Emperor of the Sea

Pacific Seafood, one of the world’s largest processors, is rebranding as a more transparent and consumer-friendly operation. A controversial CEO and monopoly accusations from coastal fishermen complicate the tale.

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Pay a visit to Newport’s waterfront today and you might think little has changed since commercial fishing became a centerpiece of this coastal town’s economy a century ago. Vessels loaded with stacked crab pots or whose nets teem with deep ocean fish edge into crowded docks. Fishermen in knee-high yellow boots stand comfortably aboard their rocking boats, then stagger with unsteady sea legs as they come ashore. Sea lions bark and splash in the salty water. And from a boxy blue building that overlooks the bustling bayfront, several dozen men and women stand ready to fillet and freeze the latest catch.

But the view from this Pacific Seafood-owned processing plant, with its window on one of Oregon’s last vibrant commercial fishing communities, can be deceiving.

This company, which started as a sleepy Portland fish market back in 1941, has emerged as one of the industry’s giants: a catalyst of change, a magnet for criticism, saving jobs as it has diminished local fishermen’s control over their livelihoods, all under the leadership of Frank Dulcich.

The grandson of Pacific Seafood’s founder, Dulcich has repeatedly reshaped and reinvented the family business in order to keep his company afloat.

Now — as the company seeks to rebrand and launch new products as part of its latest reinvention — Pacific Seafood faces a lawsuit and monopoly accusations from coastal Oregon fishermen who have lost clout and seen their role shrink in an industry that’s become increasingly global.

“You’ve pretty much got to sell to one person, Dulcich,” says Tim Spencer, a commercial fisherman for hire out of Newport. Spencer is among those frustrated by the changes they have witnessed during Pacific Seafood’s rise. “If you don’t want to fish for the price [Dulcich] wants to pay, he owns his own fishing vessels,” Spencer says. “And he’ll punish you for selling to someone else. They monopolized the whole system.”

Dulcich declined to be interviewed for this article and, while he made other members of his executive team available, he’s known for being secretive and has long worked to keep the company out of the spotlight. But now he’s taking his business in a new direction — one that seeks to rebrand Pacific Seafood as a transparent and consumer-friendly enterprise.

The contradictions inherent in that desire for privacy and publicity echo throughout the company’s culture and operations.

Dulcich has burned bridges and made enemies in more than 20 years leading Pacific Seafood, but he also employs 3,000 people and has built a growing corporation when much of the competition vanished, says Mansel Blackford, an Ohio State University professor who has written extensively on the history of the seafood industry. And the choices for which Dulcich has been most criticized, Blackford says, may also have been necessary to Pacific Seafood’s survival.

“Is he a visionary? A monopolist?” Blackford asks. “They’re two sides of the same coin.”

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Pacific Seafood wasn’t always a lightning rod for controversy. Through much of its early history, the company was content to remain a small middleman, changing as the industry evolved. Into the mid-20th century, salmon was Oregon’s dominant fish by volume caught. Commercial crabbing started in the 1930s, the shrimp industry was born here in the 1950s, groundfish trawlers arrived in the 1970s. In the 1990s, markets emerged for whiting, used to make imitation crab.

During this time, Pacific Seafood bought from coastal fish processors and sold to restaurants and supermarkets around Portland. Then its largest supplier stopped selling to the Dulcich family business. “In one year [1982], 72% of our fresh seafood supply was gone,” Dulcich told Seafood Leader magazine in 1996. “We realized we had to get into production.” The following year, Dulcich bought a Warrenton seafood processor so he could purchase fish directly from boats.

That decision set the stage for the direction of a decades-long corporate evolution, says Joe O’Halloran, the company’s general manager and one of several managers and executives who speak of Dulcich with an almost reverential tone. “[The purchase] was launched out of hardship, but when Frank made that commitment to fish processing, he stayed with the commitment. He committed to building an integrated company: from the boat to the consumer.”

Dulcich spent the rest of the 1980s and ’90s on the hunt for acquisitions. He bought struggling seafood processors from their owners, from bankruptcy proceedings, by outbidding the competition. He expanded the company’s distribution network into Washington, California, Nevada and Arizona. Last year he partnered with a Canadian firm to open a groundfish processing plant in British Columbia.

