Marking 20-year milestone
LOCH Duart marks its 20th anniversary this summer with the best gift any salmon farmer could wish for: the good health of its fish and its company. The small, independent producer, which farms in some of Scotland’s remotest locations, in Sutherland and the Uists in the Outer Hebrides, has brought sea lice under control to the point where treatments are largely a thing of the past.
It has collected a clutch of awards, including Food and Drink Company of the Year in The Scottish Business Insider’s Made in Scotland Awards; Foodservice Product of the Year in the Scotland Food and Drink Excellence Awards; and Regional Growth Business in The Food and Drink Federation Awards – all in the past 18 months alone.
Last year, it was placed second out of Scottish headquartered companies and 21st nationwide in the Sunday Times list of private firms with the fastest growing profits over three years.
And earlier this year, the business, based in Scourie, about 40 miles north of Ullapool, was named Exporter of the Year in the 2019 Made in Scotland Awards, in recognition of export sales that have increased by 68 per cent over the last two years.
The recent success has come on the watch of Alban Denton, the the ebullient managing director who took on the job in 2015 and has overseen the change in Loch Duart’s fortunes, as it recovered from biological challenges and a devastating jellyfish attack five years ago.
But Denton (CEO of the year in the HR Network awards in 2017) is quick to pass any credit to his staff.
Talking to Fish Farmer in the icehouse (now boardroom) of the newly refurbished Badcall Salmon House, the company HQ in Sutherland, he said: ‘I joined this business when there were 115 people on the payroll; there are still 115 people and they are broadly the same people.
‘All the skills, all the talent, all the ability were in the business, I was just lucky. All we’ve done is unlock the latent talent that already existed in this place. We’ve changed the structure and some of the roles within the company.
‘I or anyone else doesn’t sit from a distance and bark instructions down the telephone.’
Instead, he trusts operations director Mark Warrington to be his ‘eyes and ears’, and puts great faith in his judgement.
But at the heart of the business are the farm managers. Everyone’s job, including Denton’s, is to support them to make sure they’ve got what they need, when they need it.
‘We’ve given them all the authority. It’s their site, their fish and their environment- everybody else in this business is a support mechanism for the site managers.’
The company has spent 20 years developing a unique model that works, said Denton, and ‘doing things the Loch Duart way’, a mantra that is often repeated by staff.
Approaching 6,000 tonnes a year, they are many times the size of the smallest Scottish farming company but a fraction of the size of the bigger Scottish salmon companies.
Denton said this unique scale gives him a ‘relatively lonely voice’ on the SSPO (Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation) board but he is not afraid to champion his firm’s achievements and its different approach to farming.
‘Loch Duart has a small-scale set-up designed for minimising environmental impact and maximising husbandry which has proved ‘scalable’ – without diminishing these benefits. We’re very much in the land of harvesting lower volumes to higher specifications and ensuring
there is sustainable evidence around it.’
This ethos has been applied to the company’s successful cleaner fish programme, with small populations of fish in low density in small pen groups, much more akin to the natural environment in which wrasse would succeed in the wild.
Being less intensive brings distinct advantages, and the introduction of wrasse as the new sea lice strategy was rolled out to all farms fast and with impressive results.
‘Once you’ve got enormous capital committed to fixed ways of working, making change becomes more difficult,’ said Denton.
Loch Duart has the ‘ultimate flexibility’, which is ‘limited mechanisation and significant investment in our people’, at least in its sea lice measures.
‘Some might argue that moving the man is more difficult than moving the kit, but nonetheless that’s the principle’.
Denton said some of the bigger companies might have jumped to the conclusion that what ‘little Loch Duart’ does wouldn’t work elsewhere, but he disagrees.
‘We’re uniquely proud about what we do and how we work and what we stand for, but I think it would be as ignorant of the wider industry to believe that our uniqueness means there is no knowledge that can be transferred, as it would be of Loch Duart to believe that we cannot learn from others as well.’
The company may be small but it has big ambitions, and Denton has publically defended its right to farm in the way that is best for the business, its environment and its fish.
SEPA (the Scottish Environment Protection Agency) proposals, published last November, to strengthen environmental controls over the salmon sector, anticipated ‘fewer fish farms in shallower, slow flowing waters and more fish farms in deeper and faster flowing waters’.
Denton hit back, arguing that any move to larger, high energy, offshore operations would negatively impact the company more severely than larger operators.
