Marine Harvest: 1994-2002
David Windmill joined Marine Harvest when Booker plc bought the company in 1994, finding himself in the unusual situation of moving from managing a smaller operation to leading the world’s largest salmon farming company. ‘I have a biological sciences education but ended up working for a merchant bank, which took me to London, and then Africa’, explains Windmill. ‘I learnt about the financial world and finished off working in Nigeria for a couple of years working in commodities: rubber, cocoa and palm oil. Then, in 1983, I made the decision to return to the UK, where I joined McConnell Salmon, which at the time was a tiny company with one seafarm and a hatchery in the Outer Hebrides and about a dozen staff, producing around 20 tonnes a year.’
As Windmill explains, Booker had been trying for a long time to make salmon farming work. ‘They had started farming salmon in the mid70s, driven by the belief of the Chief Executive, Jonathan Taylor, that fish farming was the future’, he explains. ‘However, year after year they’d encounter the usual problems with fish survival, predators and storm damage. There was very little scientific knowledge back then, and whilst Marine Harvest approached it from a typically Unilever research perspective, Booker had more of a pragmatic ‘suck it and see’ approach.
‘By 1983, convinced that salmon farming would work, Booker wanted to ramp things up and move the company on from a semi R&D operation to a more commercial business’, he continues. ‘They recruited me as General Manager because of my financial knowledge and my biological sciences background – basically I knew one end of a fish from the other. At that time the three main salmon farmers in Scotland were Marine Harvest, McConnell Salmon and Golden Sea Produce, with Marine Harvest being by far the largest and McConnell Salmon the second largest.’
So when Booker bought Marine Harvest in 1994, it was a slightly unusual situation of the second largest company buying the largest which, Windmill says, ‘was quite an interesting challenge, because Marine Harvest had been a Unilever company, it had a very strong culture. And whilst you can alter systems and structures relatively easily, culture change is the most difficult thing to manage, especially when it is embedded as firmly as it was within Marine Harvest.
‘Because it was a relatively young and exciting industry, we knew each other well and on the whole the transition went well. For a few years we were called Marine Harvest McConnell – partly because we felt it was important for the McConnell Salmon staff to feel part of the company, but we dropped the McConnell because the Marine Harvest brand was so strong. Indeed, the fact that the Marine Harvest name has remained to this day says a lot about the strength of that brand.’
Windmill arrived at Marine Harvest with the company in a pretty good state and making money. ‘It was a matter of merging two successful businesses’, he says. As well as the challenge of growing the business, there was also the potential for international expansion through its operations in Chile. ‘Booker had tried farming in Canada, with limited success’, explains Windmill. ‘The Chilean production arm sold into the US, which was something that particularly excited me.’
In terms of the changes that Windmill oversaw during his time at Marine Harvest, there were, he explains, some rationalisation, some merger savings, ‘but on the whole it was a matter of expanding and growing the business, with an emphasis on more value added, and improving production cost efficiency’. It is the latter that Windmill sees as one of the biggest changes he saw during his time in the industry. ‘In the early ‘80s many of the sites were small. Every bag of feed and harvested fish was moved by hand. Gradually these sites were closed down and bigger sites emerged, with mechanised feeding and harvesting systems. The change in the way smolts were transported has also been phenomenal. From being transported by lorry and tanks in the early ‘80s, we suddenly had fish being flown to sites by helicopter and, later, larger, sophisticated well boats.’
Windmill’s time as MD was spent less on the day-to-day running of the company, which had enough expertise within it to run fish farms successfully, and more on promoting Marine Harvest’s interests at a political level. ‘In order for Marine Harvest to be successful, the whole Scottish industry had to be successful’, he explains. ‘So a large part of my time was taken up with industry issues, both domestically and in Europe, and I was chairman of the Scottish Salmon Growers Association for a couple of years.
‘Working with the UK government was a major challenge’, he continues. ‘Whilst we were a brand new and dynamic industry that was doing much for the economy and jobs in the west coast of
Scotland, there were always tensions with the wild salmon lobby and environmentalists, and it was always a challenge to bring everyone together to realise that fish farming was a golden industry for Scotland. Keeping up with Norway was extremely difficult – from the start they had a long term strategy. It was a key industry for the country and they had full Government support. There were no salmon farms in England so it was always a struggle to get the UK government to fight our cause in Brussels.
‘I would say that my main role as MD was to create an environment where Marine Harvest
could be successful both nationally and internationally. We were talking regularly to the Chileans, Australians, Canadians, Norwegians, as well as bodies like the International Salmon Farmers Association. Salmon farming was now a global industry, and industry issues, whether they were related to production, or marketing, affected everyone.’ When asked about the impact of the environenvironmental lobby on fish farming, Windmill is philosophical. ‘Fish farmers were the new kids on the block’, he says. ‘We were learning how to produce profitably and sustainably a quality food product in remote and beautiful areas of Scotland that could compete in a sophisticated and competitive global market. That wasn’t easy and we didn’t get everything right first time.
‘The environmentalists played a role in this and they weren’t always helpful. ‘ We were growing up in a pretty regulated environment with SEPA, Crown Estate and Local Authority controls. I believe we were often unfairly criticised but ultimately we have proved that you can create a new, commercially viable industry that addresses environmental issues and benefits rural communities.’
Windmill remained MD of Marine Harvest until 2000, when Booker sold the company to Nutreco and, after going to Chile to help the merger of Marine Harvest Chile and Nutreco’s fish farming business there, in 2002 he left the industry. Looking back, he sees his career in the industry as quite a personal journey. ‘When I started in 1983 the company I was running was producing about 20 tonnes of salmon annually’, he says.
‘Eighteen years later I was managing a business that was producing around 40,000 tonnes a year, with a turnover of around £90 million, and with 1,200 staff in Scotland and Chile. This also highlights the extraordinary growth of an industry which is now truly global and which produces a quality, healthy product, the demand for which continues to grow and grow. It has overcome huge challenges. It’s quite a success story and I feel privileged to have been part of it.’
My main role as MD was to create an environment where Marine Harvest could be successful both nationally
Left: David Windmill chats with Booker chief executive Charles Bowen Above: McConnell Salmon lorry
Above: David Windmill (right) at the Bamia Rincones site in Chile, with general manager Emilio De Vidts Right: Windmill (centre) with the team at the Boston Seafood Show in 1999 Below: Windmill (second left) with Board members visiting Cairidh, Isle of Skye