BTSB: Peter Handy of Bristol Seafood

Below are some excerpts from our conversation with Peter Handy, CEO of Bristol Seafood, a seafood processing and distribution company.  Originally a research analyst on Wall Street, Peter bought Bristol four years ago and spent the first two learning the business under the previous owner before taking over as CEO in 2016.  Since then, Peter has focused on adding talent to the organization and putting in processes that will allow the company to “go fast.”  Peter is on a mission to make seafood America’s favorite protein and he shares what the past four years have been like as a 32 year-old CEO of a small seafood company in Maine with large ambitions.

You can listen to the full episode by clicking the audio image below, on our website, or on iTunes (more podcast players coming soon!).  Know someone who would be great on the Big Time Small Business podcast?  E-mail in at podcast@chenmarkcapital.com.

Different is scary

Any time you’re about to do something scary, it’s even scarier when all the people you’re with can’t relate to it.  So, you go talk to your friends and say, “Hey, I’m thinking about doing this thing.”  And when they look at you cross-eyed and you’re still thinking about doing it, it just compounds the fear because it’s something that was so personally important to me to do and not all the people I spent time with could understand or relate to it.  There are a ton of people that would have loved to have the job that I had in New York.  So, to leave something that other people want, to do something where there aren’t a lot of people attracted to it, [is] terrifying.  But ultimately, it was the right decision.

One of the most articulate missions we’ve heard

At Bristol, our mission is to make seafood American’s favorite protein.  The reason that’s our mission is because we think the work is really meaningful.  If you go from the bottom decile to the top decile of eating seafood, your risk of fatal heart attack falls over 90%.  If you look at climate change, the number one source of greenhouse gas emissions in this country is industrial agriculture.  Being from California, something that’s close to my heart is water conservation.  To bring a pound of fresh pork to market takes 3,500 gallons–over 25,000 pounds–of fresh water.  Seafood has a very different footprint.

The way we’re trying to get people to eat more fish is we stick to three core beliefs. The first thing is we always tell the truth.  A third of all the seafood sold in the U.S. is sold fraudulently, meaning I say it’s salmon and it’s actually tuna. It’s usually not the species, of course, it’s other things that are easier to substitute, [but] it’s actually a big deal.  We’re able to attract great talent who’ve been at seafood companies that operate in a gray area, but they’re passionate about seafood.  We can be an oasis for them because they can do what they love and what they’re passionate about in a way that matches their values.

The second thing is we make the highest quality product we can. So we don’t start with a cost in mind. We start with the quality in mind and then we figure out how to get to that quality in the most efficient way possible.  A lot of other companies are focused on how to make seafood just good enough you won’t spit it out.  We’re investing [so] that when somebody eats our scallop or has a bite of our haddock they go, “This is what it’s supposed to taste like. I had no idea.”  That’s what we play for.

And then the last thing is we share the story behind our products.  So seafood is one of the only things at the supermarket that a lot of times somebody woke up in the morning, put their boots on, went out and hunted down and killed and dragged back for you to eat.  There’s really no other story like that in produce or in beef or in chicken.  That brings with it an amazing amount of storytelling where we can connect people to the food they’re eating, and connect people to the people who are helping them to procure that food.

So, our belief overall is that if we tell the truth, we make the highest quality product we can, and we bring everyone into the story behind that product, that we have a chance to drive American seafood consumption.

Thoughts on M&A from a guy who bought his business

The thing that really guides the decisions that our whole leadership team makes is growing in a way that’s consistent with our core values and growing in a way that is complementary to the existing business.  Not just synergy like, you don’t need two HR people and you don’t need two CFOs.  But truly synergistic as to where a customer would have their experience meaningfully improved by virtue of us acquiring a company or bringing a product in-house.  One of the hardest parts with doing an acquisition is [that] our core values and the way we go to work is relatively unique, and it’s not something I’m willing to sacrifice.  We haven’t been able to find a company where all the stars have aligned in terms of yes, this is adjacent; yes, it’s complimentary; the valuation is right; and everyone there has the kind of core values that we want.  Because we haven’t found that, it hasn’t been an avenue that we’ve been willing to entertain.

