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What's the secret to the Groundfish Forum?

After 25 years, the event is still as well-attended and respected as it ever was. IntraFish spoke with some of the top executives in the field to find out why.

Shows, shows -- so many shows.

The seafood industry, given its diversity in geography and scope, may be one of the best-served sectors in the world when it comes to trade events.

With so many events to attend, it’s sometimes a wonder anybody gets any work done. It’s easy for fatigue to set in, and increasingly, events are lacking as many “recognizable” faces as they once did.

Certainly Brussels and Boston are a "must go" for the industry, but only a select few other events are seen as truly critical, and for the whitefish sector, the Groundfish Forum is right at the top -- if you’re invited to the exclusive gathering, that is.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Groundfish Forum, and we spoke to executives across the spectrum to hear what it has meant to their companies and careers to be involved with the event.

We were struck by the number of people willing to share their thoughts, and -- in keeping with the aura of exclusivity surrounding the event -- we were also not surprised by the number of people who expressed concern about going on the record about the forum, perhaps for fear of losing their coveted place.

But before we hear some of those thoughts, let's go back to the late 1980s. At that time, executives selling, processing and buying wild groundfish species would, like so many in the industry, attend the few seafood conferences there were at the time.

And while they'd walk away with some information, a few executives began to realize their sector was far more global and specialized than others -- and needed much more focus, according to former Icelandic Freezing Plants CEO Fridrik Palsson, one of the forum’s founders.

"After one conference, a few of us [Palsson was joined by Danish executive Peder Hyldtoft and Unilever executive Johann Lindenberg] sat down to talk in the hotel lobby and felt we were spending too much time on things that were not core focal points -- time that was precious to us and could be spent doing other things," Palsson told IntraFish. "We met a few weeks later and decided to give it a go.”

The goal: make the event as focused as possible, and -- in what most attendees agree is perhaps the most critical element of success -- by invitation only.

“So people that came would feel they had a slot, and they would either fill it or lose it,” Palsson said.

It’s hard to remember what information flow was like at the time. No Internet to speak of, no widespread cellphone use.

Processors and harvesters might know the names of some of their competitors around the world, and some of the potential markets for their products. But exactly how a hake and a hoki and an Alaska pollock interplayed with, say, a cod or a haddock on global markets was anybody's guess.

"We needed a way to monitor the supply in the best possible way of every species that could be called groundfish, and to map the market -- to see where the production was initiating from and where the product was going," Palsson said.

It was not a tough sell -- clearly Palsson and his colleagues had struck a nerve.

"Honestly, almost every company we approached took this very seriously when they saw how important this organization could become,” he said. “It was almost immediate."

Buyers -- notoriously shy about public appearances given their organizational restrictions on communication -- took a little more coaxing, but ultimately relented.

Assembling the information wasn't easy. Remember, this was well before computers or web access were available in every home or office. Any industry news was delivered by mail, and accurate data on catch and markets was spotty at best.

One photo from the time, one forum attendee noted, shows harvest figures being presented on an overhead projector.

“When we had a slide carousel we thought we were really on top of things,” American Seafoods Vice President of Corporate Relations Ron Rogness, a longtime participant at the Groundfish Forum, told IntraFish.

“We were at such a disadvantage,” Rogness added. “We had no way to monitor what was happening on the markets. There was no reliable data.”

So when the idea of a “disposition model” was proposed -- giving the estimated global production of groundfish for both recent years and the one ahead, it seemed laughably ambitious.

“We gave ourselves some leeway and said, ‘Let’s think of this as a matrix,’” Rogness said. “’There’s going to be a lot of blank spaces, but we’ll get there.’ It took 10 or 15 years to really get on top of it, but we achieved our ultimate objective.”

Peter Spohr, an executive from Frozen Fish International (FFI), then owned by Unilever, was the first to volunteer to assemble and present the information.

