“Most of you don’t know me. I work on line two. I have AIDS. I was going to resign but I have decided to stay and help Volker change this company.”
With those shyly spoken words in the board room of Namibian wet fish producer, Hangana Seafoods, a 32-old-old local fish filleter helped spark a cultural revolution that would improve the lives of her 1200 fellow employees and ultimately save the company. Two days earlier, the recently appointed CEO Volker Kuntzsch had asked her to come forward.
“This young lady came in and told me she wanted to resign and work with people and help them cope with this disease – she said she’d rather work with live people than dead fish,” he said.
“HIV is widespread in Namibia with about 30% of the country infected. “But no one talked about it. It was a taboo topic. Everyone was aware it was a major issue but people were afraid to get tested because they were afraid they’d lose their job – and that was the one thing I wanted to change.
“When detected early, people stood a good chance of living much longer. “I wanted to support our team, but we needed people to come to the fore. I could see that if this young lady came forward, and everyone could see that she was respected and looked after and her job was safe that it would encourage others to do the same, so I asked her to go public.
“She came back two days later to address the management team and we gave her an office so she could council others.”
And with that, the turn around began.
Volker joined Hangana in 2005 at a time when the company was making heavy losses and the previous management had been chased off the site by an angry mob.
“The culture prior to this was really bad,” he said.
“Interaction between management and staff was really bad.
“There were times on a Wednesday that I didn’t know how we’d pay the wages on the Friday.
“But this was the challenge I signed up for. I wanted to come back and make a positive contribution and add value to my home country.
“Apartheid was still fresh, and to come in as a young white European claiming to change the world wasn’t the best platform for creating love and trust.”
While supporting the young lady to help others, Volker also supported her in her own health battle.
“She was hospitalised in a public hospital and when I saw the conditions I thought she would never leave. They were going to amputate her legs because of gangrene in her toes,” Volker said.
“We moved her to a private hospital where they were able to save her legs and with some speciality shoes she was able to walk and work again.
“I visited her in hospital. I met her family. And from this, staff got the impression that I was a person that really cares and that we were able to work together.”
The resulting culture of trust that developed, became the platform for business success.
“When I arrived, the company was in a bad state. But in the end we turned it around – by working with people in the right way and creating trust,” he said.
“We built a great platform, created something that everyone could buy into and it became a game changer – and in the end it was the whole team that turned it around.
“We changed the company from a commodity producer to an added value supplier of seafood, tailored to the needs of a global customer base. Subsequently that customer base grew.
“By the time I left three years later, the company was sustainably profitable and today the strategy that we laid still delivers them positive returns.”
Where the previous management’s tenure finished by fleeing out the back door, Volker’s ended with a celebration and while he’s proud to see Hangana continuing to flourish, his legacy is best represented in the company’s mission statement: Creating a future. Enhancing life. For Volker, it was the realisation of a dream to return and make a positive contribution to his home nation.
Born to German parents, he spent his first 18 years in Namibia before moving to South Africa to complete a masters in zoology and starting work in the seafood industry. His first year was spent dissecting thousands of hake to establish a link between their reproductive state and flesh quality.
“It improved the quality of landed fish dramatically and improved the bottom line immediately,” Volker said.
“It gave me an appreciation of being able to link science to a great business outcome and a realisation that you can achieve so much more if you look at business in a holistic manner.”
Later, it led to an appreciation of the need for sustainability.
“It’s so important to ensure this basis of our business will remain intact for future generations and the challenge for us is to make use of it in the most valuable manner instead of a volume driven manner.”
Volker remained in South Africa for 10 years before a personal tragedy saw him reconsider his career trajectory.
“My wife and daughter died in a car accident. In the aftermath, I came to the realisation that I wanted to make a difference, and add value and that’s stayed with me ever since.”
He left South Africa and headed for his parents’ homeland which led to 12 years of working with Unilever across Europe. As Unilever’s buyer responsible for fish procurement across the continent, Volker was tasked with sourcing certified sustainable seafood and was instrumental in working with the WWF to establish the Marine Stewardship Council. An initiative that would introduce him to his future home.
“It was apparent that if current practices continued, that within 10 years there wouldn’t be enough fish to supply our markets so we decided to embark on something dramatic,” Volker said.
