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IntraFish Media names 2017 Person of the Year

This year's executive has made an art out of revolutionizing organizations.

When you look back at what’s made the IntraFish Person of the Year, one thing stands out: change.

Few executives have as much experience at high-profile companies and high-profile initiatives as Volker Kuntzsch, and even fewer have left their organizations having changed them for the better. Not that it’s been easy.

In fact, Kuntzsch’s first year at Sanford as its new CEO was a difficult one. The group struggled across its wild fish sector, and Kuntzsch saw that within its diversity of species, the company still was playing the commodities game. So he did something unusual -- he told investors the company was doing it wrong.

“In order to combat the dependency on fluctuating commodity prices we need to move away from our previous focus on extracting raw materials -- fishing, farming -- towards manufacturing food and customizing our valuable marine resources to customer requirements,” he told shareholders at the end of 2014.

He also laid out what some would say was a foolhardy goal: become the world's best seafood company. Not the biggest, not the most profitable. The best.

Kuntzsch set about establishing a new management team to execute this vision, and in 2015, it began with a completely new brand identify focused around not just profitability, but sustainability, worker satisfaction and adding value to what most in the company agreed was one of the world’s best resources. The new hires alone would add millions in additional costs, but Kuntzsch assured the board that the strategy would pay off.

“The board has put a lot of trust in me, and in our executive team,” Kuntzsch said. “To believe that were are embarking on the right path here.”

By the end of the year, the company reported strong cash flow, which allowed it to draw down its debt and position itself for a successful and ambitious 2016.

Last year, the historically fishing-focused group launched an aggressive push into the downstream segment, beginning at the top. A new position, chief customer officer, was created, and senior managers took on new roles focused on marketing, innovation and consumers, as well as sustainability and domestic sales. Again, the change required a financial investment, but Kuntzsch was able to quickly show that it paid off.

The company’s "Focus on Fresh" was one of the key initiatives, aimed at adding value to Sanford’s resources by moving product into chilled formats customers were willing to pay more for. Last year, the group sold around 9 percent of its wild fish as fresh -- a 50 percent rise from the previous year.

That may not sound like much, but when you’re talking about 150,000 tons of fish, every single percentage point adds some $1.5 million (€1.4 million) to the bottom line, he noted.

“Obviously this can’t continue forever, we will of course have fish that have to be frozen, whether they come from too far away or there’s too much seasonality involved,” he said. “But our endeavor is to increase that percentage as far as we can. If we could ever get to 20 percent I’d be extremely happy.”

As another part of its transformation process, Sanford developed new brands to differentiate its products, adopting concepts such as Sanford Black for its premium seafood and Tiaki for fish harvested using the precision harvesting method the group has been developing with NGOs and other partners to reduce bycatch. The latest, Big Glory Bay, which is carried on the company’s king salmon, greenshell mussels and Bluff oysters, was only recently launched.

“It’s all about provenance and making sure people understand the story,” he said. “You’re at the end of the world here -- it’s just pure, pristine nature.”

Even the commodity products that have been the beating heart of the company’s business model for decades can benefit, Kuntzsch believes. He cites New Zealand hoki as an example.

“We have been taking a product with 150,000 tons of volume and competing with species with millions of tons of production like Alaska pollock and putting it into fish fingers as whitefish,” he said. “We have to find new ways to position that fish.”

Kuntzsch recognized quickly that the pride in New Zealand and its seafood was endemic to the company, and an area that he could rally the staff around. The company adopted the “fresh” concept into its organization with efforts to inform and engage employees across the diverse group. If there’s an area Kuntzsch wants to focus on, it’s this. The group made progress, but he wants to do more to engage employees even further.

Sanford operates nearly 50 vessels, over 200 fish farms and processes at seven locations. With such a diverse set of roles among the staff, spread out over a broad geography, this is perhaps Kuntzsch’s biggest challenge, he concedes. But it also is his biggest passion.

In recounting his time at South African harvester Sea Harvest, Unilever seafood processor Frozen Fish International, and Japanese giant Nippon Suisan Kaisha (Nissui), time and again, Kuntzsch reflects on the people, and the impact transforming organizations made on him.

He recalls, for example, his 2005 move back to Namibia, his home country, to run the harvesting and processing company Hangana Seafood.

“On the first day, I learned the previous management has been chased off the grounds with machetes,” he said. “Three years later, at my farewell, it was in a big tent, with a barbecue, a choir and traditional clothing. I knew on that last day standing in that tent -- there were tears everywhere -- that most likely I would never in my life have such a human experience.”

What’s the secret?

“It all came down to making people aware they could trust me,” he said. “The common denominator was trust.”

In return, Kuntzsch received a sense of purpose beyond the bottom line.

Ultimately it was the chance to once again craft a new culture for a company that drew him to Sanford. While some fear the unknown, Kuntzsch sees opportunity, not just in the companies, but the people.

“It was almost like a blank sheet of paper -- I could build,” he said. “It was a wonderful opportunity.”

If his past success -- and his early wins at Sanford so far -- are any indication, if and when Kuntzsch's time at the company comes to an end, he is likely to leave another revitalized, re-energized and prosperous company behind.

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