In Hobart’s tourist hub, Salamanca, sits a shop devoted to all things fishy: whacking great whole salmon, fillets – raw, smoked and unsmoked – and all manner of associated products, even fish-shaped (but thankfully not flavoured) biscuits.
This retail outlet, run by the country’s largest salmon producer, Tassal, and its sister store in Melbourne represent the beating heart of the company’s current strategy, which is all about promoting the eating of seafood.
“As a nation we are surrounded by water, but not a lot of people eat seafood,” muses Tassal’s chief executive Mark Ryan FAIM, who has wandered down from the nearby Tassal headquarters to have his photograph taken for this article.
When companies get in trouble, it’s hardly ever the product, service or business that’s at fault. Nine times out of 10, it’s the management team.
Ryan seems the antithesis of the CEO for whom everything and everyone stops. He cuts a wiry, whippet-like figure as he unassumingly slips into the shop. There’s no feeling that the big boss is in the building as staff continue to serve a steady stream of tourists and regulars, in between chatting to Ryan about sales, customer feedback, families and the footy.
Ryan and his team realised that if they wanted more people to eat more salmon, they needed a retail platform to educate them about fish. Tassal and other salmon brands are stocked in supermarkets where, apparently, seafood is not as popular as it should be because not many of us know how to cook it.
The De Costi takeover
Whetting public appetite for fish isn’t just about presenting a picture-perfect shop window. The product has to be available through a network of suppliers including wholesalers, supermarkets and fishmongers. Indeed Tassal’s 2015 acquisition of Sydney-based De Costi Seafoods is its bid to grab the long tail of the supply chain.
Seafood’s freshness is very important for customers and De Costi is perfect for servicing potential consumers up and down the Eastern seaboard. “With most seafood, the shelf life doesn’t really start ticking until the head is removed during processing ,” says Ryan.
He admits it has been an interesting process integrating a family-owned business, such as De Costi, into a public company. “As with many family businesses there’s a lot of information that’s kept pretty proprietary to the owners. Whereas as a public company, we are very transparent in the way we report, from sustainability through to financials and the strategy.”
To stop information and ideas being trapped in silos, Ryan invested a lot in operational and safety training, with a big emphasis on explaining the “whys”.
“We’ve given people knowledge and that’s allowed them to think about greater savings or efficiencies right across the company, rather than just in their own parts of the business, because they are getting information so they can make real-time decisions.”
From business recovery to Tassal CEO
Ryan’s man-of-the-people persona is no act. Back at HQ he appears to have the smallest office in the building and he’s keen to point out that he originates “from beyond the flannelette curtain”, as he gestures northwards to Hobart’s less well-off suburbs.
Though he might enjoy a bit of recreational fishing with his daughter, he didn’t grow up immersed in the business of seafood. His parents couldn’t afford to help him with university, so at 18 he started studying part-time and working full-time for a local accountancy firm, immersing himself in the insolvency and recovery side of the practice. It was a burgeoning business in Tasmania in the late 1980s and early ’90s.
“From a very young age, I had to learn how to run businesses,” says Ryan, recounting how, early in his career, one particular owner took umbrage to his appearance on the premises. “I was taking the business away from him and he said: ‘There are two things you can’t take, one is my wife’. I said, ‘OK…’ Then he said, ‘And the second is my gun.’ I got out of there. I didn’t get paid enough for action like that.”
However, the recovery business must have agreed with him. He subsequently joined PricewaterhouseCoopers, moving to the mainland with the firm. He then shifted to the boutique practice KordaMentha, which was appointed in 2002 as receiver to a then-troubled Tassal.
Salmon farming, with its long breeding and hatching cycle, comes with high operational costs. When Ryan came on board as manager at Tassal, the state’s fish farmers were operating in a fragmented market. He ran the usual receiver’s eagle eye over the costs and, unusually, decided to spend some money, acquiring number-three player Nortas in an effort to gain market share.
