Guest blog: My journey to Farming Director

Alison Hutchins is Farming Director at Dawnfresh and has 17 years’ experience in aquaculture working across organisations such as SEPA, The Scottish Salmon Company and MOWI. Here, she gives an overview of her career path and the steps she took to her current role.

I often get asked what sparked my interest in aquaculture, and although my answer sounds anything but original, it was indeed dolphins and watching (many) David Attenborough programmes as a kid that incited my curiosity in marine life.

Unluckily for my young self, reality hit me and I realised I had to find a way to make a living out of my interest in aquatic animals in order to support myself and my (then future) family. I began a BSc in Marine Biology but switched to Aquaculture, from which I graduated with a bachelors and a masters degree.

As I now turn “the New 30”, I am asked to describe the path I have followed to get here. Whilst I lack a holy grail of keys to success, there are three things that have been imperative in my professional journey:

Have a plan, surround yourself with the right mentors and be clear of what you want, to yourself and to others.

I will not lie. After university, I knew I wanted to make my way to the top of the game by the time I was 40. That was always my goal, and although there were times where I thought it would never happen or that it would happen much later, I had a clear idea of where I wanted to be and how I wanted to get there, and I always made this clear to myself and to everyone else.

As a Farming Director, my background is unconventional. I started working as an Environment Assistant Manager for Marine Harvest (MOWI) with Ben Hadfield, now MD of the company. After a few years, I decided to work as a protection officer for SEPA. I was aware that this was an unusual sidestep, though, in my mind, it made sense to gather a great breadth of knowledge and skills from the regulators’ side and bring that back into the industry later.

Ben encouraged me to take that path and reinforced how much knowledge, experience and skills I could take from SEPA if I did it right. After three years, I began working for The Scottish Salmon Company and that experience with SEPA background became incredibly invaluable, as I was able to translate what the regulators required into the operational day to day of the companies.

I joined Dawnfresh as a Technical and Compliance Manager after two years working in my own consultancy business with the mindset of making my way up to Farming Director. In 2016, I applied for that job but lost out to Stewart Hawthorn. Although that was discouraging at first, I made it very clear to him and the company that I was after his position – nothing quite like telling your new boss on day one that you want his job!

Dawnfresh were incredibly supportive and told me that they wanted Stewart to prepare me to take over for when he eventually moved on from his position. This came much sooner than I think anyone expected when Stewart chose to leave Dawnfresh to set up his own business.

Stewart taught me a lot about budgets, finances and team management. “Always think about the fish and always think about the staff”. That was the greatest single piece of advice I received, to which I still go back every day. Stewart remains both a friend and mentor, and we still talk regularly, though now I am sometimes able to offer him some advice as well.

Looking back at the path I took to get where I am today, my piece of advice to all of those thinking that aquaculture might be the route is to not be put off by the preconception of aquaculture being a male-oriented, hardcore labour-only sector. The sector is changing and there are new and different routes to the top for a more diverse skillset – something I can only see increasing in the future.

Yes, I have come across more males than females and there are indeed roles where heavy lifting of feed is necessary, which put myself off certain positions at the time. However, my experience tells me that, as a 5 feet tall woman with size 3 shoes, there are still plenty of opportunities to progress in this great sector, regardless of gender, age and physical strength. Just remember: follow your plan, surround yourself with encouraging mentors and don’t hesitate to make your career goals clear wherever you go.