Women in Seafood

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Women in seafood: Trident's Torunn Knoph Halhjem

'Never be afraid to speak up and express your opinion, even if you are the only woman in a room filled with men. Also, simply ignore the men and women who want to give you the impression you can't make it. Proving them wrong is a true satisfaction and a confidence builder.'

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Torunn Knoph Halhjem has worked with Seattle-based Trident Seafoods since 2000. She is the senior director on the global species management team, responsible for Alaska pollock and Pacific whiting. She supervises internal production and global sales and market strategies for all raw material, and she is in direct charge of Trident Seafood’s sales subsidiaries in Europe and Brazil.

From 1994 to 1996 Knoph Halhjem worked as a quality controller on Norwegian and Russian factory trawlers in the Barents Sea and Russia Far East.

While pursuing her BA in International Business & Economics from European Business School in London, she worked as a marketing intern for American Seafoods in Seattle and Tokyo and Norway Seafoods in Oslo, conducting research on market opportunities in Europe, Russia, Japan and Asia.

She is now a member of the executive board of the Groundfish Forum and the board of Genuine Alaska Pollock Producers (GAPP) and she serves on the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute’s International (ASMI) Marketing Committee.

IntraFish: How did you begin working in the seafood industry?

Torunn Knoph Halhjem: My father, my brother and many of my uncles were all involved in the fishing industry, but none of the women in the family. I didn’t plan on starting working in the seafood industry back then, but I kind of got "hooked" by accident in a way.

I had finished my studies in Russian at High School and spent six months studying Russian at the University of St. Petersburg. I was supposed to continue studying Russian at the University in my local hometown of Tromso in northern Norway. This was a time where "Perestroika" and "Glasnost" was on everybody’s mind and there were a lot of discussions in the media about the future business opportunities between Norway and the Soviet Union.

I spoke other languages at the time (Spanish and German) and I wasn’t too keen on the idea of spending years studying Russian poetry, so I decided to take half a year off to think about it and I started working instead as a Russian translator in 1993 for the local fishing industry in Tromso. This was at a time when the fishing industry in Norway was starting to establish the first JV partnerships with Russian companies. There were not many Norwegians who spoke Russian back then, and I was at least able to help them out a little bit.

Needless to say, I never went back to the university to study Russian. I ended up instead working on Norwegian and Russian factory trawlers for nearly two years to pay for college. I went on to study International Business & Economics at European Business School in London, and while studying I also worked as a marketing intern for American Seafood Company in Seattle, Tokyo and Norway.

I met [Trident founder] Chuck Bundrant in London in 1999. I was finishing up my studies and he was in London for the Groundfish Forum. I remember he had my resume curled up in his front shirt pocket. We spent quite a bit of time talking together and I remember that I was so surprised that what he cared about the most is that I had started working at the fish counter at our local supermarket when I was 13 and that I was very competitive in sports.

My grades and international experience studying and working abroad was of minor importance to him. He also told me that I didn’t really need a "fancy university degree" in order to work in the seafood industry. Chuck told me: “All you need to do is to sell the fish for a little bit more than it costs to produce it!”

Chuck asked me to come to Seattle to meet his other partners and senior managers and the rest is history. This is my 15th year working here at Trident. We have a great mix of young and old talent here at Trident today, and I am very proud of being part of driving the future growth of this company. I can thank Chuck Bundrant for my career success today. He never, ever made me feel less important or less valuable because I’m a woman. Quite on the contrary!

IF: What attracted you about the seafood industry?

TKH: I really got attracted to this industry when I worked as a marketing intern for American Seafoods. They sent me all over the world to conduct market research and I was fascinated by the many passionate people I met who truly enjoyed their jobs. The constant challenges and the fact that it is such an international industry is what still attracts me today about this industry.

IF: What obstacles have you faced in your career a man might not have encountered?

TKH: I believe I faced more obstacles in my early years when I started working in the industry. When I decided to go fishing on Norwegian factory trawlers and later on Russian factory trawlers operating in the Barents Sea and Russia Far East (Bering Sea and Sea of Okhotsk), there were plenty of men who had an urge to tell me and even my parents that I was NOT going to make it.

I spent two years working on the boats so I guess I proved them all wrong. Working on the boats was an incredible experience that I never would have wanted to be without. Having worked on the boats and understanding production and quality first hand has been a great asset for me later in my career.  

IF: Would you encourage other women to seek a career in this industry? Why?

TKH: Absolutely! I believe few young women (and men for that matter) are aware of the exciting and positive challenges that our industry has to offer and the fact that it is such an international working environment. Having said that, all of us who work in this industry can certainly do a better job promoting and sharing why we enjoy working in the seafood industry!

IF: What advice would you give aspiring female seafood executives?

TKH: Never be afraid to speak up and express your opinion, even if you are the only woman in a room filled with men. Also, simply ignore the men and women who want to give you the impression you can’t make it. Proving them wrong is a true satisfaction and a confidence builder!

Contrary to the many obstacles you face as a woman in this industry, I have always been very fortunate meeting people who strongly believed in my talents. I will always be very grateful to these people for my career success today AND it has taught me a lesson about my responsibility to support other young talents in this industry and give them the same opportunity. Women need to not be shy and utilize the connections of these people who believe in them!

IF: What are the biggest challenges facing female seafood executives in the industry?

TKH: I grew up in Norway where they have a very strong "social law/principle" called Janteloven. It basically discourages individuality, personal success or simply standing out. If you want to be a leader in this industry, you HAVE to stand out, be aggressive and believe in yourself! I tell young women in Norway to "bury Janteloven" if they want to succeed in their careers. 

IF: How can the industry recruit more women into the sector?

TKH: I strongly believe in recruiting and developing the talents from within the company through recruitment and training programs. I’ve had the pleasure of mentoring and developing some of my own team members here at Trident with great success.

We, the companies in this industry, need to be better at opening our doors and recruiting young women. These type of training programs are very time-consuming, but it’s well worth the investment. I’m very proud of our own Joe Bundrant and his dedication and passion for bringing on board young talent here at Trident.

IF: Why are there so few women in executive roles in seafood?

TKH: I know many excellent and very strong female leaders in the seafood industry world-wide, but we certainly need more! Women don’t mind LEADING, taking responsibility and being in command, but I believe some women simply don’t want the top executive position because they worry it may interfere with their family life.

I also believe there are so few women in executive roles the seafood industry because men are often intimidated by strong, smart women and unfortunately it's mostly men in this industry who are hiring for the executive positions.

If you ask Chuck Bundrant what he attributes to his success building Trident Seafoods, his immediate respond will be PEOPLE and he’ll tell you to surround yourself and never be afraid to hire people who are SMARTER than yourself – men and women.

We have today many tough women in leading positions here at Trident and many more to come in the years ahead!

IF: If there were one thing you could change about the industry to make it a better place for women workers, what would it be?

TKH: I get upset when I hear about women who were not able to maintain their management position after returning to work from maternity leave. Having said that, women should also not just accept the demotion and they need to speak up.

I also believe us women in the industry (and other industries for that matter), need to be less judgmental about "career women" who decide to have children AND pursue a career simultaneously. A leading female executive in the seafood industry gave me a good advice in my early career days when I had my boys: surround yourself with other career women. It’s a great advice!

IF: What was the dumbest advice a man in the seafood industry has ever given you?

TKH: I’m sure there have been a few over the years, but I’ve always been very good at ignoring those.

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