Loch Duart

Mark­ing 20-year mile­stone

Fish Farmer - - Contents -

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

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