Perseverance and a social conscience

Perseverance and a social conscience
Photo courtesy of Cooke Aquaculture

The surprising drivers of Glenn Cooke’s global expansion

Glenn Cooke had a plan. Call it a dream. Maybe a vision. He was going to start a company. It was going to be a success. Not just for him, but for his town.

Glenn Cooke was 18 and he believed he already knew a thing or two about companies as well as about towns. For much of his growing up, he and his family had lived in a company town. Connors Brothers Ltd., the world-famous sardine producer, was the company. Blacks Harbour—a spit of a place with fewer than a thousand residents located in Charlotte County on the New Brunswick side of the Bay of Fundy between Saint John and the border with Maine—was its town.

The company owned all the houses, streets and surrounding land in Blacks Harbour. If you wanted to live in the town, you rented from the company. If you wanted to own your own home—as Glenn’s parents eventually did—you had to move out of the town. At various points in Connors Brothers’ long and storied, community inter-connected history, it had built Blacks Harbour’s elementary school, donated land for the hospital, sponsored its summer baseball diamond and winter skating arena, leased the building that housed the bank, even owned the generator that supplied residents with their electricity. Connors Brothers footed the bill for the operating costs of the school and the hospital, not to mention the police and fire departments.

The company, of course, also owned the company store, which was stocked with protein and produce from the company farm, and which was where everyone in town inevitably had to go to buy their groceries and household supplies, inevitably on credit. By the time you got paid at your company job, much of your pay was already committed to that same company store—and to the company that seemed to pay you so you could pay the company store.

Ironically, even long after the company’s original owners first sold to outsiders in the sixties (it’s now owned by a British private equity firm), Glenn Cooke says most locals didn’t know who really owned it. While there were positive aspects to all that paternalism, Cooke believes it also created an unhealthy situation in which people, including his own grandparents, simply never managed to get beyond their circumstances. “If you were a working man in Blacks Harbour,” he says today, “you could never get ahead.”
Complicating matters, “there was a real class system,” he recalled in a 2008 interview with the Globe and Mail. “When Connors was owned by Weston, there was a group of people who ran Connors who were fairly elite. They were relatives or successors of the former owners… I have respect for the former owners, but there was a class system, and that drove me a little bit.”

It did. Glenn Cooke’s drive—and his dream—were different. He intended to use the success of the company he was going to create to give back, to build a healthy, thriving community for everyone. He would later talk about his plan as “a social licence. You’ve got to have the will of the people. And that means you have to do the right thing by the people.” Glenn Cooke’s family was Christian (“my parents were big givers”) and he thought about his business in Christian terms. “If God blesses us,” he says, “we have to make sure we pass those blessings on.”

That was the boyish plan, the dream, the vision.

But then there was reality.

It was the summer of 1983, and Glenn Cooke was a freshly minted high school graduate who’d recently been accepted into the business program at the University of New Brunswick, the working-class child’s best-hope to step up to the next rung of the upwardly mobile ladder of life. “But I had this idea in my head that the world was moving fast and that if I was ever going to catch up with it, I needed to fast track my life.” He decided to skip university and go straight into business. He had an uncle who owned his own business, “and I looked up to him, especially in a small community owned by one company.”

But first he had to tell his father his decision. Gifford Cooke was a marine mechanic who’d worked all his life doing manual labour so his children wouldn’t have to. “Dad was extremely upset,” he remembers, “and I wasn’t very popular at home. That was tough, not pleasing your parents.”

It got worse. Glenn thought he knew about fish (he’d spent his high school summers working in fish plants) and he believed he knew what it took to be a good salesman too. So he created a business buying and selling seafood. It turned out he knew less than he assumed. “I didn’t have the knowledge or experience to do what I was doing.” The business went bust. So too did a foray into farming mussels. And a few other ventures along the way. “I lost my shirt, and other people’s shirts,” he admits today. “It was my school of failure.”
By the time he was 21, he knew only future failure “was not an option.” But what was? It was clear he didn’t want to leave New Brunswick, “which put a limitation on what you could do.” He’d heard about a new and upcoming twist on traditional fishing: growing salmon in water-borne pens. With the traditional wild fishing industry already in free fall, the New Brunswick government was keen on the idea, and had encouraged close to two dozen small, experimental salmon farmers to launch their own aquaculture operations in coastal communities around the province.

