David Wind­mill

Marine Harvest: 1994-2002

Fish Farmer - - Contents -

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

and in­ter­na­tion­ally”

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

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