The second generation of leaders at Trident Seafoods, the biggest fishing company in the U.S., has promised to put billions of dollars into the company’s Alaska operations to make them stronger and get them ready for the third generation to take over.
Five decades ago, the largest American fishing corporation gave the isolated Alaskan island of Akutan its second home.
The company’s founder built a church, and it persuaded Congress to provide funding for a nearby airport.
The largest facility of its sort in the country, the fish processing factory has a daily capacity of 3 million pounds.
The factory’s sleeping quarters can accommodate 1,400 peak-season employees.
The factory and eleven others like it, but smaller, are getting old. Trident Seafoods, a private company, is in charge of fixing and rebuilding them, which will cost billions of dollars.With problems like supply chain delays, inflation, growing wait lists, and more concern about the environment, this is a risky time to make such a big change.
Another firm may be trying to sell or seek funding from outside.
In an exclusive interview with Forbes, CEO Joe Bundrant, the second generation of the company’s leadership, claims that he and his family are dedicated to using their own funds so that Trident may continue into its third and fourth generations.
“We have no exit strategy,” adds Bundrant, 56, between mouthfuls of herb-crusted pollock, sockeye salmon with a tomato jam glaze, a salmon burger slider, and Japanese-style Takoyaki, or octopus and pollock balls cooked in batter.
“Little more than zero desire to sell.”
The family is at a crossroads.
Since 2013, Bundrant has served as CEO, although he is new to the role of family patriarch.
Chuck Bundrant, the inventor of Trident, passed away in 2021 at the age of 79.
Joe dropped out of college in the past to work with his father; thus, he has been with the firm for a very long period of time.
Yet his father’s rubber crab boots will be difficult to fill.Many of Trident’s 1,400 fishermen were loyal to Chuck, and regulators, plastics experts, quota scientists, and fish farm companies have never put more pressure on the wild fishing industry.
So, Bundrant says that now is the time for Trident to show how much it cares about Alaska.
“With time, all of our containers and plants will need to be replaced,” adds Bundrant.
“Yet, the freezing, thawing, 100-mile-per-hour winds, and continual salt air all raise the cost of steel and concrete, as well as the expense to get them to these distant places.
“I am unaware of any venture capitalists or corporations in corporate America who would be interested in this sort of investment.”
Bundrant pauses and gazes out the office windows at the dismal Seattle skies.
“We cannot plan for the following fiscal quarter,” he continues.
We cannot plan for next year.
We administer for future generations.
“We are thus prepared to examine this.”
“There is no exit plan.”
“Less than zero desire to sell.”
If any business or family could pull it off, it would be the Bundrants.
Chuck was a self-made millionaire, and his estimated $1.3 billion and Trident ownership have been divided among his second wife, Diane, who sits on the board of Trident, and his three children, Joe, Jill Dulcich, and Julie Bundrant Rhodes.
Trident has over forty fishing vessels and fifteen processing factories from Ketchikan, Alaska, to St. Paul, Minnesota.
Its annual fishing quotas exceed 1 billion pounds.
According to Forbes, annual revenues are around $2 billion.
Trident refuses to divulge on its financials, citing Chuck’s famous quote, “a whale only gets shot when it blows,” yet Trident remains one of the remaining privately held white whales in the food sector.
Matthew Wadiak, a previous client of Trident’s at the packaged-meal firm Blue Apron, which he started, says, “They do great stuff.”
They collect a great deal of fish, but they are committed to sustainability.
I have visited fisheries in Latvia, Denmark, and South America.
Trident is superior in this regard.
The story of Trident begins with Tennessee-born Chuck Bundrant, who dropped out of college after one semester in 1961.
With $80 in his pocket, he drove a 1953 Ford station wagon from Middle Tennessee State College to Seattle with three friends.
The 19-year-old grew up hoping to be a veterinarian, but he fell in love with the sector while cutting fish for a local processor.
Instead of returning to school, he traveled to Alaska.
