Trident Seafoods is an industry powerhouse, but Joe Bundrant, son of the founder, still runs it from a drab Ballard building that gives little indication of its regional clout.
Joe Bundrant’s first Alaska summer with Trident Seafoods was back in 1979, a tense time for the Seattle-based company founded by his father Chuck Bundrant.
The Bristol Bay salmon run was in full swing. But a bitter strike over low prices kept nets out the water, and shut down the regional harvest.
Chuck Bundrant had piled up debt to build the Bountiful, a 165-foot processing vessel that was then only a year old. He didn’t want it to sit idle. So, he urged the fishermen to cross the picket line and allow him to freeze their sockeye catch. When the season was over, he pledged to settle with them on a fair market value
“He just said, ‘Trust me.’ And those guys went fishing. It was a very powerful lesson for a young guy,” Joe Bundrant, then a 13-year-old crewman on the Bountiful, recalled in a recent interview with The Seattle Times. “He always told me, ‘Your word is your bond.’ ”
Trident survived that turbulent summer, and today the Ballard-based company is a seafood giant that catches and processes largely Alaska-caught crab and fish for global markets
The business ties between the father and son also have endured.
Joe Bundrant, now 51, worked his way up from the decks of the Bountiful to corporate offices, and since 2013 has served as chief executive officer. His 75-year-old father remains chairman of the board.
Under the second generation of Bundrant leadership, there has been an increased focus on adding value to the catch with Trident brand products such as the company salmon burgers sold at Costco.
The younger Bundrant also has had to navigate a rocky period for pollock, a Trident mainstay that has suffered from glutted markets as Russia increased international sales of the same fish. He has responded by pushing Trident to develop new pollock products and promoting the Alaska-caught fish.
“I will tell you that is my laser focus of the last four years. We have got to get more people eating more wild Alaska pollock in more ways — more often, globally,” Joe Bundrant said.
Despite Trident’s big footprint in the seafood industry, the company does not cut a high profile in Seattle, where increasing numbers of people are clueless about Puget Sound’s longtime role as a hub for the continent’s largest fish harvests, in Alaska.
Trident’s headquarters is tucked away in a drab office building in a still-gritty section of Ballard, a world away from the high-rises of South Lake Union.
The Bundrants also have spurned Wall Street.
Joe Bundrant describes the family-controlled company as “defiantly private,” dedicated to serving what he calls “the stakeholders.” He says these are fishermen who supply Trident, the communities where the company operates, employees and customers.
John Sackton, editor of SeafoodNews.Com, said that Trident is unusual in an industry where most large companies have either sold out to publicly traded Japanese corporations or taken on private equity partners.
“I think the transition from Chuck to Joe has gone fairly well,” Sackton said. “They used to be all about getting the fish, and running the plants. Now, there is a bigger focus on marketing.”
Though its website touts Trident as “the largest vertically integrated seafood company in North America,” the company declines to release any revenue figures.
A Bloomberg estimate published in August put Trident’s annual sales for 2016 at $2.4 billion. Bloomberg further calculated that the value of the company was about $2.1 billion
Several industry sources, who requested anonymity due to concerns about angering Trident, said the Bloomberg revenue estimate was too high, in part due to softer markets in recent years for pollock.
In the interview, Joe Bundrant scoffed at the Bloomberg estimates but wouldn’t offer any of his own.
“They took numbers out of the air and then multiplied them. It was an inaccurate depiction of who we are,” Bundrant said.
Chuck Bundrant is an epic figure in the North Pacific fishing industry and a hard act for anyone to follow.
He arrived in Seattle in 1961, a skinny 19-year-old from Tennessee, eager to head north to crew on Alaska boats. A decade later, he founded Trident with two other fishermen and launched an innovative vessel — the Billikin — that could process as well as catch crab.
The company’s early years spanned a tumultuous period in the North Pacific harvest when the phaseout of foreign fleets created huge opportunities for U.S. fleets and processors to tap into Alaska’s seafood bounty. Through the decades, Chuck Bundrant wielded formidable clout in Congress and with a federal fishery council that helps to shape the harvest rules off Alaska.
Joe Bundrant and his father Chuck Bundrant, founder of Trident Seafoods, are seen in 1979. (Courtesy of Trident Seafoods)
At sea, the Trident fleet eventually expanded to 40 vessels, including catcher boats able to harvest a sizable portion of the company’s seafood.
