Salmon is big business in Scotland. The nation exported nearly £400 million-worth of the fish last year and the industry is expecting to beat that figure this year thanks to growing demand in markets across Europe and Asia.
One of the companies at the heart of Scotland’s salmon industry is Loch Duart, which is based at Scourie, near Lairg, in Sutherland. The company, which produces about 5,000 tonnes of salmon each year, rears its fish in sea lochs in the North-West Highlands and in the Outer Hebrides.
Loch Duart – which supplied the salmon served at the Queen’s diamond jubilee in 2012 and the royal wedding between Prince William and Kate Middleton the preceding year – turned over more than £25m last year and is expected to comfortably beat that figure this year.
About two-thirds of its sales come from exports, with its fish being eaten in more than 20 countries spread across Europe, the Far East, the Middle East and North America.
“Our exports are driven by customer demand – customers all around the world want to eat our salmon and so we export it to them,” explains Alban Denton, who took over as managing director in April 2015, following a career in the food industry that included spells at bread giant Warburtons and as a director of supermarket vegetable supplier Kettle Produce. “At the moment, we’re being pulled more and more into France by the demand for the premium product that we produce.
“We’re a relatively-small producer, but to sell our 5,000 tonnes we can’t just commit to the UK market because we produce a premium product and so we also choose to go international. Strategically, I like to balance risk and so the ability to run a business that can trade in sterling, euros and dollars is a pragmatic way of spreading our eggs across a number of baskets.”
Loch Duart was crowned as the export team of the year at the 2016 HSBC Scottish Export Awards in association with Scottish Enterprise, beating off strong competition in what was a popular category. “Winning an award is important for us because it gives validation for what we do from an independent authority when we talk to our customers – our customers see that we are an award-winning company and who doesn’t want to buy products from an award-winning company?” says Denton. “Winning an award tells our customers a really positive message that, not only do we preach about the way our business operates, but we also put it into practice and then external people come in and audit what we do through awards schemes and authenticate and validate what we do.
“It’s also really important internally because it’s one of our ways of recognising and rewarding our excellent professionals. I can tell them ‘well done’ as often as I like but for them to see their names in the press and to have a night out at the awards ceremony and be celebrated gives them an important moment in the spotlight. The evening itself is an exciting and exuberant occasion so it gives them a chance to celebrate what they do.
“For our investors, it shows that their business is at the leading edge of its industry and is beating its competition to win these awards. That’s an important element of success.”
The company is owned by its founders – Alan Balfour, Andy Bing and Nick Joy, along with their family members – as well as the Scottish Investment Bank, the investment arm of Scottish Enterprise, and the sustainable investment division of Capricorn Investment Group.
“Capricorn is as interested in understanding what we do to sustain the communities in the Highlands and the islands as it is about the profit-per-kilo figures,” Denton added.
Loch Duart isn’t resting on its laurels – the company is targeting further export growth in the Far East, with expansion across markets including China, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore. “Our salmon has just gone onto the menu at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Hong Kong,” says Denton. “Being seen there will open other doors for us.”
Denton praises the support he has received from Scotland’s public bodies. Economic development agency Highlands & Islands Enterprise (HIE) has worked with Loch Duart since the company was formed in 1999. “Loch Duart is a company we are very keen to support for a whole variety of reasons,” explains Keith Muir, head of business growth for the Caithness and Sutherland area at HIE. “The company is very well managed with a strong team who have earned our respect by consistently delivering exactly what they say they will do.
“They are a crucial employer in two of our most fragile areas, and have a reputation for being both good employers and good neighbours in their communities. They have worked tirelessly to develop close relationships with all their suppliers and customers, who now form a committed community of stakeholders.
“Pulling these strands together, they have succeeded in building a substantial and enduring value in their brand, based not just on the quality of their product but on the whole ethos of the company with its respect for its partners, for the environment, and crucially, for the industry-leading standards of husbandry of the fish in their care.
“We were particularly pleased when they won the export team of the year award earlier this year in recognition of all the hard work the whole team has put in over the years to build their brand and take the best of Scottish produce to a world market.”