Former wine executive turned Mt Cook Alpine Salmon Chief Operating Officer and AQNZ Director Janine Tulloch tells us why New Zealand farmed seafood is like a fine wine.
Q) Since moving to New Zealand from Brisbane in 1997, you’ve lived in Mt Cook, Martinborough and now in Queenstown – are you deliberately avoiding our big cities?
A) Most certainly. I actually left Brisbane in 1992 to do my OE. My (now) husband and I came back in 1994 and travelled Australia for 3 months ending up in Airlie Beach in the Whitsundays for 4 years. I do love to visit big citites but I much prefer the community spirit (and lack of traffic) in smaller regions as a place to live with my family.
Q) You’re a chartered accountant by training with no prior involvement in seafood – how did you come to work in the aquaculture industry?
A) From my CA days I got into the hospitality industry working with hotel groups in Australia and New Zealand. The move into wine came when we moved to Martinborough, just north of Wellington in the late 90’s. I’d been in the wine industry for over 12 years, most recently as GM of Martinborough Vineyard which is one of New Zealand’s iconic brands. When the opportunity with Mt Cook Alpine Salmon came up, I thought this would be an exciting step into a new industry. There are a number of similarities to the wine industry including route to market, distribution and logistics not to mention basic farming practices. Also I like that the company was focused on the ultra premium end and was supplying some of the same restaurants where before I’d supplied wine.
Q) How is New Zealand wine like New Zealand farmed seafood?
A) The story for NZ wine is all about the special combination of climate, water and soil we have in NZ, along with our innovative pioneering spirit and our commitment to quality. I believe it’s exactly the same for New Zealand seafood.
Q) How are they different?
A) The wine industry is made up of over 1000 grower and 700 winery members and while there has been consolidation of the industry over recent years, the seafood industry is much more consolidated. NZ wine has also always been brand led. It recognised early on that the only game is at the premium end and focused completely on this segment of the market. I think in the seafood industry we’re only just starting to focus on this position. The reality is to achieve acceptable margins with the infrastructure and labour costs in New Zealand we cannot compete at a commodity level. We need to differentiate brand NZ in the market.
Q) New Zealand wine has developed a desirable global reputation – what makes it so attractive to international wine drinkers and is there a similar opportunity for NZ farmed seafood?
A) In the first instance it’s a very good product. The industry has worked hard with the key influencers within the industry to share the NZ wine story and win their support. It helps that there are so many NZ expats around the world that also pushed the product early on. On this basis there is definitely a similar opportunity for NZ seafood – it’s just now about how we educate our communities.
Q) What lessons did you learn from the wine industry that you bring to aquaculture?
A) A few key things:
- Management of supply to meet demand. The wine industry has gone through tough times recently when not only was there oversupply of NZ wine but also internationally there was a wine glut. This means knowing the markets and managing production in line with your customers expectations. Building demand for your products – always.
- Margin – it’s all about cost and margin. It’s imperative to know your costs of production and focus on achieving an appropriate margin.
- Marketing and support – knowing your customer. It’s important even when working with importers and distributors to know the markets you sell in and to get involved with your customers. You need to be a selling tool for the distributor. It’s a partnership relationship.
- Sustainability – this will only continue to evolve as a business practice for us all so we have to take ownership, get on board and lead this movement.
Q) You’ve been with Mt Cook for just over three years now, while the company has undergone rapid growth – is the company on track to reach its ultimate growth targets and are these levels of production sustainable?
A) In the past four years the company has grown almost 10 fold in the number of fish held on the farm. While there are still further growth opportunities ahead of us at present we’re in a consolidation phase making sure the business all the way through is managing this growth. The reality is, even at full capacity we’ll be producing less than 3000MT of salmon so we’re always going to be a small, niche player in the market.
Q) You’ve recently been elected to the AQNZ board. What drew you to this governance role?
A) I like to get involved in the industries in which I work. In the wine industry I was a member of the executive of Wines From Martinborough, the regional marketing body. I got involved at its inception in 2004 and was Chair from 2008 to 2011. Further I was a Director of Toast Martinborough, which is indisputably the most successful wine and food event in New Zealand from 2000 to 2011 (Chair from 2007). I think an individual business’ success is always in part tied to that of their industry. Industry bodies play important parts in providing information, marketing, research and strategy. These activities need to be focused and need to be developed around the goal of building a great New Zealand aquaculture industry.
Q) What do you see as Aquaculture New Zealand’s biggest challenge over the next 12 months?
A) There is a large focus on growth as part of government and industry agendas. We need to realise how this is actually going to be achieved given the limitations that exist.
Q) How’s the future looking for New Zealand farmed salmon?
A) The global demand for protein along with increased growth in salmon as a category means the future should be a rosy one. It’s now up to the industry and the businesses in it on how to leverage opportunities for their individual growth both in volume and price. Obviously space is a huge issue for the industry.
Q) Do you think it’s important for New Zealand salmon farmers to work together?
A) Given the majority of farmed King Salmon is produced in New Zealand we have a point of differentiation from the rest of the industry that we need to exploit. To maximise this we have to do this as an industry.
Q) Mt Cook Alpine is very proactive in marketing itself as ultra-high grade salmon – how do you ensure the product lives up to the hype?
A) It’s actually all about the product and it’s quality. Hype and spin won’t compensate for a product that’s inferior for long. We have a unique situation in the canal systems where the fish have to swim constantly just to stay still, making them lean and muscular. This combined with attention to detail throughout the production chain results in a flesh that is delicate, has great texture, is creamy, minerally and low in fat.
Q)Is it really that good?
A) Oh yeah! I’ve experienced over and over people telling me that they don’t eat salmon then go onto eat a large serving of sashimi. Once you can get a buyer or customer to taste our salmon, there is no going back.