You’ve got to have the will of the people. And that means you have to do the right thing by the people.
Glenn Cooke

Could this be Glenn Cooke’s last best chance for a do-over in the business world? Or was he fated to spend this lifetime working in a local fish plant? As a student, Glenn recalls, he had had “a science bent,” so he began to research the science of salmon farming and learned all he could about what had made already established fish farming operations in Scotland and Europe so successful. He liked what he learned.

Despite his own so-far abysmal business track record, Glenn managed to convince both his father and his brother Michael to join him in establishing Kelly Cove Salmon Ltd. They applied for their own salmon farming licence and got it, though their new business wasn’t much to start: just one site, two cages, 5,000 salmon smolts purchased from a government hatchery and one employee.

Despite all the setbacks he’d endured to date, and even all the questions about his new fish farming plans—veteran local fishermen told him his chosen site was exactly the wrong place to grow fish—Glenn Cooke never let go of his “huge vision. If you have a vision, a plan, a dream, you’re going to achieve what you want to achieve,” he says today. “And I knew I wanted something bigger and more significant than two cages with 5,000 fish. I always had big dreams.”

He did. And today, nearly 30 years later, Glenn Cooke has more than translated those dreams into a reality bigger and better than even he might have dreamed.

The owners of Cooke Aquaculture, Glenn Cooke with his father Gifford and brother Michael, pose with an Atlantic salmon at the original Kelly Cove Salmon farm in the late ‘80s. Photo courtesy of Cooke Aquaculture

It is early December 2018, and New Brunswick Southwest Member of Parliament Karen Ludwig has come to St. Andrews, N.B., for a round table discussion with executives from Cooke Aquaculture Ltd.’s many and various companies and subsidiaries around the world.

Today’s meeting is being chaired by Glenn Cooke, the company’s founder and CEO, though you probably wouldn’t guess his position to look at him. A shy, shambling man, he is dressed this day in blue slacks and a comfy blue sweater, his balding head hidden under a lived-in, well-worn baseball cap pushed back on his skull. In truth, he looks like a man who would be more at home on a wharf than in a boardroom.

He’s proved he knows his way around both. Cooke Seafoods, his still privately-owned, vertically integrated, egg-to-plate/net-to-table company—his dream, his vision—is now the world’s largest independent, family-owned salmon producer. It currently employs 9,000 people around the world, ships about one billion pounds of farmed and wild seafood a year from production facilities in Canada, the United States, Chile, Uruguay, Argentina, Spain and Scotland, exports to 67 different countries worldwide and generated an astonishing $2.4 billion in sales last year.

And Glenn Cooke is far from done with dreaming. “We want to build an Atlantic Canada-based powerhouse that can compete with the largest global, publicly-traded seafood companies out there.”

On this day, in fact, he confides to Ludwig, the local MP, that his company is in the final, dot-the-i’s stage of acquiring yet another business, this time “one of the world’s largest shrimp operations.” He can’t name the company, he explains, because “we are in the process of getting everything approved [but] it is very exciting for us.”

And then he adds something designed to warm the heart of any local politician: “It is going to add more jobs there, more jobs here and more species for our customers.” As he explains it to me later, “even when we grow internationally in Chile or Spain, we also generate jobs back in Atlantic Canada, good back-office jobs, career-type jobs.” That’s still critically important to Glenn Cooke, the boy who may have conquered the world but who grew up in a company town and is still a small-town boy at heart: “Charlotte County is near and dear to my heart,” he offers, “and its success weighs heavily on me.”

Within a few days of the round table session, the company’s latest acquisition became official—and was as promising as Cooke had promised. Cooke had purchased Honduras-based Seajoy Group, a 40-year-old fish farming enterprise that currently produces and exports 100,000 pounds of shrimp, raw and value-added, to markets in North America, Asia and Europe each year.

Farmed shrimp represents one of the biggest aquaculture opportunities in the world, and one in which Cooke wasn’t a significant player. So Glenn and his team had spent more than six months kicking the nets of shrimp farming companies in Central America, looking for the right fit. Seajoy fit. It had a strong, English-speaking local management team and its non-resident owners were eager to sell. Even better, it ticked other key boxes for Glenn Cooke too: it was a socially responsible company, environmentally friendly and already involved in organic production.

“The opportunity came to the table,” Cooke says simply. “I made an offer.”

If that sounds simple, it is—and it isn’t.