There, he slept on the docks and worked on any available fishing vessel.
He worked on a commercial crab boat that winter.
He ultimately became captain.
Joe Bundrant recalls, “He didn’t sleep much.”
“He did not consume much food.”
When I was younger, Dad was addicted to coffee and cigarettes.
Along with two crab fishermen, Chuck Bundrant co-founded Trident Seafoods in Alaska in 1973.
They constructed the 135-foot Bilikin, the first fishing vessel with crab cookers and freezer equipment on board.
Trident continues to run it.
The rivalry for Pacific cod peaked in the 1980s.
Chuck Bundrant chose Alaskan pollock, which chefs referred to as “garbage fish.
According to Joe Bundrant, there was no sales strategy.
When his father brought the first 10 containers of wild Alaskan pollock fillets into the office, he sent them directly to the inventory room, where everyone inquired as to what they were.
“I don’t know, but we’ll find out how to market it,” was his response.
In 1981, Chuck Bundrant brought Long John Silver’s executives to his home for a taste test.
They desired to test Alaskan fish because their Atlantic cod source was unstable.
Chuck presented Alaskan pollock to the executives without telling them what it was.
Joe Bundrant states, “They kept eating and raving about how delicious it was until he eventually told them.”
Long John Silver’s has inked a deal worth millions of dollars.
Pollock has finally become a goldmine for Trident.
“This is how the modification was made.”
“This tenacity and pioneering spirit are in our genes.”
The Distant Fishing Hotspot of Trident
Furthermore, in 1981, Trident constructed its fish processing facility in Akutan, Alaska.
Akutan, located 750 miles southwest of Anchorage in the Aleutian Island chain, has historically processed crab, Pacific cod, and halibut due to its closeness to the Bering Sea; however, the majority of the fish processed at Akutan now is pollock.
Trident pioneered the marketing of the species, eventually becoming the primary supplier to national fast-food chains, including Burger King, because Bundrant offered pollock for less than cod.
I’ve visited fisheries worldwide, from Latvia to Denmark to South America.
“Trident does it the best, by a wide margin.”
Matthew Wadiak is the creator of Blue Apron.
The Bundrant family acquired 80% of the corporation through a series of transactions.
ConAgra purchased 50% of Trident in 1989, when Trident was a young firm in need of growth capital and ConAgra’s Northwest seafood division was losing money.
After seven years of Chuck Bundrant’s leadership, ConAgra proposed to buy out the cofounders’ interests.
Bundrant chose to throw the dice once more.
Chuck contacted his son Joe, who had left Trident and was now employed at Sysco, and pleaded with him to return.
According to Joe’s recollection, his father began his pitch with some counsel.
Chuck informed him, “You create a business for your own ego.”
“You may be the guy; establish your own hours and keep anything you earn.
Fear is the second phase of company ownership.
“I’ve made all of these promises.
I’ve taken on this debt.
If I don’t make it, it will be quite humiliating.
“Son, I am currently at the third level, which is responsibility.”
Joseph Bundrant recalls his father naming a long list of workers he knew he liked and saying, “If we sell this firm, these individuals will be reduced to numbers by corporate America.
“And they are not statistics; they are my family, to whom we owe this.”
In 1996, Joseph Bundrant returned to Trident, which was a step towards maintaining the company’s private ownership.
Back at the company, Joe Bundrant made it his mission to get McDonald’s, a blue-chip client that had escaped Trident for years.
Before switching to pollock, the Filet-O-Fish sandwich was manufactured with cod for decades, although McDonald’s did not purchase the pollock from Trident.
Joe was warned by several people at Trident that he was wasting his time.
Yet his father encouraged him, urging, “Don’t quit.”
“You will do this task.”
Joseph Bundrant ultimately got the contract to sell Filet-O-Fish to the whole Asian market after years of failure.
“Trident survived due to their diversification.”
Ray Hillborn, a fisheries biologist from Alaska,
Chuck Bundrant used politics to his advantage throughout the years.
