Interview with Stewart Graham

Stewart Graham is Founder and Managing Director at Gael Force Group, a Scottish supply partner of marine equipment, technology and services to the global aquaculture sector. Stewart’s career in the supply of equipment to seafood producers spans almost 40 years.

What inspired you to become involved in aquaculture?

Gael Force started in the early 1980s, manufacturing creels in the Hebrides.  As a manufacturer of fishing equipment and a lover of seafood, I could see that the long-term sustainability of wild fisheries all over the world would mean that wild catches would decline when it was clear that the global market for seafood would increase. It was clear to me even then, some 35 years ago, that the nascent aquaculture sector was the future of seafood supply. In the Hebrides at that time, salmon and mussel farms were prolific in number though small in scale. The opportunities were exciting then and are even more exciting today! 

Briefly describe your aquaculture career.

Having started a business manufacturing creels as an 18-year-old, and then grown the business to be a supplier of associated marine equipment ,Gael Force gradually built up a customer base in aquaculture equipment supply. However, we are engineers and manufacturers at heart, so it was a natural progression for us to design and manufacture much of the equipment for the sector. Our own product design and build was supplemented with acquisitions of businesses that we saw could fit in with our product range and which we could grow. We started with moorings, which we were supplying much of the rope and hardware into anyway, then SeaCap feed barges, then our SeaFeed systems, SeaSight cameras and other technology products. SeaQurePens came with our acquisition of Gael Force Fusion and SeaFeed steel barges with our acquisition of Gael Force Boatbuilding. 

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

In the early days of aquaculture, I found Gibbie Johnson and his family inspirational pioneers – unafraid of going large and very innovative. Today, what really inspires me is seeing people in the industry progressing to senior management levels in companies – and there are many examples of this right across the sector – demonstrating the scope of the opportunity that exists for people to progress in the industry. On the other hand, I also find it depressing that we in Scotland have not grasped the full potential of the aquaculture sector that is presented to us and we all have collective responsibility for that. I do, however, live in hope that we can be inspired by our Government in Scotland particularly at this time when we need green and blue growth in our economy, that real and deep commitment to sustainable growth can be demonstrated. The situation is that the government are of necessity promoting green growth to help us build better out of Covid yet it is “government” that is the barrier to our blue growth, which is green!

How important has networking been to your career?

In a way, all we ever have to trade is knowledge. To build knowledge you must learn and to do that you must continually expand your sources of learning. Reading is critical of course but most importantly, learning from other people is how we grow. Deep and wide networks are painstakingly built over many years and if you act always with integrity that network will continue to grow, and long-lasting relationships and reputation are formed. Foreign travel and trade exhibitions require long hours, including the “night shift” in restaurants and bars entertaining and an intensity of customer and contact focus that may run you ragged at the time, but build up the basis of very long term relationships. I am fortunate to have travelled the world in the aquaculture sector, not only in the customer facing aspect of our business but in the whole international supply chain and that has been an investment over many years which has stood us in good stead in our decision making.

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?

As we are interviewing for WiSA, let’s discuss the question with regards to women rather than any wider issues of inequality which I have little sight of. If I was going to make any comment on inequality my first and foremost reaction would be to point out the serious inequality between the public sector and the private sector in Scotland – that is where we can really find inequality! In the early days of aquaculture in Scotland there were very few women involved in the business, though we always seemed to have a degree of, at least, national diversity in the sector. Today I see a lot more women involved in Scottish aquaculture and I don’t really sense any barriers to entry or prejudice at all. In all business and meetings that I have been involved in, I sense people treated with respect and as equals. What is important however, is that we have equality of opportunity which I think the sector provides and my experience is that people are treated with respect based on merit. I am certain however that there are far more opportunities for women in aquaculture that we as employers in the sector perhaps could promote in a more targeted way, encouraging more women to enter the sector at all levels, as I have no doubt the opportunities are manifold. I do feel there is an untapped potential in the female workforce generally, which could be unlocked with more flexible working hours and also our new-found ability to work from home for periods of time. For young people starting out in a career or formative families, as they are building their early lives together, sound stable employment, particularly in good jobs helps them establish. Companies can provide security and stability through employment at formative times in young people’s lives which can be that glue that keeps the social fabric knitted together. In rural areas particularly, very few sectors can provide that opportunity for women and for young people like aquaculture.       

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

My proudest achievement to date is, together with everyone at Gael Force, having built a strong Scottish company that is respected internationally and continues to have strong growth ambitions. 

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

Be ambitious. Be all you can be and work hard. Study best practice but challenge norms. Be creative. We as a sector have a huge appetite for innovation and still have so much to learn. The opportunity is huge and international, but also small enough for you and your company to aim to be world class.

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

As a major protein producer, we in Scottish aquaculture are already leaders in many environmental impact measures of our production, however the sector’s appetite for continual improvement in this area is huge so I see further innovation opportunities for driving the environmental footprint of the sector even further down, improving fish health and creating value added products while minimising waste and providing insightful on-site management data to improve biological performance. Lots still to do!

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