Interview with Jim Gallagher

Jim has been Managing Director of Scottish Sea Farms since September 2001. He has worked in the aquaculture industry since 1998, and his previous role was Finance Director with Hydro Seafood Group. Board appointments include Scottish Sea Farms Ltd, SAIC, SSPO, SQS, FCI, and he is an industry representative on the Ministerial Group for Sustainable Aquaculture.

What inspired you to become involved in aquaculture?

My background was in finance but I had been in the food sector for a number of years, working in poultry, when I was headhunted in 1998 by Hydro Seafood (later to become Scottish Sea Farms).

At the time, I didn’t know anything about salmon farming but I did my research and discovered it was a truly global sector that was growing, profitable and experiencing increasing demand, so I could see the potential.

Briefly describe your aquaculture career

I came in as a business analyst but learnt early on that the only way to be commercially successful in the sector is to get the biology right. In other words, you need to achieve high fish health and welfare at every stage of the lifecycle in order to deliver high survival and, in turn, high volumes of salmon to sell.

Within a few months of my joining, there was an ISA disease outbreak which resulted in a record loss of £26 million that year. If we had been owned by a smaller company, we would likely have gone bust. But our Norwegian owner at that time, Norsk Hydro, was a global operator and allowed us to re-build the business with a new management system. In that first year, I gained forensic knowledge of how all the farms worked and what costs were involved.

Then, when we were sold to SalMar and Lerøy in 2001, I was responsible for overseeing the sale process and, not long after, was made managing director, aged 30, so it was a quick apprenticeship in aquaculture. Since then, we have worked really hard year in, year out to improve performance, efficiencies, profit and build a skilled team. It’s been a fantastic journey.

We’re now a relatively big business – 51st in Scottish Business Insider’s top 500 companies last year – but still behave like a family business. Our ethos is one of respect, responsibility, reward, recognition and retention. Put simply, we treat people how we would like to be treated ourselves.

Which individuals or organisations in aquaculture have you found particularly inspirational?

Both Scottish Sea Farms’ owners, SalMar and Lerøy, have been inspirational with their blend of farming and marketing experience. I have localised what I’ve learnt from them and applied the insights to our farms here in Scotland.

I’ve also been inspired by our clients; clients such as Marks & Spencer who we’ve worked very closely with for over 15 years now to create a truly differentiated salmon product.

How important has networking been to your career?

Over my 22 years in the sector, I’ve established strong working relationships with everyone from the supply base and other salmon growers, to regulatory stakeholders and government officials, enabling the sharing of knowledge and experience. 

I have been on the board of the Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation since the beginning. I am also one of the founding members of the Scottish Aquaculture Innovation Centre, having helped make the case to Government for an Innovation Centre dedicated to aiding, enabling and accelerating innovation within what is a key growth sector for Scotland. 

In addition to these roles, I co-Chair the Aquaculture Industry Leadership Group, along with Stewart Graham of Gael Force Group, and have done since it was set up three years ago by salmon farmers and suppliers with a vision of driving growth.

As a senior manager, have you noticed inequalities in the sector, be it in policies or culture? If yes, what actions do you think would best address those issues?

There has been an evolutionary journey, I think, as technology and scientific understanding have advanced, giving rise to a much broader range of roles across the sector and more people considering it as a possible career path. 

As a business, we’ve always looked for the right people with the right skills, abilities and experience for the particular role. As such, we have women performing senior roles across the business, including on the management team, and have had for many years. There’s no gender pay gap – in fact, women are paid on average very slightly more than men – and no shortage of opportunities.

You have had a long and successful career. What is your proudest aquaculture-related achievement to date?

On a professional level, I’m proud we’ve managed to build the company into a successful, profitable enterprise that is investing in Scotland.

On a personal level, I’m equally proud of the many Scottish jobs we’ve created, the growing diversity we’re achieving and our commitment to giving back to the communities in which we live and work: from procuring good services from local suppliers wherever we can, to our Heart of the Community initiative which has introduced a structured model of support for local groups, projects and good causes.  

What advice would you give to someone (man or woman) looking to start a career in the aquaculture sector, or progress their existing career?

To really succeed in any role, you have to enjoy what you’re doing. You have to be somebody who thinks solutions, not challenges, and who has a positive, can-do attitude. As a company and as a sector we’re always thinking about how we can do things better.

What do you think will be the key drivers/areas for innovation for Scottish aquaculture in the next decade?

If we could get people to fully appreciate how sustainable and strong our environmental credentials really are then we should be able to get a more balanced, proportionate regulatory framework. That would allow us to be more innovative in how we farm and how we respond to health challenges, and in turn would help us meet growing demand for our product.

As a sector, we haven’t ever rested – we’re always trying to improve – but the last 10 years in particular have been revolutionary. The investment Scottish Sea Farms has made in our RAS hatchery at Barcaldine, for example, is delivering transformational results and I see that innovative drive continuing across all areas: from our farming approaches and the equipment we use, to processing and the products we bring to market, with technology allowing our customers to use a QR code to see where and how their salmon was produced, giving them even more confidence.

Judging by the appetite for investment in the sector – from long-term owners, speculative private equity or from new entrants with capital in other sectors – the next 10 years are going to be every bit as revolutionary.

We’ve seen, throughout 2020 and the coronavirus pandemic, just how resilient the sector can be. It’s been a hugely challenging year yet we’re still in profit and demand for our product is as high as ever, illustrating how well-placed we are to help Scotland in its economic recovery and help deliver healthy protein to feed a growing population.

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