In 1976, Trident and other fishing corporations urged Congress to establish the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which required 75% American ownership for foreign fishing vessels to operate within 200 miles of U.S. shores.
Bundrant was one of the drafters of the measure.
He assured Alaskan Senator Ted Stevens that he would reinvest every dollar of profit in the state of Alaska to Americanize the fishery if Congress approved the 200-mile restriction.
Joe Bundrant states, “This is why we are seated here today.”
My father possessed both foresight and intestinal fortitude.
Chuck Bundrant persuaded Stevens to provide cash for an airport on Akun Island so that seasonal Trident employees could fly closer to their workplace instead of taking a boat for several hours.
The airport opened in 2012 at a cost of $54 million to the government.
The largest vertically integrated seafood enterprise in North America nevertheless faces choppy seas.
Alaska is one of the only states that protects agricultural goods such as pollock, and Trident has benefited more than any other business from this.
That implies that any label saying that the fish is from Alaska indicates that it was captured in the wild.
Foreign boats, mostly from Russia, China, and Japan, consistently undercut the price of Alaskan seafood.
Also, there is the changing environment to consider.
A few years ago, when Bristol Bay in Alaska, home to one of the world’s most abundant salmon runs, was endangered by the Pebble Mine mining project, Trident’s lobbyists sought to prevent excavation.
“Being diversified over a broad variety of fisheries and locales is a smart strategy in the face of variable fish flows,” says Alaskan fisheries scientist Ray Hillborn.
Some salmon-specialized firms failed in the early 2000s, while companies like Trident thrived because they were diversified.
Alaska’s crab supplies have declined at an alarming rate in recent years, to the point that Bristol Bay’s king crab harvest has been halted for the first time in 25 years.
The cause remains debatable.
It might be overfishing, flawed research, excessive quotas, warmer seas, an abundance of voracious sockeye predators, or something else.
After decades of exporting Bristol Bay crustaceans, Trident now faces an unprecedented scarcity and the likelihood that it will persist.
Trident’s marketing emphasizes the sustainability of wild-caught fish and the fact that collecting and processing fish produces less greenhouse gas than the production of poultry, cattle, and pigs.
But the plastic-polluted oceans have warmed and shifted, while trawlers such as the Trident collect billions of pounds of fish each year, leaving less and less for future generations.
In addition, there are concerns regarding the collapse of present stock prices.
This is where proponents of farmed fish and aquaculture target Trident.
The firm might invest in alternatives, as do large meatpackers, but Bundrant seems unconcerned about the amount of food required to feed fish in captivity.
Moreover, Alaska prohibits commercial farming.
“Without that faith in our fisheries management, it would be quite irresponsible to invest in these distant locations,” adds Bundrant.
Bundrant asserts that he will ultimately assume the position of executive chairman.
Whether or not he is followed by a bundrant is another matter.
This is by no means a done thing.
Joe states that if a family member is interested in the position, they will have to interview with all other candidates.
The 13 grandchildren and few great-grandchildren of Chuck Bundrant are prospective candidates for succession.
There are a few family standards that must be followed by any Bundrant interested in working at Trident: a bachelor’s degree and four years of experience working elsewhere before applying.
The last prerequisite is summer employment in Alaska, which Joe describes as “training in rubber boots and dead fish for 16 hours a day.”
Today, three grandkids from Joe’s line participate in Trident.
Years ago, Joe’s son led his own fishing vessel and even appeared on the famed Discovery Channel program The Deadliest Catch.
Obviously, this catch was sold to Trident.
Two daughters have crucial positions at the Seattle headquarters.
Ali is in sales and maintains the account for a significant customer, the mega-distributor US Foods, while Analise Gonzalez is in charge of marketing, which includes the production of new lines of goods that utilize previously lost elements of the supply chain, such as pet food and fish oil supplements for people.
Gonzalez says, “There’s just so much we can capture.”
“We must maximize the use of every fish and ensure that this practice continues for future generations.”