Marine Harvest: 1979-1998
Baillie joined Marine Harvest on 21 June 1979 as a graduate trainee site manager at Leven, Ballahulish. ‘My first job was replacing brackets on the wooden pens’, he recalls. ‘The weather was beautiful, and it felt more like a holiday than a job – it was fantastic.’ Back then there were only four employees working on the farm, which had three groups of 12 pens, and most of the tasks had to be done by hand – including balling the fish feed, and feeding the fish.
In 1981 Baillie became manager at the newly opened site at Loch Duich, which had around 110,000 smolts, and ran to broodstock. In 1983 he moved to the farm at Portnalong, in Skye. ‘I loved it, so much so that I’ve built a house near there’, says Baillie. ‘I still keep in touch with many of the people I worked with, and I was even invited to their 25th anniversary celebration.’
Baillie was only in Skye for a year when he was made Area Manager for the north of Scotland and then, in 1985, he was offered the position of freshwater manager, ‘which I found strange at the time, because until then I only worked on the sea water side’, says Ralph. ‘However, it was a great managerial experience for me, and during my time we increased the amount of smolts we produced from two million to four million.’
What Baillie didn’t know was that he was being primed for a position in the new Unilever venture in Chile; they wanted him to be its first technical manager, a challenge that Baillie
Image: Ralph Baillie and Su Cox with Her Majesty The Queen at a Marine Harvest exhibition in Fort William, 1991
found ‘very exciting’. Of course it wasn’t as simple as that: he had a wife and two young children, ‘but my wife loved the idea’, says Baillie, ‘and I figured that even if I learn nothing more than another language, I would be happy.’
Unilever did not just hand Baillie a ticket to Chile and wave him on his way. In March 1987 Baillie and his family were moved to London, where they spent a month on an intensive programme that normally took six months to complete. ‘We were given a flat in Putney, and a tutor would come and teach my wife Spanish while I attended Lingurama in Picadilly– we were even provided with a nanny to look after the kids,’ Baillie recalls. ‘The hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my professional life was learn Spanish at thirty.’ They also attended courses on Chilean culture and politics.
Baillie’s last three months in Scotland were spent, as he recalls, ‘filling two 42-foot containers with everything we needed to build a fish farm in Chile’. The first job was to build a hatchery for the half a million eggs that had been flown over, and which had arrived before the hatchery had been completed. The hatchery and the sea pens were constructed by Baillie, along with Willie Fortune, and Ian Armstrong. ‘There were two wooden pens in the containers’, Baillie recalls, ‘but we had no way to moor them.
‘We ended up having to make the concrete blocks up on the beach, using barrels and steel rods, and build the rafts, which we also used to transport the blocks into the lake to sink them’, he adds. ‘At this time there was no machinery in Chile, so with £56,000 of my budget I brought the very first JCB telescopic forklift into the country. But overcoming all of these obstacles was part of the challenge of the job that I relished – it was really pioneering.’
The success of Marine Harvest’s Chilean operation also depended on the willingness of the local workforce and, as Baillie explains, Chile already had a number of excellent aquaculture colleges, aquaculture graduates and keen entrepreneurs, ‘waiting for something to happen.’ As such, Baillie had no problem finding employees for the farm, ‘although I did struggle to find vets to start with’, he recalls. And, apart from the language barrier, and a number of cultural differences, Baillie found the Chileans extremely good to work with. ‘The Lever Chile senior managers, and the engineers, also had very good English, which helped a lot.’
When Baillie arrived there was already Atlantic salmon in the south of Chile, and some of the locals were already attempting to farm them, with varying degrees of success. ‘They would try and pick my brains’, Baillie recalls. ‘One local farmer asked me to look at his salmon to advise whether or not they had smolted. I looked at his three to four pound fish and I said, “yes, your fish have smolted”’, he laughs.
Baillie also recalls the time Willie Fortune phoned him to say that they had a problem with the pens in the lake. ‘The nets had been covered in eggs from a small native fish (peledilla), which was stopping water flowing through them’, he says. ‘The nets were impossible to clean – power washing wouldn’t work – so we laid the nets on the rafts to dry out in the sun. A few hours later we saw that the nets had been ripped to shreds, by coypu – a type of large rodent – which had swum out to eat the eggs, ripping the nets to pieces in the process. I remember saying to Willie: “We should just go home now.”’
Baillie did return home, after three years in Chile. ‘Our original budget was $5 million, and we had been asked to produce 2,500 tonnes of salmon’, says Baillie. ‘When I left, we had built three hatcheries, four freshwater land sites, twelve sea sites, we had 450 employees, and we were producing 4,500 tonnes.’ This success was welcomed and indeed encouraged by the Government; Baillie even met General Pinochet, when the Chilean leader attended the opening of a new fish feed factory – he had certainly done a lot more than just learn Spanish.
On his return from Chile, Baillie was made Farms Manager for Scotland, ‘tasked with dealing with triple resistant furunculosis and dichlorvos resistant sea lice’, he says. Baillie was also responsible for overseeing the building of the new recirculation facility at Lochailort, in 1995. He left Marine Harvest in 1998 to start the Salmon Management Company. A few years later he was appointed Chairman of the Code of Good Practice Working Group by the SQS. ‘This was a major challenge’, he recalls. ‘The original target was a year, but it took us over two years to complete. However, it was crucial that we got it right and produced something the whole industry could get behind.’ The strength of the Scottish industry today certainly shows that it was well worth waiting for.
The hardest thing I’ve had to do in my professional life was learn Spanish at thirty”