In January 2001, a load of rockfish landed on the dock at Keltic Seafoods in Port Hardy. Everyone, including the company's receptionist, pitched in to grade and pack the fish into Styrofoam boxes, which were heading to Vancouver and a Banff hotel. It looked like an unremarkable event, a typical day on the working coast, but the fish plant workers were ecstatic.
It was a historic moment for the company, its employees and for Port Hardy, a town that was caught in a downward economic spiral. A huge local mine had closed in 1995, followed by forestry lay-offs and drastic cuts to commercial salmon catches. Over the course of a decade, three-quarters of the fish plants in the North Island had closed as well. Then in 2000, Maple Leaf Foods closed its Port Hardy facility, throwing 90 people out of work.
“The fish plant was unfamiliar territory for Maple Leaf Foods,” Keltic President Mickey Flanagan says of the Canadian food conglomerate. “They were in the pork and poultry business back East. They didn't understand the West Coast fishery.”
Instead of heading to the unemployment lines, workers with money from their severance packages, along with several local investors and Community Futures, rallied to save the fish plant and one of the town's largest employers. They purchased the facility and resurrected it as Keltic Seafoods in 2001.
When the new company needed to replace its short-term mortgage with Maple Leaf Foods, it had difficulty getting a conventional bank loan because it didn't have the requisite cash flow history. So it approached Ecotrust Capital which originally approved a 10-year $150,000 mortgage. Maple Leaf then decided to renew its mortgage and Ecotrust's loan was instead used for upgrading equipment in the fish plant.
“Ecotrust Capital stepped up to the plate for us and we are grateful for that,” says Brian Welchman, Keltic Seafoods director and former manager of the local mine.
The new team of local investors and employee-owners did more than just reopen the plant. “The problem was that the fish plant was strictly a cannery,” says Welchman. “It was difficult to get salmon and find investment for new canning technology. The employees thought that there could be life in the fish plant again by diversifying into emerging fisheries and doing custom processing.”
The company wasn't interested in buying raw fish, processing it and then selling the final product—the foundering old business strategy. It also didn't have the deep pockets necessary to buy and sell fish. Instead, Keltic decided to go into the custom processing business. The company simply processed fish for a fee, leaving the marketing, and the risk, to fishermen or brokers.
The fish plant had productive workers, competitive wages and was near the fishing grounds. It also had higher recovery ratios (the percentage of the fish turned into a final product) than Lower Mainland plants. The strategy worked.
Keltic also diversified away from traditional fisheries that were dwindling: salmon, herring and halibut. The company does custom unloading, sells ice to fish boats and started processing hake, shellfish, pilchards, tanner crab, dogfish, herring roe on kelp and groundfish. “We have gone out of our way to diversify,” says Welchman.
The plant employs some 80 people and as many as 140 during the busy summertime season. In only three years, it has grown into a $3 million operation and is looking for ways to expand and diversify.
“A good part of our success is because our employees are also our shareholders,” says Welchman. “That's unique. They have an investment in the company.”
Keltic is also about restoring pride in a town and an industry that have weathered some nasty economic storms. The fish plant was started in 1966 by Don Cruickshank, a man who over the years became a statesman-like figure in the Pacific fishery. Cruickshank was known for his honesty and fairness. He was well respected by fishermen and now serves as a model to the new employee-owners.
“We want to bring back that feeling—that trust between fishermen and the processing plant again," Flanagan told a newspaper upon the plant's reopening.