Another FFI executive, Volker Kuntzsch, now Sanford CEO, took over the task a few years later, along with Endeavor Seafood's Todd Clark, at the time a sourcing executive for US restaurant chain Long John Silver’s.

The results opens a lot of eyes.

“When I saw the first global supply overview that gave quotas and catches for all of the key groundfish species it was metaphorically like the fog lifting on the seacoast,” High Liner Foods Chairman Henry Demone told IntraFish.

Demone wasn’t the only one. From revelations about the extent of the Alaska pollock resource to the growing Chinese market to the impact of eco-labeling on supply, new information was constantly coming to light through the gathering.

The decision for the forum to track farmed species such as salmon, tilapia and pangasius was another turning point in the seafood industry’s understanding of how global supplies affected one another.

"It surprised a lot of people when we introduced the farmed species into the forum presentations,” Palsson said.

“They did not know how important they were about to become, so in general the whole picture became more and more interesting and informative."

Rogness said one of the keys to the event's success has been staying true to the vision of Palsson and the other "founding fathers.

"They had the idea to keep it small, keep it short -- two half-day meetings to allow for private meetings by attendees -- and limit the focus to building relationships and exchanging information," said Rogness, who first joined the executive committee of the forum in 1997.

"There have been suggestions to expand the scope of the forum, and while that has been at times very tempting, I think the forum has been well served by keeping the original focus."

But even within the targeted scope, a broad set of issues have been discussed over the years, attendees noted.

While environmental groups are credited with starting the sustainable seafood movement -- in fact the roots of market-driven sustainability in the whitefish sector coalesced within the halls of the forum, some of the executives said, where buyers and suppliers first began discussing supply concerns.

"If it hadn’t been for the forum, it would have taken much longer to create an understanding for the need to turn around supply trends of some of the most important species, and arresting this downward trend would not have happened by now," Kuntzsch told IntraFish.

"The term ‘sustainability’ was foreign to most participants in the late '90s, but the uptake was overwhelming once it was clear that we were facing a global challenge."

Keeping it elite

Perhaps one of the most unique features of the event, is the exclusivity that comes along with the invitation-only aspect. Though Palsson said he couldn’t recall any particular drama around anybody being excluded, there’s no question that over the years the conference has left a handful of “outsiders” bitter they weren't quite important enough to be invited.

"There is no easy way to do it, not everyone could attend,” Palsson said.

The decision-making process wasn’t a checklist, but more a broad understanding of who could truly contribute. An invitation to Groundfish comes with expectations, Palsson noted: you’re going to bring something to the event.

"It's difficult to explain exactly,” Palsson said of the selection process. “But if you have an organization that operates on that principle, it changes things. In most conferences, they want as many participants as possible because it's financially better for them. As a non-profit, the aim is not to get as many as possible to fill the hotels -- absolutely not. It's to get the best ideas and opinions."

Looking back, Palsson -- who is completely out of the seafood business -- said he can see the importance the Groundfish Forum and what bringing the truly elite global executives accomplished.

The forum has grown, with more than 200 executives typically in attendance, whether it’s held in Auckland, Lisbon, Rome or Cape Town. People make the effort to attend.

"I think on the whole, it has made the fish business worldwide better, both catch-wise and distribution-wise,” Palsson said. “Not only do people respect each other better, they respect what they have."

As with any conference, organization is key. That's likely why time and time again – in fact, it was mentioned by almost all of the executives we contacted -- Alda Möller, the long-time organizer of the forum, was named as a crucial part of the event's success. She's here in Hamburg -- the same city the conference was first held -- as the 25th annual Groundfish Forum kicks off on Tuesday.


Groundfish Forum: The insiders' view

We asked executives from around the sector what the conference means to them, below are some of the responses.

Henry Demone, chairman of High Liner Foods
There are two thoughts that come to mind. One is a moment and the second is the long-term impact of the forum on my career and High Liner.

