Built Oregon -Oregon's Entrepreneurial Digital Magazine

Author - J. David Santen Jr.

Adding value to Oregon seafood

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Something about Oregon’s fishing industry smelled off to Duncan Berry. The one-time salmon fisherman had made a livelihood at the helm of Apparel Source, disrupting the global textile industry by shepherding in large-scale adoption of organic cotton by retail giants like Walmart and Target.

“The one thing that’s missing in America is people who are applying their intelligence to raw materials,” Berry says. “We do great films, and great software companies, but what are we doing with the marine resource off our coast right now—one of the last great savannas of seafood? Well, we cut their heads off and we gut them, and we ship them out.”

Sea change ahead

After selling his apparel business in the mid-2000s, Berry semi-retired to his home at Cascade Head on the Oregon central coast to start an environmental consulting service.

To the south lies the Salmon River where it empties into the Pacific Ocean, and beyond that the 529-acre Camp Westwind. Berry and others have helped restore the camp through a stewardship group that he co-founded. Down the cliffs to the west: the Cascade Head Marine Reserve, established in 2014 to protect marine habitat across 18 square-miles of Pacific Ocean. Berry worked on the task force to make that happen as well.

He knew that through time and dedication, positive environmental change could happen, and that business could help drive that change. Which is why he was so perplexed at seafood industry practices that had evolved so little since his own experiences in the business decades earlier.

With ocean habitat in disrepair and species in steep decline, with coastal communities desperate for economic innovation, and with some of most valuable natural resources right at our fingertips here in Oregon—why didn’t someone do things differently?

That, in a clamshell, is the story of Fishpeople, a fast-growing seafood product company based in Portland, with a processing plant on Oregon’s central coast. Founded in 2012, the company’s goal is nothing short of changing our relationship with the sea through business.

Supply chain of values

Berry and his co-founder, Kipp Baratoff, share a commitment to values-based business. Baratoff, the CFO and COO, comes from a background of blending finance and sustainability that includes stints with Meyer Memorial Trust, real estate developer Gerding Edlen, and Equilibrium Capital.

FishpeopleBoth buy into the credo that a healthy economic system relies on a healthy natural system. But they were also aware that “there’s a graveyard of companies out there” that began with good intentions, Berry says: “No margin, no mission.”

To find that margin, the two began probing every link in the supply chain between the fisherman and the consumer.

“We asked two questions: What’s right about seafood in your life, and what’s not so good?” says Berry.

Over the course of nine months, what they heard from “distributors, grocers, mothers, children, fisherman, processors” began to illustrate the nature of the problems and the shape that a solution might take.

“There’s always a consumer that is moving at a faster speed than the entrenched business interests,” Berry says. “And there are those companies that are very nimble—mid-sized and below—that are able to move more swiftly to reorganize supply chains and connect all the dots to serve that customer.”

“If you could create and aggregate demand at the consumer level you could then drive change through the entire supply chain—if you really understood what the consumer wanted today,” Baratoff says.

A better packaged good

Through those efforts, they recognized the emergence a new customer—one that had not existed previously. It was a consumer who wanted quality and easily prepared meals, but was also concerned about source, safety, and traceability of ingredients. Healthy and gourmet grab-and-go was booming.

Berry and Baratoff saw their opening.

“What narrowed the focus was around providing solutions: A super-healthy form of protein, a social and environmental mission, and delivering a food that was being underutilized only because of the delivery mechanism,” Berry says.

They knew that Fishpeople wasn’t going to make change working at the commodity end of the equation—dominated by a couple of “monopolistic titans” not keen on new competition, as Baratoff describes it. No margin. Retail, at the other end of the spectrum, wasn’t financially feasible either.

But a branded product allowed for a relationship with the customer, while still maintaining leverage back up the supply chain. That’s where the change would need to be made.

“We did an analysis of what it would be like if we just cut off heads and gutted fish and shipped them out of state versus value-added them, and it was a swing between $700 million and $1.1 billion,” Berry says. “So we would maintain $400 million more, in Oregon, if we were able to apply value-add like we do with our pouches,” increasing the value of the fish inside by four or five times.

The “pouches” are vacuum-sealed retort packages that contain a shelf-stable product that can be prepared just by tossing the pouch in boiling water for three minutes. It eliminates spoilage and smell, and makes fish a quick and easy meal option.

However, before they could start packaging and selling, Fishpeople had to address some weaknesses in the regional processing infrastructure, finding partners willing to meet their product standards and specifications.

Processing on the coast

ProcessingOn a Monday in November, workers diced up smoked and frozen fillets of Chinook salmon two at a time, using a high-powered water jet that sliced the slabs into a grid of uniform chunks.

Once the fish is prepared, it’s sent to a manufacturing facility in Salem for packaging.

“It hasn’t come easily, but every day is a little better,” says Adam Hoogewind, a food science Ph.D. who heads up quality assurance for Fishpeople. “If it was easy, everybody would be doing it.”

Fishpeople’s processing facility opened in the summer of 2014 in the tiny central coast community of Toledo. A $30,000 economic development grant from the USDA to the Port of Toledo helped get the space up and running.

