Business Irish

Sunday 21 September 2014

Sean Gallagher: All hands on deck for seafood firm

Sean Gallagher,

Published 09/12/2012 | 05:00

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The crucial links between business and community are clear to see in the Sofrimar fish processing facility in Kilmore Quay.

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SOFRIMAR, an Irish seafood company, is located in the unspoilt fishing village of Kilmore Quay in Co Wexford.

It's Friday afternoon when I pull in to the company's modern processing facility. Leslie Bates, the managing director and Lorcan Barden, the financial director, are the owners of the company but both are in meetings when I arrive. It's a busy time for the Sofrimar team as Friday is one of the many days in the week when the trucks roll into the company's yard to collect its produce. So it's all hands on deck.

In the meantime, Yohann Pierard, the sales and marketing manager, takes me on a tour of the factory. He explains that the company was set up in 1979 by three French entrepreneurs who wanted to source white fish for the French market.

"The company later diversified into scallop processing and we are now the largest processor of scallops in the country," explains Yohann.

The company also processes crabs, lobsters, prawns, whelks and periwinkles, which are shipped in a variety of formats including live, fresh, frozen or cooked. "It's all about adding value and cooking the product allows us to increase the sales value to our customers," Yohann adds.

Everything the company produces goes for export, with 40 per cent going to France and the remainder to Italy, Spain, Portugal, South Korea, Japan and, more recently, to China.

In different areas of the facility, operatives are busy preparing the fish. Dozens of women in white aprons stand at stainless steel tables, equipped with razor-sharp knives. The first thing that strikes me is the cold. The women tell me, however, that they get used to it. There is an almost machine-like rhythm to their work as they scoop out scallops from their shells with wrist-twisting incisions and surgeon-like accuracy. Today more than five tonnes of fresh scallops will be shelled by hand, washed and packed for shipping to France later in the evening.

"The key," Yohann explains "is that the seafood is caught and processed immediately and delivered to customers as quickly as possible."

Fish, delivered fresh from the boats, can be processed right up to 7pm on the evening the produce is collected. Trucks transport the fish via the ferry from nearby Rosslare to England and onwards to France. The fish arrives in the fish logistics centre in Boulogne Sur Mer at midday on the following day, ready for distribution to the French region. It's an impressive operation and one that takes planning and precision.

Leslie arrives to take me to another area, this time where a team of men are sorting boxes of live crab. He explains that the crabs are caught in pots at sea and are delivered live to the factory. Once weighed, the crabs are separated into males and females. Viewed side by side, it's easy to spot the males. They are larger in size and have a distinguishing under-belly.

I am shown to where the female crabs are cooked whole in large boilers. Once cooked, they are cleaned, rinsed and packed in ice, ready for dispatch.

However, only the claws of the male crabs are used. It is fascinating to watch how the claws are broken from the bodies of the crabs by hand, in a swift and flowing motion, by a team of men working in perfect synchronicity.

Leslie shouts to me to be careful of the crabs. "Their claws can easily break a human's finger," he says. To illustrate his point, he produces a plastic biro, which he wedges between the claws of a large crab who, as if on cue, proceeds to break it in seconds. Point made. Something new learned today.

Leslie first joined Sofrimar in 1985.

"I joined straight out of school," Leslie tells me. He started as a general operative on the factory floor and, over time, progressed to floor supervisor, then production manager and eventually, general manager.

Did he ever set out to become the MD or the owner? "There was no great master plan involved. I just took the opportunities as they arose."

Lorcan then joins us on the tour. He has been with the company since 1991 when he joined as the financial controller.

Leslie and Lorcan explain how, in 2000, the last remaining French shareholder, Pierre Dufour, wanted to exit the business and so the two men joined forces to lead a management buy-out that saw them become joint owners of the business.

It's a move that has paid off for the two men. Turnover in recent years has grown at around 20 per cent per year with revenues set to reach more than €20m in 2012.

Staff numbers too, have more than doubled in the last three years with 110 people now directly employed. In addition, the business supports some 200 jobs on local fishing boats.

In 2007, Sofrimar developed a lobster facility capable of storing up to 35,000 live lobsters, in their natural habitat, for up to six months. In the run-up to this Christmas, the company will export a staggering 20,000 lobsters to France alone.

In 2010, they installed a new pasteurisation unit and expanded the size of the facility, at a cost of almost €1.5m.

"Pasteurising the crabs increases their shelf life from eight days to 35 days," explains Lorcan. "This extended shelf life makes it more attractive for supermarkets to stock the products and ensures higher revenues per tonne."

The company has won many awards over the years, including the Irish Seafood Exporter of the Year Award in 2011

In 2012, Sofrimar was again forced to increase the size of the facility to keep pace with growing demand and the owners invested a further €1.4m, bringing the size of the facility to more than 50,000sq ft.

"There are challenges every day," says Leslie. "Our costs have dramatically increased in recent years, particularly energy costs, due to our high usage of refrigeration."

But the two men are not complaining. They tell me they love what they do. And it shows.

Neither Leslie nor Lorcan is keen to take credit for what the company has achieved. "It's run more like a family business where everyone, from the fishermen to the admin staff, are all part of the team," Leslie says.

In an exciting move, the company recently established a joint venture, Jade Ireland Seafood Ltd, with three other award-winning Irish Sea food companies, McBride Fishing in Donegal and Carr Shellfish and Shellfish de la Mer in Cork. Together they hope to break into the Chinese market and have already recruited a full-time Chinese employee who is based in the Bord Bia office in Shanghai.

Lorcan and Leslie have much praise for Bord Bia, BIM and Enterprise Ireland, all of whom have supported the company in different ways over the years.

I ask Leslie to what does he attribute the success of the business?

"We keep a close eye on every aspect of the business and are constantly looking to make improvements," he says.

Leslie is proud that all the fish they buy has been landed in Ireland. In the harbour, I meet two of the local fishermen, Patrick and Bobby, who are busy offloading their catch for the day. Like the many fishermen who supply the factory, they are very much part of the company's story.

It is a great story with all the right ingredients for success; a great team, strong management, hard work, continuous improvement, value add, re-investment and a focus on export sales.

It's also a story about the link between business and community.

While businesses depend on the community for their staff and raw materials, the community, in turn, relies on businesses such as Sofrimar to provide much needed employment. It's a clear demonstration of how businesses and communities are not just connected, but are critically interdependent.

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