Marine Harvest: 1976-1991
Hillcoat joined Unilever Research in 1972, after a degree in agricultural chemistry and a PhD in animal nutrition and physiology. ‘I was based at Colworth, Bedfordshire, where Unilever has its world famous R&D department’, he explains. ‘Initially I was working on the nutrition and physiological requirements of pigs. Then, one day I was asked: “How would you like to go and play with some fish?” So, in 1974 I moved to Lochailort as Research Manager of what was then a small, multi-disciplinary team developing a process for farming Atlantic salmon.’
At the time, Hillcoat explains, Unilever had a number of trout farms in England, and made trout feed to supply these farms. ‘The company had decided to try and grow bigger trout in the sea’, he says, ‘so they bought the Vik brothers’ patent for acclimatising freshwater trout to the sea by slowly introducing sea water. With its source of fresh and sea water in close proximity, Lochailort provided the perfect location for the project.
‘Unilever had a lot of fish interests, with research facilities further north, in Aberdeen and Findon’, he continues, ‘where research was carried out into freezing, processing and other fish
technologies. They were also looking into farming other types of fish, including salmon and prawns. A small team from Unilever Research joined the Marine Harvest team at Lochailort – when I started we both had around eight staff. Marine Harvest’s task was to operate a business that made profit in farming trout; this switched to salmon in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s. With the help of Unilever Research, they looked at pen designs and holding facilities, fish health and how to successfully farm the fish once they had understood the biological process.’
In combination with Unilever’s research expertise and Marine Harvest’s practical farming
One day I was asked, how would you like to go and play with some fish?
approach, between 1974 and 1976 a number of trials were carried out to look at the best types of feed, operating procedures and holding facilities to farm salmon successfully. ‘In 1976, I transferred from Unilever Research to Marine Harvest, and became Farms Manager’, Hillcoat explains. ‘At that point we had three farm sites at Lochailort, freshwater hatcheries at Lochailort and Invergarry, and we had just started the site at Loch Leven, and were producing around 200 tonnes of salmon a year.’
In 1977 Iain Anderson took over as MD, and Marine Harvest had relocated its head office to Edinburgh. Hillcoats’s job over the next ten years was to transfer the technology and make the business grow organically, as well as acquire new sites. ‘In 1982 I became Technical Director; at this point we had a new MD, Owen Davy, who had come from the poultry industry in the Midlands. I used to travel around 40,000 miles a year between the west coast and Edinburgh. By 1986 we had 36 farm sites in fresh and sea water, producing around 9,000 tonnes of salmon a year. At this point we had also run out of space at Lochailort for processing and the decision was made to build a new processing plant at Blar Mhor, which was opened the following year.’
In 1986 with Unilever satisfied of the profitability of salmon farming, Hillcoat was asked to move to London and look into other areas of the world where Unilever could farm salmon. ‘There were two main factors to consider when deciding on the location’, he explains. ‘First, we had to find a place with the right geography and environmental conditions and, secondly, to ascertain whether we’d be welcome there – after all, we would be using their natural resources. So, after looking at a number of different options, including British Columbia, I concluded that Puerto Montt, in southern Chile would be the most suitable location.’
Chile was a particularly good location for Unilever, because at the time
Lever Chile was looking for ways to expand its interests in the country. ‘The Chilean government was also very supportive, and amongst the Chilean people we found a young, intelligent and enthusiastic workforce’, says Hillcoat. ‘The idea was to transfer the technology for farming salmon in Scotland to Chile; establish sites, build hatcheries. We sent managers and technicians from Scotland, took on trainee managers from Lever Chile – we would send them to Scotland with their families to familiarise themselves with the process – and employed local workers.
‘The Chileans could copy anything; for example, we took architectural drawings of the hatchery at Inchmore for the local architects to copy, enclosing the equipment in traditional Chilean buildings’, adds Hillcoat. ‘We also made our own enclosures and nets – we brought John Howard out from Boris Nets to show the Chileans the finer points of net making, and we established a processing plant. We also built our own fish feed factory about 100 miles north, with the help of the BOCM, who brought in personnel from the UK, as well as milling and pelleting equipment from Europe. The transfer went well, and Marine Harvest made money almost from the start.’
At the same time as Marine Harvest Chile was being established, Hillcoat was also involved in the production of tiger prawns in Sri Lanka, Pakistan and India. ‘We had Unilever Research teams out there building some pretty big prawn farms’, he recalls. ‘We also started pilot farms in Malaysia and the Ivory Coast. We were using Unilever resources and local companies, bringing technology and creating jobs in rural areas – so the governments involved were fully behind us.’
In 1989 Hillcoat returned to Scotland as Farms Director. ‘At that time we were producing around 12,000 tonnes of salmon in Scotland and Chile, and around 1,000 tonnes of prawns’, he says. ‘It was at this point that there was a real shift in emphasis at Marine Harvest. We had successfully managed to integrate the research and practical farming techniques to grow Atlantic salmon, and now Unilever wanted to increase volumes in the same way they did their consumer goods such as toothpaste and washing powder. This came with its own problems, and physical expansion of the business became more difficult because the various governments of Europe were not keen for us to dominate the market. Norway was facing similar problems.’
In the early ‘90s it was marketing, not production, that became the real issue. ‘The focus became on meeting the demands of the consumers’, Hillcoat explains, ‘on producing a wholesome, ethical product and communicating that effectively to customers.’ In 1991 Hillcoat was offered the chance to buy his own farm, six small sea farm sites and a hatchery at Inverpolly in Ullapool, which he has run as Finfish Ltd ever since. Finfish supplies smolts to Marine Harvest, amongst others, so as with many ex-employees, Hillcoat still has a connection to the company for which he still has so many fond memories.
Amongst the Chilean people we found a young,
intelligent and enthusiastic workforce”
Clockwise from top left: Tiger prawn; on the farm near Puerto Montt; Sri Lankan tiger prawn farm worker; construction of the hatchery in Chile
Top: One of the Chilean sea sites. Left: Malaysian tiger prawn farm worker