Today most of the small processors that Pacific Seafood competed against when Dulcich first decided to expand have vanished. Global corporations have come to dominate the industry, and Pacific Seafood is one of the giants. The company declines to reveal revenues, but according to Blackford, Pacific Seafood is one of the top three, alongside Trident Seafoods of Seattle and Red Chamber Co. of California. In a world where Asian and European companies are on the rise, Pacific is one of the 10 largest processors, estimates the trade publication SeafoodSource.com.

You don’t get that big without making a few enemies. As Pacific Seafood grew, the company left a trail of bruised egos, disgruntled business partners — and unhappy family members, including Dulcich’s siblings and mother, who sued and later settled over ownership of the business, arguing that he had unfairly taken control of the family company.

Fishermen along the Oregon Coast raised parallel concerns, worrying they were losing control over their own livelihoods. “You used to be able to go fishing any time of day, catch as much as you want, deliver it any time you want,” says Spencer, the Newport fisherman.

That’s changed in part because of rapid regulatory shifts that have reshaped the commercial fishing industry, especially around sustainable-fisheries management. In the past 15 years, U.S. efforts to keep ocean species alive have resulted in a system of “catch shares” that limit how many fish can be captured, allocating shares to existing fishing vessels and, in some cases, processors. Ever stricter state and federal catch share rules not only limit how many fish a boat can bring in, but also which methods fishermen can use, and the start and the end of the season.

In the early 2000s, large companies, including Pacific Seafood, were invited to help write the catchshare rules and oversee their enforcement. The result was to further cement Pacific Seafood’s clout.

And if external factors have played a role in eroding the livelihood of independent fishermen, Pacific Seafood’s rise has added insult to injury, Spencer says. Because of the company’s growing demands, he says, fishermen must deliver their catch to the processor during certain fixed hours. Many also find the company’s quality standards incomprehensible. In the past, vessels unhappy with Pacific’s demands could have gone to the competition. But now, depending on the catch, the nearest buyer could be hundreds of miles away.

Spencer’s accusations — that Pacific Seafood controls too much of the market, that it turns away fishermen who don’t meet its standards — mirror those lobbed in an antitrust lawsuit filed against the company early this year. In that suit, filed by five West Coast commercial fishermen, attorney Michael Haglund argued that the company controls so many fishing, processing and distribution networks that it has an unfair monopoly and is able to pay less to fishermen.

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Haglund did not respond to calls seeking an interview, but in legal filings, he laid out the fishermen’s complaint: “As a result of the actions by Pacific Seafood Group, there are many fewer seafood processors in West Coast coastal communities than would be the case in the absence of their monopolistic and predatory actions.”

Pacific Seafood officials declined to discuss Haglund’s ongoing antitrust lawsuit, which originally aimed to keep Dulcich from buying Westport, Washington-based Ocean Gold Seafoods, the West Coast’s highest single-location processor by volume. But they dispute claims that their company has grown into a monopoly, or that it retaliates against fishermen for selling to other processors.

“There’s plenty of competition; I feel it every day,” O’Halloran says. “There’s always somebody trying to take your business. There are probably areas where we have better market share than others. There are probably ports where we have more support than others. But a monopoly? No, we’re not even close.”

Even some fishermen who have butted heads with Dulcich in the past say that his methods have ultimately strengthened Oregon’s seafood sector. A Newport-based commercial fishing boat owner, who asked not to be named so he could speak openly without affecting his relationships within the industry, says he no longer sells to Pacific Seafood because of past conflicts with the business. But he also says the company’s most vocal critics don’t understand the financial pressures that processors face.

“We need processing plants, and it takes a lot of capital to build and maintain them,” he says. “That means there are fewer options. If you’re a pink shrimp fisherman in Northern California or Washington, you only have three choices for processing your catch. Let’s say you have 100,000 pounds of shrimp on your boat and you don’t like the price you’re offered. You’re not going to go somewhere else. But if we don’t have these processing plants, we don’t have these jobs. This is the nature of capitalism.”

Indeed, slim profit margins with commodity fish like whiting — used in imitation crab and other products — mean that it’s crucial for many of Pacific Seafood’s plants to focus on volume, says general manager O’Halloran. “Tonnage is what’s needed to make a plant work. If you don’t have the tonnage going through a plant, you can’t keep the plant viable.”

