Monday, August 01, 2005

The trouble with ASMI

The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute likes to stay in the news, but not in the way it has been lately. It's probably time for some more discussion on why an admitted trickster can get a job at ASMI after just being exposed. And I have to hand it to the reporter who brought this to the light of day. The reporters for the newspapers will research and write for the general public, but for industry it's not enough to go on. Hence the need for citizen reporters.

If you can go straight from resigning one state job because of impropriety and land another state job within a week, we've got a problem. I've come to believe that personal growth is what you're after more than anything, and it's appreciated by employers more all the time. After all, that's why we're called "human beings" and not "human doings." I didn't think that up, I got it from an e-mailed sketch Rick Warren wrote, the author of the national best selling book, "The Purpose Driven Life." And how a career in teaching journalism qualifies you for an ASMI job in light of being purpose driven, is beyond me.

And speaking of Asian seafood executives. Since these folks are who Commissioner Blatchfort will be talking to in his new position with ASMI, they might not be fooled by someone with character flaws, not to mention lack of experience in industry. I was having lunch in Sitka once, during the herring fishery, with the President of Kyokyo U.S.A. and he told me "Do what you do and do it well." I took that to heart, coming from someone who at four foot eleven had become become the proud owner, or actually owner's representative of the largest seafood processing company on the West Coast. (Of course we don't consider California and their tuna packers part of the West Coast, they're "something else" aren't they?)

And speaking of lack of experience in industry. I think I saw that Mr. Blatchford had a long involvement in the Chugach Regional Native Corporation. The chances are real good that he didn't have any involvement whatsoever, but their foray into fish processing and marketing was a wholesale disaster.

When I got to the Alaska Commercial Fishing and Agriculture Bank, we were financing Chugach Alaska Fisheries in Cordova. It's a big facility. In fact they were my first loan, a $4.9 million pack loan, which I had to pitch to the Central Bank for Cooperatives, not the loan committee or even the Spokane Bank for Cooperatives, our lender. These guys were like the lead credit officers of Bank of America, a comparably sized institution. I think they were sold when they asked if I had done a break-even analysis. I had, on my own, because it wasn't something CFAB did. The old-timers like Tom Thompson and my dad could look at a plant and tell you the break-even volume off the top of their head.

The point? ASMI is not designed to increase prices paid to fishermen for their fish. Period. This business of hiring Mr. Blatchford, who might well be a really nice fellow, just underscores the fact that the "institute" concept is not designed to be the cure for seafood marketing. It might look like it is, just the way the Fisheries Industrial Technology Center looks like it is designed to lead the charge in new product development.

In FITCs case, their lawyer told them not to delve into any new canning processes. (Was that his idea or a bug put in his ear by big canning company owners who didn't want to foot the expense of new equipment?) In ASMIs case, I don't know if they can prove they have done anything that has been innovative in marketing either. It looks to me like a pass-through agency to just take their expenses off the top and give the rest to Good Housekeeping magazine, so to speak.

So what do we have going for us if our cornerstone seafood industry folks are handicapped by lawyers and bureaucrats? And hiring Mr. Blatchford because he made a trip or two to Asia! Does that mean he can speak Asian now? I have a friend who was hired by the surimi folks to try get their surimi around a tangle of middle-men in Japan because he speaks Japanese. Even he couldn't do it. If there is a need in the market, industry players are the best qualified to do it. Thats the way the free enterprise system works.

Putting Mr. Blatchford in a top ASMI position isn't a big deal. It's accepted practice in state and federal government circles, if that's any excuse. And you get fifteen people in a room with computers and a great budget like ASMI and they'll first make sure they look good. That's the way it is in state government.

And if the big canners and cold storage owners are paying most of the bills, just call it the Joy Luck Club, or anything, but not a name that supports the notion that it's doing anybody a lot of good except a few owners of big companies.

Besides, it will all be a moot point once the Regional Seafood Development Associations come on line. These are true industry product and marketing groups, that will be run in the true capitalist spirit. And that's what we need to make the industry strong again. They will be real Alaskans that will be looking to optimize employment opportunities for themselves and their neighbors on shore too. Unlike the ASMI board of directors who live in Seattle and by the nature of the present system, endeavour to funnel as much money out of the state and into their Seattle bank accounts as possible, so they can expand their competitive position over other processing company owners.

Alaskan fishermen and small processors (who mostly were fishermen once) will have the ingenuity, "born of necessity,"to do what has to be done for the good of the many thousands of boat owning businessmen and the communities they live in. They have the votes to have their voice heard in government circles and will have the money to hire professionals to represent them in Juneau, Washington D.C. and in the marketplace in a business-like manner.

They will embrace processing and marketing methods and strategies that keep pace with the changing demographics of the market. They won't support technology and marketing strategies that are in place just because it is convenient for a handful of traditional business partners. They will have the option of seeking new business partners.

Alaskan communities can be heartened by the knowledge that there is technology right now that can keep our raw product from going overseas to be processed, for one thing. And I'm not talking about hiring locals at minimum wage to wield a pair of tweezers to pull out pinbones.

All the equipment is there: to head, gut, fillet, skin, pack in modern, convenient and appealing packages and sauces, and preserve at a tiny fraction of the cost of the way it is currently preserved. And you're not stuck anymore using the same market ready process on one species, you can use it on many different species.

This is actually what the Danes wanted to do with the Anchorage Cold Storage, it's just that the big boys would't cooperate with something that would compete with their one pound paper weights and shipping round fish to the orient to get rid of them. (Now you could say the "big boys" have consolidated into the "gang of three.")

Communities should get behind these Regionals, just after they have asked themselves the sixty-four dollar question, "Who loves you, baby?" And the sooner they do that, the sooner we can put the "institute" experiment behind us.


Blogger Sean R said...

Nice commentary, I never did think much of ASMI.

12:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

1:04 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home