Sea farming workers prepare to harvest salmon at a Cooke Aquaculture Chile site in the Cupquelan Fjord in southern Chile. Photo courtesy of Cooke Aquaculture

If you intend to dream big in New Brunswick, you could do far worse than to emulate the province’s biggest and most successful family business: the Irvings. Glenn Cooke did exactly that, starting by cobbling together, piece by connected piece, a tightly vertically integrated company. “You can grow faster when you control every aspect of the business,” he says, “so we are big on owning and controlling as many resources as possible.” When he started, that idea wasn’t just aspirational. It was also practical. “There was little to no [aquaculture] service industry in New Brunswick.”

In 1990, he acquired the Oak Bay Hatchery, less than an hour’s drive from Blacks Point, so his farm would have its own independent supply of eggs and smolts. “We started with farming, then added hatcheries, processing, trucking, equipment manufacturing and repair, feed manufacturing and an R&D department.” He’s still looking for new ways to lock in all the pieces of his business. “In the past few years, we started making our own boxes to pack the fish in and we started making our own ice gel packs.”

There were other ways in which the company sought to imitate the Irving model as well, including re-investing profits back into growing the business. “Maybe it’s my Scottish background,” Glenn Cooke allows, “but we put ourselves on salary and invested everything in the company.” He then used those resources to do what the Irvings did: grow by acquisition. “We have had some organic growth,” he notes, “but a big part of our growth has come through the acquisition of existing assets.”

Cooke Aquaculture Limited—the more ambitious, eponymous name the company adopted in 1993—began by taking advantage of an industry shakeout as some of the early Maritime fish farmers failed or wanted out of the industry. Cooke gobbled up close to a dozen fish farming-related businesses. In 2002, it launched Shoreland Transport, its own trucking firm, to “control the cold chain and do it for less.” Then, in 2005, Cooke dramatically doubled in size, buying up the assets of Weston Foods’ money-bleeding Heritage Salmon subsidiary for not very much and turning its fortunes around.

Another year, another opportunity.

In 2006, Cooke swooped in on a Maine salmon farming industry that had been decimated by infectious salmon anemia, established itself as the state’s “only company farming salmon,” and announced plans to invest $60 million to re-develop the business. “We couldn’t have a better partnership,” declared Maine’s then-governor, John Baldacci. “This company is committed to the resource and to this region and to the state of Maine.”

Three years later, one of Cooke’s bankers suggested the company take a look at a fish farming operation in Chile, which the bank itself was supporting. “I went down to take a look and I was impressed,” Cooke says today. He was impressed by the venture’s remote location and good fish farming environment but not so much by the state of the country’s aquaculture industry. “The industry in Chile was very fragmented at that time. They had not gone about things the right way.” So, while Cooke acquired the company, he initially dispatched two of his Canadian team to manage the operation “until they were confident in their Chilean managers… If a company we acquire is well managed, we will go with their team,” he says now. If there are issues, “we’ll send in our own people. We’ve done both successfully.”

Cooke’s global success, he says modestly, can be traced in large part to the original team he built up in New Brunswick during the 1990s when the company was just starting. “Except for retirements,” he notes, “most of those people are still part of the team.” And he makes it clear “the good people aren’t just in the office but on the water side, in the fishing vessels and the plants.”

Having already become a major international player in the fish farming industry, the company decided in 2015 to make what Glenn Cooke calls “a natural progression” into the traditional world of chasing wild fish by acquiring Virginia-based Wanchese Fish Company. Among other ventures, Wanchese operated its own scallop fishing fleet.

It was a new world for Cooke. “We’re used to stocking fish, tracking fish, developing harvest plans well in advance, based on sales. In the wild fishery, we are totally dependent on nature. The fish are there or they aren’t, and the fishing season is a very exciting time with a year’s worth of production packed into a fairly small window.”
That said, he adds “we rely on the experience and expertise from both [aspects] in our farming and wild fishery operations. We’re dealing with living things and their health and well-being are ongoing priorities. We’re working in the marine environment, which can pose natural challenges including weather, predators and maintaining fish health.”

Continuing to grow by pushing out at the edges of the company’s boundaries and expertise has continued apace. In December 2017, Cooke spent USD $500 million to acquire publicly-traded Omega Protein, a Houston-based fish oil and fish meal producer. In part, of course, the purchase was intended to “diversify the supply side of our business,” as Cooke explained it at the time. But Omega, which produces omega-3 oil from fish and whey protein from Wisconsin dairy farms, as well as a variety of speciality oils in its seven manufacturing plants in the United States, Canada and the Netherlands, also boasts a Saskatchewan-headquartered “human nutrition division… a global leader in delivering complete nutritional solutions to the food and nutraceutical industries.” The new venture, Cooke allows today, “is performing very well.” Where it may lead Cooke is still an open question.