“We weren’t buying hoki at the time, but we realised it was one of the most sustainable fisheries in the world. We decided to come and talk to the New Zealand fishing industry and get the ball rolling and after a few trips, hoki became the first species certified under the MSC, which today covers more than 200 fisheries worldwide.
“It was a major milestone of my life and it laid the platform for my future decision to move here.”
While in Europe, Volker married and had daughters Carina, 19, and Isabel, 18, and jumped at the chance to bring them back to his spiritual home when offered the role at Hangana. But after orchestrating the remarkable turnaround, it wasn’t long before the world’s second largest seafood company came knocking and Volker became the only nonJapanese person working at the most senior levels of Nissui. First as Global Marketing Director, then as President of their billion-dollar US operation Nissui USA and as President & CEO of one of its subsidiaries, King and Prince Seafood, where he was again tasked with affecting another turn around.
“When I arrived, the GFC had hit. They’d been losing a lot of money, and the company was focused on the food service industry so everything was against us ,” Volker said.
“We were sitting in the middle of suppliers of raw material and relying on the food service industry to take the products.
“In the end the strategy came down to what value can we add for our customers. And what really made it work was having the right team. Once again the realisation of having the right people.”
The belief that people are the most important part of business and his drive to help them succeed were immediately on show after joining Sanford in 2014, when he spent the first six months travelling the country meeting the 1600 people working for the company.
“The most important part of business is getting the people right – that’s why I spend a lot of time travelling around the factories. I want to meet everyone but I also want to create the feeling that we’re all sitting in the same boat,” Volker said.
“I haven’t met everyone yet as quite a few are at sea, but I’ve been through all the factories and will continue to do that, sharing my passion and my enthusiasm for this industry. “I came here because I feel we are one of the best companies in the world.”
He could also recognise the potential for growth.
“New Zealand has amazing diversity in its fish stocks. We have over 100 different species that we fish commercially and there’s not another country that can pride itself on that and that’s why it’s so important to move away from commodity – to really reflect the value we have in this ocean,” Volker said.
“We have the 4th largest Exclusive Economic Zone. And the reality is that we’re among the top 2-3 nations in terms of managing our fisheries sustainably and we can serve as an example. “Aquaculture also offers a tremendous opportunity for New Zealand. Its environmental impact is almost negligible. Our coastlines have far more potential to grow premium species than most other nations around the world and we should utilise those conditions.
“It’s just such an efficient form of protein farming. If you look at the fact that an area as small as Eden Park used for salmon farming can produce 4000 tonnes of quality protein annually is just unheard of in land-based farming.
“Salmon is by far the most productive farming option and we should be looking at more opportunities in that space. The fact we harvest just under 0.5% of the world supply speaks to the fact we should concentrate on creating value and focus on niche and not be embarrassed that we produce smaller volumes of highly specialised products – but consider how we can be more innovative with them.
“When it comes to mussels, we need to look at using them in different ways to half shell. We’re extracting oils, which we understand are more superior to fish oils, and considering how best to make use of them as super foods, how best to use powders and how best to create a balanced spread around the world.”
The other people Volker is working to get closer to and better understand is the customer and ultimately the consumer. “Branding is such an important aspect and for me it is a combination of a company building a brand but also utilising the New Zealand provenance,” he said.
“Many Kiwis are sceptical, but compared to the rest of the world we are definitely still pristine and clean and green and we should utilise this.
“What is really adding value is understanding what consumers want. It’s not going and giving them something that is easy to produce, but learning, and delivering that in the most cost effective way.
“We need to ensure we manufacture products that are in line with future expectations and look closer at what people will be consuming in 10-15 years’ time.
“Our products are so healthy we should definitely take a closer look at that aspect, but we also need to make sure we don’t sell our products to a third party without understanding the consumer and the value that is created further down the supply chain.
“We need to find ways of getting as close to the consumer as possible because in the end they’re the ones who determine what we should manufacture. It also creates the opportunity to build really valuable brands. In an ideal world we would deliver product right to the consumer’s doorstep, no matter where they are, with a great brand based on a great story and the story we have in New Zealand is second to none.”
The story Volker has to tell isn’t too bad either.
“It means not always having the balance right between personal and work life. But it has led to profound experiences.”