09 November From Roughneck to Seafood King
In the not-to-distant future, you might do a Google search for the word “perseverance” and Jim Gulkin’s face will probably pop up on your computer. The word epitomizes the career of the Managing Director of Siam Canadian Foods. He’s gone from being a backpacker and oil rig roughneck to running a company with offices in Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, China, India and Indonesia, whose sales last year were close to US$300 million.
And he’s done it all without a business degree, without a true business background and even without a business mentor of any sort. It’s a truly amazing story, and it just goes to show what one person can do when they set their mind to it.
Jim graduated from high school in 1975, and worked in chemical factory for a while, before becoming a bellboy at the Airport Hilton in Montreal of September of 1975. He managed to accumulate CAN$5,000 while working there, which he used to travel for 13 months through Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
He started his trip in June of 1976 when he landed in London, England, where his sister was studying at the London Film School (she’s now a film editor, based in Toronto). From there he went to Holland, and Germany, where while in Munich he heard of a group of Iranians who were importing cars to Iran. So he joined a convoy and drove from Munich to Tehran in a Fiat. His route took him through Austria, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Turkey and then on to Tehran. He then hopped a bus back to Greece where while staying at a campground he had a fortuitous meeting with a young Brit who was teaching in Saudi Arabia. He told Jim about the oil workers in the Mid-East, who would work one month on, one month off, earn lots of money and then travel extensively: this lifestyle appealed to him.
But first, he wanted to finish what he began – his backpacking journey. He traveled from Cairo to Cape Town stopping in the Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Zaire, Rwanda, Burundi, Zambia, Rhodesia, Botswana, Malawi and Namibia along the way, spending almost eleven months in Africa. Jim’s adventures in Africa are a whole other story, but let’s just say he saw and did things that few others have experienced.
In August of 1977 he returned to Canada. He wanted to try working in the oil fields, so in September he set out for Alberta to work as a roughneck. But it was tougher than he thought it would be, and he hurt his back and elbow, so after a few months he headed back to Quebec.
In Montreal, he took a job in a men’s shop selling shirts and suits for a while, but he realized he wasn’t going to be able to save enough money to enable him to travel again. So after a couple of months, he decided to have another go at the oil business. In February of 1978, he went back to Alberta, but this time he was tougher and better prepared. He stayed until December of that year, working on rigs in southern and central Alberta and saving lots of money.
This enabled him to take his next big trip: to Asia. He landed in Manila in January of 1979, stayed in the Philippines for six months, and then traveled to Hong Kong, Malaysia and Thailand. He ended up in Singapore at the end of the year with US$300 to his name.
He pounded the pavement, and with skyrocketing oil prices he eventually found work with Schlumberger in early 1980 as a production work-over technician. Based out of Singapore, he spent the next four years working in Indonesia, Peninsular Malaysia, Sarawak, Sabah and Brunei. During his time off, he started traveling to and becoming familiar with Thailand. In 1984, he was posted to the Persian Gulf where for two years he worked as a technician in the UAE, Kuwait, Oman, Yemen, Pakistan and India.
In 1986, he took a year off, knowing he wanted to start laying the foundation for running his own business. He thought he would set up shop in Thailand; he just wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. He eventually resigned from Schlumberger, and having spent seven years in the oil business he had some money saved, but he was a high school graduate with no business experience. His forte; he learns quickly.
He thought of starting a fast food franchise, so he enlisted a group of Chulalongkorn University students to conduct a survey for him in 1986. He soon realized he didn’t have enough money to make a go of it but what else could he do? Someone suggested selling Canadian products in Thailand? So he spent the first four months of 1987 in Canada, gleaning what he could about the import/export business. Then a company called Morris National, based out of Montreal took a chance with and he started supplying them with canned pineapple and canned shrimp.
Jim returned from Canada with 16 million different product ideas – everything ranging from steel girders to wire rope. He founded the Siam Canadian Trading Co. in June of 1987, and focused on food because that business was quickly expanding in Thailand. He quickly then went one further and zeroed in on seafood mostly shrimp but also fish and squid. It was a new industry, there was plenty of room to grow and the opportunities it presented were much greater. And as the value of the product was much higher, and the revenues wrought from a single transaction were also much higher. So Jim and his company focused on seafood and started exporting to Canada, the US and Europe, while opening offices in Vietnam in 1992 and Burma in 1996 along the way.
Then in 2002, the Southern Shrimp Alliance (SSA) in the US brought an anti-dumping suit against Thailand, India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Ecuador and Brazil. They won and not only did this suit force companies from those countries to pay an import tariff to the US, but US Customs also forced them to post a cash bond up front, based on their previous year’s imports. Then through a retroactive review process the companies are potentially subject to further tariffs if the Americans conclude they were still dumping. The Byrd Amendment provided a huge incentive for groups like the American Southern Shrimp alliance to bring these suits as now the money raised from the tariffs went directly to the plaintiffs, whereas before it went into the government coffers.
Jim realized that these tariffs could have a serious impact on sales and future growth. He knew he had to diversify his business and expand his supply, product and customer range. He knew that putting a large percentage of his business in the hands of three or four companies and focusing on a certain geographical area was not the way to go.
So in 2002 he expanded to China, opening up an office in Zhanjiang in Guandong province. Then the next year, he opened up an office in India in Vishakatpatna in Andra Pradesh state, and in 2005 he opened another office in Jakarta, Indonesia. The company’s supply base quickly doubled.
Jim has actually been able to grow the business every year but this one. Early Mortality Syndrome (EMS) has hit the shrimp aquaculture business in Thailand hard; it’s also affected shrimp growers in other countries such as China, Malaysia, Mexico and Vietnam. EMS affects the digestive tract and liver of the shrimp causing them to die young. But aside from the shrimp business, James’ other seafood interests are doing fine.