Shore-side, Trident emerged as a major processor of salmon and other seafood. In a class-action lawsuit that deeply angered Chuck Bundrant, Trident was accused of participating in a salmon price-fixing conspiracy with other Bristol Bay processors. A jury that heard the evidence in a 2003 trial rejected the claim.
Joe Bundrant got a taste of the passions that surround the Bristol Bay sockeye harvests during the 1979 strike he witnessed during his first summer crewing with his father.
His mother described Joe as wound kind of tight, and had urged his father to take him to Alaska once school was out. He worked on Trident boats all through his teenage summers, learning the finer points of packing crab and other skills.
Joe Bundrant tried college, but dropped out to work in Trident sales. In 1989, then 23 and married, Joe decided to break with Trident, and take a job with Sysco, a food-distribution company.
“They gave me a 50 percent raise to a $36,000 a year, and a car. I thought I had died and gone to heaven,” recalls Joe Bundrant in Catching a Deckload of Dreams, a corporate history of Trident written by John van Amerongen.
In 1996, Chuck Bundrant persuaded his son to return to Trident as he bought out the minority shares held by food giant ConAgra.
Joe Bundrant’s second tour with Trident has spanned a period when the Alaska seafood industry matured, with increasing regulations limiting how much any one company could control of the resource.
“They really couldn’t grow anymore. So I think that Joe has really focused on doing more with what he has — to me that is the biggest change from Chuck,” said Brent Paine, executive director of Washington-based United Catcher Boats, which includes vessels that deliver fish to Trident.
To drive up sales, Joe Bundrant courted food-service companies, supermarket chains and fast-food giants such as McDonald’s to drive up sales, and he opened a $40 million plant in Georgia to better serve East Coast markets. Overseas, he pushed to expand processing of products developed for Asian consumers, and Trident in 2016 acquired a seafood-processing company in Germany.
But Joe Bundrant has a problem with pollock, a narrow-bodied fish that is the biggest volume harvest in Alaska. Prices have been on a prolonged decline as Russia sells what he describes as an inferior product that is reprocessed in China and then shipped to global markets.
‘People eat it. They have a bad experience and don’t eat pollock again,” Joe Bundrant said.
Last year, in a move sought by Trident, the Food and Drug Administration ruled that only Alaska-caught pollock could be sold under that name in the United States.
Joe Bundrant hopes to make “wild Alaska pollock” a name that can gain more consumer trust and help the fish capture a bigger share of the U.S. seafood markets. Trident has developed a distinct pollock product — a wider, thicker fillet resembling those cut from cod — that is now on sale at Walmart.
Alaska pollock is the biggest volume North Pacific fishery and Trident mainstay. (Corey Arnold / Courtesy of Trident Seafoods)
Fish of the future
Trident’s big stake in pollock results from Chuck Bundrant’s conviction, early in his career, that this was a fish with a future. He took a huge risk to build a plant blasted out of a mountain side on the remote island of Akutan, some 750 miles southwest of Anchorage.
The plant can handle up to 3 million pounds of raw fish daily, and through the years spewed out processing wastes that covered acres of sea bottom. But the pollution controls were lax, with the EPA alleging a history of discharge violations of the federal Clean Water Act at the Akutan plant and 13 other company vessel and shore-side operations.
In 2011, in a major pollution case, Trident agreed to pay $2.5 million to settle more than 480 alleged violations of the law at Akutan and the other Trident facilities. EPA officials said that decayed fish wastes piled up on the ocean bottom, creating dead zones that killed marine life.
The court-approved settlement called for Trident to invest more than $30 million to improve the handling of fish wastes, which the Environmental Protection Agency said would reduce the waste discards by more than 105 million pounds annually.
To come into compliance, the company developed screening to remove more of the waste from discharges, expanded its environmental staff and improved its pollution reporting.
“We have new systems and new technology to make sure it won’t happen again,” said Bundrant, who said the goal is a 100 percent utilization of each fish.
Labor is another big challenge for Trident.
Through the course of the year, thousands of workers must be recruited, for Alaska processing that builds to a summer peak during salmon harvests. This year, that task was particularly difficult due to a regulatory change that curbed bringing in foreign workers under the H-2B labor program.
Understanding the complexities of Alaska operations is a required part of résumé for the next generation of Bundrants, should it seek to join Trident.
Chuck Bundrant has 13 grandchildren, one of whom already has come to work for the company. If others opt for a Trident career, they must get a college degree, work for at least four years outside the company and spend at least two summers working in Alaska.
“I call it the rubber-boots and dead-fish training,” Joe Bundrant says. “It is part of who we are as a family. And you can’t lead if you haven’t served.”