In January, Pacific Seafood agreed to back away from the Ocean Gold acquisition, which would have added a 14th processing location to Pacific Seafood’s portfolio. But coastal fishermen, who won a similar case against Pacific Seafood in 2012, are still pursuing the lawsuit — to ensure the company doesn’t try again. A trial is scheduled to begin in July.

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Is Pacific Seafood a ruthless predator — a shark, as it were, gobbling up its independent-fishermen prey and putting them out of business? Or do company practices reflect larger industry trends?

Dulcich has achieved what many in the economic development community consider to be the Oregon dream: grow a family owned business into an international powerhouse — still headquartered in state. (In January the Portland Business Journal named Dulcich its CEO of the Year for the Food/Beverage Manufacturing sector.) And as Blackford says, visionary and monopolist are often two sides of the same coin — think Microsoft’s Bill Gates, for example. Blackford also notes that Chuck Bundrant, who grew Trident Seafoods into another giant of the industry before he turned the company over to his son in 2013, faced many of the same criticisms as Dulcich.

“In this business there are winners and losers, and if you’re one of the losers, you aren’t going to like it.”

What is clear, industry experts say, is that if Pacific Seafood had not grown, its plight might have echoed that of Bumble Bee Foods, once headquartered in Astoria with seven Oregon processing plants. Unlike Pacific Seafood, Bumble Bee’s owners did not fight to retain local ownership. In the 1980s, the company went through a series of ownership changes. It closed its Oregon plants, and today its only U.S. processors are based in California and New Jersey. Astoria’s economy took years to recover from the loss. Today a Thailand-based processor is in talks to acquire Bumble Bee.

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“This has happened in industry after industry, from the late 19th century to the present,” says Blackford, citing the forces that have shaped U.S. railroads, steel, airlines and auto manufacturers. “It takes the use of a lot of machinery, which requires a lot of capital. As you invest to grow, smaller guys will get squeezed out, acquired and so forth. In many cases, you’ll end up with a handful of companies dominating.”

Until recently, much of the seafood industry’s consolidation has involved small processors with only a handful of locations — operations that can’t handle the tonnage now required to stay profitable. But Sean Murphy, editor of the trade publication SeafoodNews.com, says he expects to see much more large-scale consolidation. “Companies are looking for opportunities,” Murphy says. “It’s about controlling the supply of new product or new materials, or about reaching into new markets.”

At Pacific Seafood’s headquarters in Clackamas County, O’Halloran and his colleagues pay scant attention to the disputes that have brought a handful of coastal fishermen to sue. And at least inside the company, the rancor that characterized Dulcich’s early growth push seems to have disappeared, although whether that’s due to the company’s new emphasis on marketing is hard to tell.

Two years ago, Dulcich hired his first chief marketing officer, Raj Kaul, and today Pacific Seafood insiders speak in admiring, almost folksy, terms of Dulcich as a family man with a multigenerational approach.

On a tour of the company’s Newport operations, that location’s general manager, Dave Wright, introduces longtime employees who have risen to low-level management jobs, and have hired their wives and children to work the lines. Wright, who is nearing retirement age, is the son, grandson and great-grandson of men who fished Oregon’s waters, and he has already hired his replacement. He’s put in place a multiyear transition plan for running Newport operations for years to come — beginning with investments in a massive cooling system that will allow Pacific Seafood to more quickly freeze the fish it receives, a guarantee of longer shelf life.

“This is part of what it means to be sustainable,” Wright says. “We want fish to be here for future generations. We want future generations to be here. We want the business to survive.”

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To ensure that future, Pacific Seafood is moving away from the acquisitions that have dominated much of Dulcich’s attention since the ’80s. Now it is more heavily focused on vertical integration — which involves expanding far beyond the ability to process fresh-caught fish, O’Halloran says. If a crisis in access to those fish launched the company’s aggressive growth effort in the 1980s, today’s Pacific Seafood is focused on how and where those fish will sell.

The strategy is two-pronged: In Asia and Eastern Europe, the company is seeking to expand exports and secure new relationships. In the U.S. and developed Western European markets, that effort involves creating new products and bringing Pacific Seafood into the consumer- branding economy.