It was a move that paid off. The restructured Tassal business had many interested suitors and was eventually sold for $43.3 million in 2003. The company listed on the ASX that same year.
Ryan’s decision to leave KordaMentha and take over running Tassal permanently was a relatively easy one – because it came from the heart. “I think a lot of managers talk about turning around a business, which is pretty much just putting on a little bit of make-up and then going, whereas I believe in Tassie. I’m a pretty passionate Tasmanian. I was comfortable that we are sustainable and we are promoting the state and are able to drive value.”
Being in the receiver’s corner hasn’t made Ryan risk-averse, but he is sensitive to the issues that land many companies in trouble in the first place. “I’ve been able, in a perverse way I suppose, to learn what not to do. When companies get in trouble, it’s hardly ever the product, service or business that’s at fault. Nine times out of 10, it’s the management team that has led the company to that particular juncture.” He adds that leaders often forget the basics such as “cash is king, always is, always will be”.
“We still do daily cash floats. I’d say most companies do that, but I’m not sure if the leaders are always across this in the business.”
Mark Ryan pictured at The Salmon Shop, Tassal’s retail outlet in Hobart.
With 16 locations and some 1200 people working mainly in rural areas around the state, Ryan says running an effective operation is about empowering people to do their jobs. “We have a leadership team which has a real can-do attitude,” he says, “which is interesting given we have a seven-year breeding cycle, five-year capital cycle and three-year working capital cycles.
“Our forum of open communication has been the hallmark of our success. I expect to be kept informed, so if there are issues we can deal with them early on.” However, he doesn’t want to be presented just with the problems, but the solutions as well.
“We try to take everything back to a number. So when people have an issue then automatically they’ve got to come with the dollar impact of the issue and suggestions of what we might do to mitigate it,” he says.
SUSTAINABILITY OF SALMON FARMING
“People don’t realise that doing nothing is actually still making a decision to do nothing. I’d rather it be a proactive decision for the business, than a negative or a neutral one. It’s good to keep pushing boundaries and to get people thinking actively, so that when there’s actually an emergency we can react well.”
Many people in the community have strong feelings about salmon farming and Ryan has to balance the views of environmentalists with investor needs.
“We’ve realised that people will have differing opinions, but we’ve found that being transparent in what we are doing and complying with our rules and regulation is effective.”
“Everything you do in life will have an impact on the environment, so with every venture we ask, ‘Is this going to be sustainable, or not?’”
In 2012, Tassal partnered with conservation organisation WWF Australia, and two years later it became the first salmon company in the world to achieve full Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) certification across its entire operations.
For Ryan, the onerous work that goes into getting these seals of approval isn’t simply green window dressing, it’s inherent in the ethos of the business. “Everything you do in life will have an impact on the environment, so with every venture we ask, ‘Is this going to be sustainable, or not?’”
MARK RYAN: 3 QUESTIONS
Who do you admire in business?
I’ve always had a mentor that I’ve worked with and for me it’s still Mark Mentha [from restructuring firm KordaMentha]. We had a really good working relationship and we still keep in contact. He’s shown that you can be a really good person and still do very, very well out of being a businessman.
Describe your typical day…
I get up around about 5am, do an hour’s exercise, check emails and then play with my daughter. I get into the office around 7.30am and then it’s right into the day. I always make sure I’m home to have dinner with my daughter, and after we have put her to bed I just chill out.
What do you do to relax?
I love hanging out with my eight-year-old daughter. We do a fair bit together, swimming and fishing. I also do a lot of exercise. I used to be a footballer, then I stopped, worked, still had the same eating habits and blew out to about 125 kilos. It always takes one thing to change you and for me it was when we bought my daughter a trampoline that had a 100kg weight limit. I thought it was a lame excuse to be too fat to hop on a trampoline. So I just put my head down, cycled for two hours a day and lost 40kg. And with portion control, I’ve managed to keep the weight off ever since.