Where Glenn Cooke’s dream has led him, however, is no longer even open to question. On December 12, 2018, a headline in the Globe and Mail’s Report on Business summed it up nicely: “Seafood Giant Cooke Aquaculture Joins Irvings, McCains as New Brunswick Business Royalty.”

And yet… And yet there’s this.

On August 21, 2017, on the far other side of the North American continent, a huge open-ocean fish-farm pen near Washington State’s Cypress Island imploded, collapsing its netting and spilling more than 250,000 farmed, almost-ready-for-market, 10-pound Atlantic salmon teeming into a Pacific wild in which it was not native and creating a political, public relations, economic, environmental and perhaps even existential crisis for Cooke Aquaculture.

The Cypress fish farm had been one of nine in Washington State that Cooke acquired the year before as part of yet another deal, this one to buy Icicle Seafoods, a major Seattle-based west coast fish company. The broader purchase was strategic, part of Cooke’s aggressive, ongoing plan to expand its U.S. footprint and gain access to even more wild species like Alaskan salmon, black cod, pollock, rockfish and crab, all caught by Icicle’s vessels. At the time, adding those additional Washington State fish farms to Cooke’s operations, while significant, seemed almost incidental.

Until it wasn’t.

At first, Cooke blamed the spill at Cypress 2 on high tides leading up to a solar eclipse. But scientists were quick to dispute that. The tides were “smaller than in recent months,” one oceanographer told the Seattle Times, while another said flatly: “They can’t blame this on the tide.”

To complicate matters, Cooke officials, in their own first report to the state’s department of fish and wildlife, grossly under-estimated the number of fish involved, claiming only 4,000 fish had escaped. And then they added—unintentionally rubbing sea salt in the wound of already fretful fishers and angry environmentalists—that the incident represented “primarily a business loss” for Cooke. To make bad worse, no one notified local native tribes, which depend on western salmon and other wild species for their shelangen (way of life) about the spill for several days.

The Lummi Nation, fearful the invasive Atlantic salmon could wreak havoc on its wild Pacific cousins, promptly declared a state of emergency. The Wild Fish Conservancy, a lobby group, sued Cooke for violating the federal Clean Water Act. And the state began its own investigation into what really happened.

At one level, the controversy focused on the specifics of this spill, but the issue was much broader—and bigger—than that. It was about the legitimacy of the entire aquaculture industry.

Aquaculture, which the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization rather ostentatiously describes as “the farming of aquatic organisms in both coastal and inland areas involving interventions in the rearing process to enhance production,” has been around since at least the Middle Ages. But the unprecedented explosion of its commercial popularity beginning in Norway and Scotland in the early 1970s has been driven largely by a combination of economic necessity and technological possibility.

First necessity. Footloose fish factory trawlers were already scouring the world’s oceans, gobbling up fish far faster than nature could replace them. At the same time, an ever-growing global human population needed a sustainable, long-term source of protein to feed itself. Add in possibility. Scientists became increasingly sophisticated in figuring out how to grow more fish, more quickly, more safely in captivity while technologists developed new and ever more innovative ways to keep those fish contained inside netting but also in the ocean while they matured.

In the last 30 years, the aquaculture industry has become increasingly significant, not only as a way to create a dependable supply of protein (since 2013, more of the world’s total supply of fish has been farmed than has been caught) but also as a key regional economic development tool for rural and poor areas of the world.

But aquaculture is controversial too, and for all sorts of reasons. Fish farmers compete for space and resources, not only with other fishers but also with tourists and recreational users, as well as with migrating wild fish. Since much of the food—fish oil, fishmeal—that farmed fish consume comes from wild fish, that puts even more pressure on wild stock. That raises questions in some people’s minds about whether farmed fish tastes different—or as good—as fish grown the old-fashioned way.