Execution over ideas

There’s a guy named Frank Martino who has a quote that says, “Ideas are easy, but execution is everything.”  I can have all the ideas that I want.  It can look as good as it looks on a spreadsheet.  And the fact is that’s not unique.  Anybody can do that.  [It’s] being able to put an organization in a position to be able to execute on those ideas.  [We don’t want to] just slog through one expansion and hope that it gets done well.  [We want to] build the skill set so we’re not a company that can do an expansion and survive it, but we have a crack operations team that does expansions; not just that we can hire a salesperson and onboard them well and they can sell stuff, but we have an organization that knows how to build and bring on and develop and grow salespeople.

That shift [between] this is a thing we’re about to do [and] this is a competency we’re developing and growing, is a big one.  And that was something that I didn’t fully appreciate when I became CEO of the company. That shift in focus has really changed how I spend my time, the people that I end up hiring, and the way that I talk about what we’re doing as a business.

Have the talent to rise up

As a business, we are only going to be as good as the team that we have.  We can add as much good equipment as we want.  We can make all the investments we want.  But ultimately, the people inside this organization need to rise to the occasion and be a part of that.  What this [$5 million investment] has shown the team is not just that are we willing to take a step forward with resourcing the business, but [that] we know this team can step up and take it on and bring [us] to the next level.

As much as it’s a vote of confidence in the sector, in the industry, in our customers, in our values, it’s an equally big investment in the people we’ve got.  They know that.  They’re excited to be a part of it.  For us, the main thing is making sure we have the processes in place, the training in place.  We know this is going to be uncomfortable with this level of growth.  We know it’s going to create friction and issues, but we need to have it happen in a way that is tolerable and ultimately gets us to a better place.

The Bristol Seafood talent filter

I am much more focused on hiring now than I’ve ever been.  You can never have too much talent.  The difference between somebody who’s the right person in the right seat at a job and who truly gets it is so profoundly different form somebody who’s mediocre at it.  We’ve spent a lot of time identifying, training, and empowering people to be very talented in the seats that we have them in.  You almost don’t realize what you don’t have until you hire the right thing.  Then you wonder how you ever did it before.

It’s something me and my team spend a lot of time going through.  Everyone in our company gets assessed.  We decide if they’re the right person if they share our core values–honesty, humility, being curious and adaptive, having an owner mentality, getting stuff done right, and making fact-based decisions–and we look at whether they exhibit behaviors that demonstrate they understand those core values.  We have a guilty until proven innocent culture where just because you don’t show something in contrast to those values isn’t a reason that you’re a good fit.  You have to actually behave in a way that affirms you understand those core values and that you live them.

For right seat, what we do instead of having these giant flowery job descriptions, every person in the company has three to seven core functions.  And what we look at is whether they get it, whether they want it, and whether they have the capacity to do it.  So, someone is the right person if they have our core values, and they are in the right seat if they “GWC”, get, want, and have the capacity to do each of their core functions.

The function of growth

I think there are some things on the positive end we can look at as our markers of success.  And there are some things on the negative end we can look at to say, “Is it too fast?”  On the positive end, and what we’re really spending time watching now, is consumers or chefs asking for our product.  When we get retailers asking for our brand and giving placement to entice us to bring our product into their stores, that’s a real marker of success because it reflects consumer attitudes about our brand.

In terms of going too fast, the marker for me is we want to go as quickly as is practical without creating so much turbulence along the way that we can’t solve it.  If the number of problems we’re creating through growth internally–in terms of process issues and people issues–are taking place at a rate the leadership team and I can solve, we’ll keep growing.  Part of what limits our ability to grow, then, is the strength and talent of our team and is one of the reasons why it’s so important to us to invest in talent.  If our ability to grow is a function of our ability to solve growing pains, which is then a function of the level of talent we have at the time and the level of the processes that we have in place, then if we want to go fast, what we really need to do is to slow down and hire the right people and create the right processes.

Don’t do, watch

I try to spend more time watching than doing.  We work with a great consultant who’s helped us on the food safety side and she had a great quote and I almost fell over when she told me.  She said, “Peter, don’t just do something. Stand there.”  When you think about what my New York job was like, I remember people putting up screensavers on their computers that were screenshots of Excel sheets so no one would know they went home.  The appearance of doing something was so important.  For me now, I really try and spend more time observing and seeing than actually sitting at a computer or sitting in front of a notebook.

Have a great week,

Your Chenmark  Team

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