Bruce Hill­coat

Marine Harvest: 1976-1991

Fish Farmer - - Contents -

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

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