Let’s break down what products Jim makes in each of its plant: in India the biggest business on the east coast is shrimp, on the west coast it is shrimp too, but squid & cuttlefish as well; in China, the company specializes in shrimp & breaded shrimp, tilapia (an aquaculture fish), and cold-water fish from northern China; in Thailand, the focus is shrimp; Indonesia is shrimp as well as octopus, tuna & squid; in Myanmar the company focuses on fresh-water fish geared for the south Asian market, Myanmar spawns a type of freshwater carp called rohu and katla, which is very similar to indigenous carp from Iraq, not surprisingly Siam-Canadian sends most of its Burmese-style carp to Iraq. In Vietnam, the country does a lot of trade with aquaculture fish, fish that are raised in ponds or cages, particularly pangasius as well as shrimp, cuttlefish, octopus and various kinds of fish.
The main type of shrimp the company harvests in Thailand these days, about 98 percent of the market share, is “Vannamei White”, Thailand used to be a big supplier of Black Tiger shrimp, but no more, Vietnam, India and Bangladesh are the big suppliers of Black Tiger today. Other big suppliers of Vannamei White include Indonesia (?% of its shrimp market), India (80%) and Vietnam (50%). Vannamei White originates from the Eastern Pacific along the west coast of Mexico and Central and South America; it was introduced to Thailand a decade ago and soon became the dominant species, as its faster growing and yields a greater volume.
Jim says he will do anything he can to promote the company’s name, and he says Siam Canadian stands for a company that is able to source product from across Asia, produces good quality in a high volume, while staying competitive and maintaining a proper packaging procedure. “We have reliable people on the ground who allow you to sleep at night,” he says. There are a number of shady operators on the Asian seafood scene, and Jim makes sure that his company and others stay clear of them.
Jim says that each country has a government body designated to look after the fisheries industry but enforcement varies from country to country, and some countries don’t even perform a proper export quality check, but Siam Canadian does. “The product we sell is inspected by us before shipment and during production.” Jim says his inspectors look at freshness, rating, and they look for signs of chemical abuse, dehydration or incorrect processing as well (e.g. shrimp that has been soaked in chemicals has a glassy appearance and a crunchy texture).
“We test all the physical properties: we smell it, we cook it, we taste it,” Jim says, “and then we test all the commercial properties (the weight, the count, the packaging and the labelling, which can be very complicated and is very important.)”
The company also does a lot of trade between its offices, e.g. Indonesian shrimp into China, Indian squid into Thailand and Chinese fish into Indonesia. Siam-Canadian has also started an import business in Thailand bringing in products like Norwegian salmon. Jim says, “We still have room to grow, the seafood market is massive. We have customers in over 70 countries, our traditional markets (Canada, the US & Western Europe) are still key markets for us, but we have expanded into Eastern Europe, Mexico, Central and South America, Africa, the Middle East & East Asia.”
Siam Canadian primarily sells to importers who may or may not be wholesalers, distributors and processors. It doesn’t do a lot of direct business with retailers.
There are 100 people in the company, 30 in Bangkok, and each location has its own manager who runs the business and Jim tries to get to each office at least twice a year, and every year there’s an annual meeting in Bangkok, which all the managers and senior people from each office attend.
In terms of dollar value from top down so far this year the Indonesian company has done the most sales followed by Vietnam, China, Thailand, India and Myanmar. This is anomaly though because Thailand is usually head of the pack as it was last year followed by Indonesia, Vietnam, China, India and Myanmar.
In terms of volume of production this year its Vietnam, China, Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar and India while last year it was Thailand, Vietnam, China, Indonesia, Myanmar and India.
Summing up, Siam Canadian continues to expand, and the company spends a lot of time, money and effort on promotions at trade fairs, on advertising, and public relations, which is it backs up with good quality product and service. Word of mouth is also a key factor in expanding the company’s business. Jim, himself, is no longer involved in the day-to-day sales or procurement; he used to handle the biggest volume of sales for the company. Nowadays, he oversees the six offices; he trouble-shoots mainly, sifting through hundreds of e-mails a day looking for problems and opportunities, focusing on strategy for marketing and expansion. He’s basically the glue that binds the offices together.
On the personal front, Jim only developed a stable home life after he left the oil field. When he first arrived in Thailand, he had a home/office on Sukhumvit 27 and as recounts “it was just a thrill for me to read the newspaper in my own home and sleep in own bed every day.” He’s been married to Khun Jan for sixteen years now; she runs Penner-Madison & Co., Ltd., a marketing/public relations firm and the couple have a five-year-old son named Rylan.
Jim’s travels and his work on the oilrigs have forged him. The former gave him a military-type training and discipline, and the later gave him self-confidence to try new things and complete projects he had initiated. Ironically, he says that not having a business background or mentor helped him: “I had no preconceived notions about what was possible and what wasn’t and I soon realized that most things are possible. I made my own mistakes and learned from them.”
Jim Gulkin is a study in determination and perseverance. His can-do attitude and willingness to adapt to and try new things is a great example for young Canadian entrepreneurs to follow. He’s a model entrepreneur and one the Canadian community can be very proud of.
Btw, The Intrafish Industry Report for 2012 ranks Siam Canadian as one of the world’s top 30 farmed shrimp suppliers as well as one of Asia’s top 40 seafood companies. Not too shabby for a guy who when he started out in the business world really wasn’t sure of what he was doing, or where he was going.
And where did his seafood interest come from? Jim grew up liking lobster, swordfish and clams; he grew a taste for these when his family made road trips to New England and the Maritime provinces. He probably never guessed that he would play such a huge role in having so many others enjoy the pleasures of seafood too.