Historically, China and Russia have been the biggest buyers of U.S. fish products. That changed last year when Vladimir Putin enacted trade restrictions with the U.S. after Russia invaded the Ukraine. 

Despite that setback, Pacific Seafood has found other opportunities for global growth through processing agreements in China, where high-value, low-volume Northwest crabs are in high demand. And it has obtained British Retail Consortium quality certifications at several of its processing plants to aid with sales efforts in Western Europe.

These initiatives reflect Pacific Seafood’s effort to capture a larger share of the $144 billion global seafood market. The company’s fledgling marketing strategy — despite Dulcich’s media aversion — reflects a different business reality: To escape the razor-thin profit margins common to global commodities, the company must distinguish itself in the marketplace.

Here, the high-tech sector again provides an apt analogy. In a PC world, where Microsoft has grown into a global giant that must fend off monopoly charges, Pacific Seafood would rather align itself with Apple. Chief marketing officer Kaul says the company’s new goal is getting consumers to see Pacific Seafood’s products as top-notch iPhones in a sea of low-cost imitators.

“Apple doesn’t sell more phones than anybody else, but they’re the best,” Kaul says, noting that his company is competing as much against chicken and beef as it is against other seafood vendors as it seeks a spot on the dinner table. With that push comes an aggressive branding effort, new value-added products and a renewed focus on sustainability.

“Our job is to respond to consumer needs, to do what the consumer wants us to do,” says Kaul, whose 25 years in meat and food marketing include work building the Butterball, Hormel and Hilshire Farm brands. Today’s typical American consumer needs hand-holding if he or she is going to consider a home-cooked seafood dinner, Kaul says.

So far, the company has introduced a shrimp burger — featured on TV’s The View — and a line of gluten-free battered fish. More products, including soups and sauces, are forthcoming under the new “Pacific Sustainable Seafood” brand name, which features species certified and processed according to Marine Stewardship Council guidelines.

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 Frank Dulcich

It’s hard not to poke fun at some of these new product marketing efforts: A company known for its hardnosed rise in the decidedly gritty industrial seafood processing business is now jumping on the kinder, gentler — and gluten-free — bandwagon and hawking its wares on a popular women’s television show.

But times change, and Murphy at SeafoodSource.com says Pacific Seafood is on the cutting edge with this approach, which mirrors innovations coming out of an English startup, the Saucy Fish Co. 

“A lot of people are intimidated by seafood. They don’t know how to cook it,” Murphy says. “People like the idea of grabbing it off the shelf; the box says put it in the microwave for five minutes, or put it in the oven at 350 for 15 minutes, and you’re good.”

Inside the company, many officials are ready for Pacific Seafood’s increasingly public approach — which Kaul says will later include advertising and sponsorships. “We might as well embrace publicity,” says O’Halloran. “The news will either be good if we embrace it, or bad if we let the rumor mill run.”

Embracing publicity and convincing consumers to try new convenience foods — and to become loyal to the Pacific Sustainable Seafood brand as competitors inevitably follow suit — will require an uncomfortable shift for Dulcich, who so far shows few signs of opening up. (Asked to confirm Dulcich’s age — 58 or 59 — his executive assistant declined, explaining, “Frank’s personal information is private.”) 

The company’s new sales strategy also highlights a challenge unique to Oregon, where large businesses are few, and giants like Nike and Intel have massive corporate marketing teams to craft and manage their images. In a sector where survival has required a certain kind of cutthroat business savvy, Dulcich’s reticence makes sense: His every move has drawn provincial criticism from along the Oregon Coast, even as he’s secured a future for hundreds of regional jobs.

“He’s been a visionary. He’s been strong-willed. It’s as though he could see the future. But he’s also been very secretive,” says Blackford. Now Dulcich has identified a new path to profitability that’s in direct conflict with the behind the scenes growth that has served the business so well. Can the CEO overcome his desire for privacy, bring attention to Pacific Seafood and win the loyalty of consumers and a place on their dinner tables?

A chief marketing officer with a brand strategy and an affinity for Apple styling is a start, but as Blackford notes, “It’s a challenging industry to brand yourself in. You don’t go out and pet a fish.”