Kansas was a distant memory at that point.

SeafoodSource: What is the importance of Seafood Expo North America to the global seafood industry?

Connelly: For the seafood community, it’s more than a tradition to glean important data from the Global Seafood Market Conference and execute on it at Seafood Expo North America. These days, it’s a must for successful businesses. What Diversified Communications has done with the Boston event – to make it even more global, provide a great venue to meet and learn, work through snowstorms and even a pandemic – is a testimony to their professionalism.

SeafoodSource: What accomplishments are you most proud of personally, and most proud of for the industry as a whole?

Connelly: Nearly 20 years ago, when I interviewed to be the president of the NFI, I relied on my Holy Cross history degree to paint an important analogy that changed my life. I explained that the seafood industry was like the German states in the 1860s. Each industry sector fought their own battles, like pre-Bismarck Germany. I told them we should unify and fight for our “share of stomach,” and not with each other, much like the chancellor unified Germany. It was important to fuse the seafood industry. For the last part of the decade, we have strived to bring together a more united industry on pre-competitive issues.

SeafoodSource: Are there any changes you’ve seen the seafood industry make over your time at the helm of NFI that surprised you?

Connelly: Seafood is the last animal protein on the planet that is hunted down in the wild. In the face of technological growth, it’s still a pretty old practice. Despite its ancient origins, the seafood community is a group of very advanced thinkers. I don’t just mean looking at cell-cultured fish or spaceage progress in aquaculture; I mean an evolution in priorities and commitments. The seafood industry understands and is committed to sustainability in a way that few NGOs appropriately grasp.

The industry also made labor and fraud a focus as soon as those challenges peeked over the horizon. They understand that, regardless of the issue, divisive politics and bad policy threaten their livelihoods and that collaboration is the antidote. It didn’t surprise me that the industry has developed to where it is today, but the speed of its adaptation has been impressive.

SeafoodSource: What was your best day at work? What was your worst/saddest?

Connelly: There are two questions I just can’t answer. The first is, “What is your favorite seafood?” mostly because nearly all seafood is delicious and I’m also ecumenical about our members products!

The second is, “What is your best day at work?” I’m proud to say that I do not need a third-hand to count the number of days over the past 19-plus years that I have not wanted to go to work. NFI and the seafood community are a fascinating group of people to work for and alongside.

My saddest days are the ones when we learn of the loss of the leaders that built our industry. Seafood is such a personal business, and any time an industry giant passes, it causes me to reflect on if I am doing enough to help grow the industry.

SeafoodSource: What advice would you give your successor and future leaders in the industry?

Connelly: It has been a great joy of mine helping all of our member companies point in the same proverbial direction. When representing an industry that involves so many interests, it can be challenging to align strong-willed leaders on important priorities. Frankly, there’s a certain level of fearlessness needed when representing the self-made men and women of our organization. But know that if you put your own heart in the battle, the members will step up and support you every time.

SeafoodSource: Where should the seafood industry place its focus moving forward? What trends or business strategies should suppliers pay attention to?

Connelly: Global fish consumption is the highest it’s ever been. Fish has become the world’s most-traded food commodity. It is important to maintain the extraordinary sustainability efforts of U.S. fisheries, while recognizing the importance of the jobs seafood creates. There’s a great economic benefit to seafood. From vessels at sea, to seafood processing operations, to retailers and restaurants providing healthy and nutritious meals, seafood provides an economic boost.

SeafoodSource: Do you have any parting words to the seafood industry at large?

Connelly: A simple thanks to all those who have invested in NFI and helped teach me this crazy and wonderful business.

Photo courtesy of John Connelly/NFI

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