Growing fish in a confined space within a larger ocean of wild fish also creates the possibility that diseases and parasites will spread more easily while fish wastes, chemicals and antibiotics can foul the waters around the farms. If the farmed fish and the native fish find ways to interbreed, the native gene pool may be compromised with unpredictable outcomes. And then there are the political issues of native fishing rights and who should control the resource. Worst, of course, is the what-if factor. What if?…
For much of its history, Cooke has managed to navigate all those shoals and currents, in part by relying on, and attempting to develop and incorporate the best fish farming science into its production—in 2009, Cooke became the “first North American aquaculture company to be eco-certified by a recognized third-party organization”—and, in part, by being good corporate citizens, not only in the communities in which it operates but also beyond.

In 2010, for example, after torrential rains flooded southwest New Brunswick, Cooke staff quickly stepped forward with labour, food and emergency aid.

Eight years later, the company provided firewood to residents in the province’s Acadian peninsula who were still struggling without electricity weeks after a devastating ice storm. In 2016, Cooke raised $11,000 toward the Fort McMurray fire relief effort. In Chile, the company sponsors schools. And then there are other broader causes the company supports financially too: protecting orphans in Moldova from abuse and assisting men in Estonia suffering with addictions.

“If God blesses us…” It is probably no surprise the Red Cross named Glenn Cooke its Humanitarian of the Year for 2017.

None of that, however, made much difference in the summer and fall of 2017 when what-if became what-now in Washington State.

Even though Cooke had only bought the fish farms the year before and even though it had already applied for state permits “to strengthen and update” its Cypress farm site, the company’s PR blunders immediately after the spill gave critics all the ammunition they needed.

In January 2018, a state investigation report pinned the blame for the spill on Cooke’s negligence as well as its failure to be forthcoming with regulatory agencies. “The collapse was not the result of natural causes,” declared Hilary Franz, state commissioner of public lands. “Cooke’s disregard caused this disaster and recklessly put our state’s aquatic ecosystem at risk.”

Cooke disputed the report’s conclusions and claimed it had been shut out of participation in the investigation. Glenn Cooke himself flew out to Seattle to lobby lawmakers—“This was a terrible accident and we feel horrendous about it…”—but the state legislature in March 2018 overwhelmingly passed legislation banning all Atlantic salmon farming in the state.

The ban, which takes full effect when current leases expire in 2025 (and which Cooke is still hoping to overturn), will not only cost the company millions of dollars but it could also have spill-on effects. The state senator who sponsored the bill, for example, has encouraged neighbouring British Columbia, which has 10 times as many salmon farms as Washington, to follow his state’s lead. And the highly publicized incident has only increased environmental pressures on Canadian federal and provincial governments to tighten the rules around aquaculture.

All of which frustrates Glenn Cooke. “Cooke Aquaculture has been around for 35 years. The first salmon farm in New Brunswick started 40 years ago. In Scotland, they’ve been doing this for 50 years. How long do we need to be established as an industry to be considered legitimate? The sky hasn’t fallen. The environmental damage hasn’t occurred.”

He also suggests what’s happened in Washington State might be the result of a cultural disconnect. Seattle, the state capital, he notes, is home to modern American technology giants like Microsoft, Amazon and Google. “It’s a high-tech area. Our jobs are not important to the government there. But our employees are very important to us.”

So too are their communities. And the rural communities in Atlantic Canada where it all began. “We can’t just become tourist towns,” he says, his passion obvious, “or retirement homes for the rich.”

As he put the larger dilemma in a convocation address at the University of New Brunswick after he was awarded an honorary degree in 2011 to make up for the regular one he had skipped back in the 1980s: “We need to create wealth from our natural resources. But we also need to protect these resources so that our children and communities will be able to enjoy them for generations to come. Our natural resources need to be sustainable, but it’s also very important that our communities are sustainable. We need to make sure their way of life is maintained and enhanced.”

Despite occasional setbacks like the one in Washington State, Glenn Cooke has made his own maintain-and- enhance dream reality, and the company he created is now big enough and diversified enough to continue to survive and thrive into the future.

As for Cooke himself? He’s still only in his mid-fifties, he’s quick to point out. While his nephews work in the business and he says he is keen for his own young son and daughter to have “the choice and the chance” to be part of the company when they get older, he isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. “Hopefully,” he tells me, “I have a lot more in my tank.”

Glenn Cooke still has a plan, a dream, a vision.

1 Comment to “Perseverance and a social conscience”

  1. Avatar Kim Hunter // March 19, 2019 at 7:05 pm // Reply

    Glenn Cooke is a visionary and New Brunswick is fortunate his global headquarters are located here. We need more Glenn Cookes!

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