‘Our successful business model is around smaller, gentler, less impactful operations,’ he said at the time.
Loch Duart has been virtually lice free for the past two seasons and the techniques it uses to achieve this success are much less effective further out to sea, he said.
When Fergus Ewing, Scotland’s Rural Economy minister, announced reforms to the sector in June, he insisted that sites that are farming well should be allowed to continue.
‘I feel I’m listened to,’ said Denton. ‘Fergus is here for everyone in our industry. It’s really important to understand that one size doesn’t fit all.
‘The approach taken by the largest international farmers can achieve certain things and so can the approach of the smallest Scottish farmers. Neither is right or wrong, we need to be judged on our outputs not on our inputs.
‘We’ll choose to farm in a certain way but as long as our environmental and benthic performance, our sustainability credentials, and our health and safety record exceeds the demanding and minimum standards set, complies with the law, and ideally operates very significantly ahead of that, we should not just be allowed to continue, but be
“I’d rather grow the business from £40 million to £80 million than from 5,000 to tonnes” 10,000
encouraged to continue and even expand.
If you’ve got a proven model that’s delivering against any governance standards- SEPA, Marine Scotland standards or legal standards- and we fulfil them all, then we as an organisation, on behalf of society, for the economic and community return we bring, for our stewardship of the environment and care for the welfare of our fish, should not only be asked to maintain, we should be encouraged to grow and expand that model.’
Loch Duart’s plans for growth could include taking over sites from bigger companies pursuing more offshore options – sites that might not work under a more industrial model but will work ‘superbly’ under Loch Duart’s gentler approach.
‘We want to grow, we’ve come through a turbulent period and we’ve clearly survived and stabilised and we’ve made ourselves sustainable and now we’re into a growth phase,’ said Denton.
‘I don’t know where our growth will take us but it will be sustainable, modest and probably internally resourced, so we can’t get too carried away.
‘But even if we were talking about doubling 5,000 tonnes to 10,000 tonnes, we’re not talking about doubling an industry from 170,000 to 350,000 tonnes.
‘Our doubling over the next few cycles would be the equivalent of the Scottish industry’s larger operators adding a farming site.
‘Doubling is a doubling of value in the business that will really drive us as an organisation, getting more for our brand products throughout the rest of the world.
‘I’d rather grow the Loch Duart business from
£40 million to £80 million than from 5,000 to 10,000 tonnes, and, idealistically, if I could double the value without increasing our farming footprint, that’s an even better result.
‘It’s a case of getting better at everything we do. We need to manage our speed of growth in our fish and business to make sure our flesh quality and service is the exceptional quality all our customers want all over the world.’
Loch Duart’s plans could include developing a combination of new and existing sites, in Sutherland and the Uists, or exploring a third area.
Would growth in the existing communities be acceptable?
‘Yes, and many are encouraging us to do soalthough there are people who will object and they are utterly entitled to have that voice,’ said Denton. ‘I’ve got no issue with people who don’t agree with what we choose to do – but it is important that the discussion, debate and decisions are made with science and fact to the fore, not just strong opinion and emotion.’
But he agrees that the ability to grow the industry is going to depend to some extent on improving the social licence.
Denton doesn’t want to talk for other producers, but said as a member of an industry there is ‘some degree of cabinet responsibility’ that the industry has, to continually develop and refine how it communicates its positive, and occasionally challenging, impact.
‘The growth of salmon farming will be the successful outcome of us behaving in the right manner.
‘Everyone has to obtain minimum standards and it is my personal view, and that of Loch Duart’s, that these standards should always be challenged and pushed upwards.
‘As we talk about our 20th anniversary and what we might look like in 2040, I steer deliberately away from “we’ll double that, triple this and quadruple the rest”.
‘Everything is about how can we serve our customers, how do we make our quality even better, how do we further reduce our carbon footprint, how do we improve the welfare of our fish and how do we better contribute to our sustainable communities?
‘And we passionately believe that if we look after the fish, look after environment, look after the community, look after our people and look after the brand, then the growth of the business will come.’’
Above: Alban Denton Opposite: Denton with financial director Simon Maguire, operations director Mark Warrington, and sales director (and cofounder) Andy Bing.
Clockwise from above left: Premium Loch Duart salmon at the Badcall bay farm; wrasse are carefully sourced from selected fishermen