The moment is when I first saw the first global supply presentation. It's hard in 2016 when we live in a world that is so inundated with data to imagine how big the world was 25 years ago and the lack of data relative to today. So when I saw the first global supply overview that gave quotas and catches for all of the key groundfish species it was metaphorically like the fog lifting on the seacoast. You are the same person in the same place and now all of a sudden you can see so much farther.

The second is more long-term in nature. The Groundfish Forum, from its beginnings, has been a meeting place for key executives in the global industry. This remains a key feature of the Forum at its 25th anniversary. The relationships that I made at the forum have had a significant positive impact on my career. The ability to pick up the phone and speak with key players with mutual trust is intangible, but extremely valuable.


Volker Kuntzsch, CEO of Sanford

kuntzsch Volker Kuntzsch, Sanford CEO.
The forum provides an excellent opportunity for industry leaders to get together and, through transparency, improve their understanding of the supply and demand volatilities of groundfish globally.

The industry captures you and that is manifested by the many faces that have been coming for a long time. The forum is a foundation for great relationships and has certainly helped a number of customers find reliable suppliers. It has helped me personally to build a network that I hold in high regard and always look forward to coming back together with in October of each year.


Judson Reis, CEO of Gorton’s

My first Groundfish Forum was in Reykjavik in 2009. The world was going through horrible economic turmoil, Iceland in particular. Some key groundfish stocks were shrinking as conservation efforts were taking place and so there was every reason to be dour and pessimistic as an industry.

At that forum I truly appreciated for the first time how resilient the seafood industry is and was greatly impressed with how everyone kept a positive attitude in the face of adversity. I continue to see progress in transparency and better business practices as an industry, but there is still much progress to be made – the groundfish forum is a good venue to gauge that progress year after year.


Klaus Nielsen, CEO at Espersen

It is difficult to mention one specific event since there have been so many important things taking place at or around the Groundfish Forum.

For me personally, it was when I became the chairman of GFF in 2010 -- I was and still am very proud that I was trusted with this position and I have done the utmost to follow in the footsteps of my predecessors. It has only been possible with the help of my colleagues on the Executive Committee and the management of the forum, Alda Möller.


Peter Hajipieris, director for corporate social responsibility at Nomad Foods Europe
For my company, the biggest moment was the challenge of mobilizing around a common 'Fish Industry Claim.' We all now accept that responsibly managed fisheries can provide a high quality, nutritious and more sustainable meal option than meat-derived protein -- but struggle with landing the message as a collective industry at consumer level.

Personally, there has been frustration of so much industry talent and influence willing to meet and discuss the needs of our businesses and industry but being too cautious to sign up to GFF Accords and Claims we can all deploy back in our businesses and marketplace.


Jens Peter Klausen, CEO at J.P. Klausen & CO. A/S

For me the Groundfish Forum 'Ah-ha' moment is not a single event, but has come over time.

The forum has enabled us in the seafood business to have a frame for our business and has delivered this frame with consistency and focus on challenges and opportunities. The Groundfish Forum delivers a feeling of being together in the seafood business and having a mission of more than the daily focus of creating a profit -- this is an achievement and well done, enough to give a prolonged 'Ah-ha!' feeling.


Janet Duckham, vice president of purchasing & quality assurance at Captain D’s

Groundfish is a professional business meeting with our industry leaders from the world from all facets -- scientists, harvesters, processors, compliance, customers, etc. What other forum has this diversity in a serious and engaging environment?

I continue to learn from our forum and have made some of the most amazing contacts and friends from around the world. The forum has kept its relevance and importance as we have stayed true to the fundamental foundation of insuring the program is well thought out and the right people are involved.

The seafood industry is the most dynamic industry and Groundfish continues to showcase this.


Wynne Griffiths, former CEO of Young’s Seafood

To me, the key moments included being invited to join the board, having the opportunity to meet industry leaders from all sectors and countries in a private and confidential environment, and the opportunity to grow from buyer-supplier relationships to supply chain partnerships around the world.

I appreciated the opportunity for my company to launch its advocacy of the Marine Stewardship Council as well.

Other highlights were the ever-improving data produced by Todd Clark and Volker Kuntzsch and the appointment of Henry Demone as chairman, which made the forum a more professional and balanced international organization.

In addition, the critical role Alda Möller played in 'herding the cats' and delivering successful meetings around the world.

Most importantly, they were great fun and I made some lifetime friends.


Todd Clark, owner of Endeavor Seafood

The most pivotal moment for me in the forum was the day I met Alda and Volker. We have had such an amazing journey together and have learned so much about the industry and various fishery resources. They are both fantastic and we have become lifelong friends.  


Thomas Farstad, CEO of Norway Seafoods  Photo: (Foto: Marine Harvest/Baard Ek)
As important as the speeches is the opportunity to build and maintain your network. A great moment was Cape Town last year where I befriended a couple of people before breakfast through a long run to the hill above the hotel. The guide from the hotel returned half way but we carried on, and decided to return by a short cut, which turned out to be an area of the city which was unsafe. It could have cost us dearly, but nothing happened and we had lots of energy for the program after breakfast! For the record -- the other guys politely kept their pace down so I did not have to run to the top alone.

One of the most interesting speakers at the forum has been, in my opinion, Dr. Ray Hilborn. Once he gave a speech on the sustainability of fish stocks globally, showing that a significant share are in good condition – in contrast to what most people believe.


Jerry Chang, owner of Chang International

For me, Groundfish is about maintaining great friendships and business relations as well as building more networks within this elite community since 2001. I always think more Chinese should involve themselves in this community as China is the largest producer from both wild fisheries and aquaculture as well as the largest marketplace.


Knut Vartdal, chairman board of directors at Ramoen AS

I have participated in 24 of the 25 Groundfish Forums. Over the years I have been to many fisheries conferences and seminars -- Groundfish is the best. The reason for this is first and foremost that the program is good and relevant and you meet interesting people. As regards the good program this is thanks to the Secretariat and the Executive Committee.

Fridrik Palsson, then CEO of Icelandic Freezing Plants, and some other Icelanders were clever when they proposed that the secretariat should be located in Reykjavik, at the PR firm KOM, owned and managed by Jon Hakon Magnusson.

Alda Möller has been involved from day one has been very important for the whole arrangement, not only the program, and she has a big share of the forum's success.

I cannot point out one pivotal moment that was most important to me, but I have over the years  made a lot of contacts during the forum, and this has often resulted in sales of our products, but also information regarding fishing, vessels etc. But most important is information regarding the outlook for supply and demand and the trends.

The first years the forum concentrated on wild fish, but we have seen that farmed fish like tilapia and pangasius have gradually taken a bigger share of the whitefish market. The same is the case for salmon, so it is no doubt that also farmed fish are an important part of the supply presentations.

Fisheries management has the last decade improved worldwide and for many species this has resulted in increased quotas, but there is still fishing areas where there is room for improvement.


Helgi Anton Eiríksson, CEO ​at Iceland Seafood International

061212_0192.jpg Iceland Seafood International CEO Helgi Anton Eriksson shares info with COO Lee Camfield.
I've been involved in GFF right from the beginning. It actually originated in Iceland in 1991 and I've attended a lot of forums over the years. It is fantastic that the whole industry comes together once a year and speaks without any commercial interests in mind. It brings us closer together and helps us to understand the challenges and opportunities of the groundfish industry. We learn from each other at these meetings.

It's also great that for the past 10 years farmed finfish species have been added into the forum. I have very many fond memories of the forum: it has taken me to places such as New Zealand and South Africa. It's a great event and it has developed a lot over the years. The topics have changed a lot from the early days, it's not only about the stock situation anymore but goes beyond that to include markets, environmental impact and so on.