Change here has been a constant.

Since opening, plant employees have had to learn on the fly, rearranging the building layout, swapping out machinery, and experimenting with different processing approaches.

This particular step in the food processing supply chain, which would render fresh-caught fish into mouth-size morsels, just didn’t exist here in Oregon. Then again, neither did the dozen or so jobs that came with solving this problem.

“There’s no reason why a marine resource that comes from the coast shouldn’t create economic development at the coast,” Baratoff says.

Growth and shelf-stability

Today, Fishpeople has nine different products that retail at $5.99 in most major grocery chains on the West Coast, and is working its way back east. The varieties, prepared with input from a “flavor council” of cooks and chefs, include soups and sides such as Alder Smoked Wild Salmon Chowder, Albacore Tuna in a Yellow Coconut Curry, and Dungeness Crab & Pink Shrimp Bisque.

“We were at Kroger the other day,” Berry says, “and we cooked up nine different SKUs in the kitchen in their offices and we brought the buyers in and asked, ‘Do you smell anything?’
‘No,’ they said, ‘why?’

“Seafood.”

And that’s the beauty of the product. No strong fishy odors, great flavors, easily prepared, and good for you. Duncan Berry himself has tweaked the package graphics to better illustrate ease of preparation and to educate customers who hesitate at the unfamiliar retort pouch.

FishpeopleThe company’s story—it’s also a certified B Corporation—is an important part of connecting with consumers, but ultimately the product has to stand on its own.

Berry imagines Fishpeople’s customers saying, “You know what? I love seafood, but it is a real hassle to prepare. So, if you could make it convenient for me, and really healthy, and I could trust you because you are transparent? Then I’ll help you change our relationship with the sea. But do something for me first in my life with my kids and my family.”

With plans for expansion, hiring, and new products later this year, Fishpeople is on a rise buoyed by an Oregon-made product that tastes and smells as good as it is—and only in part because of the good it does.

“The most humbling thing is that are other people who want to walk on this journey with us, because we just can’t do it alone,” Baratoff says. “Our consumers have to walk with us, our supply chain has to walk with us, every employee in this place has to walk with us—if they don’t understand that intention, then Duncan and I aren’t doing our jobs. But if we can set that intention, there’s a pretty strong current going in the right direction.”

Fishpeople has an ongoing relationship with the suppliers for every ingredient in its packages, the majority of which come from the Pacific Northwest. They’ve even included batch numbers on every package that consumers can input online to see the source and producer for everything in that specific serving, from the fish and vegetables to herbs and spices.

That regional supply chain provides transparency, and also solves the issues and expense of refrigeration and spoilage that plague the seafood business.

“There’s value-based reasons for why we try to create things in Oregon or the Pacific Northwest that are deeply important to us,” says Baratoff, “But those are also just byproducts of building a good business.”

For more information, visit http://fishpeopleseafood.com/, follow Fishpeople on Twitter, like Fishpeople on Facebook, or follow Fishpeople on Instagram.

A knight in shining armor, on a Dark Horse

Richardson2-Horiz-Small

Mike Richardson has stopped the interview to take issue with the reporter’s cell phone and audio recorder.

“This is what you need,” he says, holding out the latest iteration of Apple’s iPhone. He snaps a photo of his visitor and touts its resolution and color quality.

“The older you get, the more you have to point out to people that you’re staying on top of things,” he jokes.

No one doubts that Richardson is on top of things these days. As founder, president and publisher of the Milwaukie, Oregon-based Dark Horse, the Oregon-born maverick has built a multi-million dollar entertainment empire by doing business as anything but usual.

Presenting… Dark Horse

Founded in 1986, Dark Horse has made its mark on the industry with a roster of edgy characters and gripping storylines that have transcended traditional comic book frames into films, television, merchandise and more.

DHP3 #7 REGULAR CVRThe creepy, kooky family includes creations like The Mask, Hellboy, Sin City, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Conan, Star Wars and many more—making Dark Horse the third-largest comics publisher, trailing only DC and Marvel.

Today, Dark Horse employs about 150 people, including employees at four Things from Another World retail shops, and works with nearly 1,000 other artists and writers. Its Dark Horse Entertainment television and motion picture division, which has produced 28 films and TV series, has a dozen more projects in development, including Dark Matter, a 13-episode series based on the graphic novels that will air in spring 2015 on the SyFy network, and Tarzan, coming to the big screen in summer 2016.

This year may go down as the best in company history—no small feat considering that it accomplished the same in 2013 with a 25-percent increase in revenues.

Bookstore and digital sales have been strong, buoyed in part by stories based on video game properties like The Legend of Zelda. All-ages titles based on the popular game Plants vs. Zombies, written by Eisner-award winning author Paul Tobin, have caught on faster than a zombie invasion, selling over 500,000 copies in the past year.

The merchandise division Dark Horse Deluxe caught lightning in a bottle with the official Game of Thrones character figurines, of which Richardson says they can barely make fast enough to keep pace with demand.

buffyOther plans include expanding its stable of contributing “mainstream” authors. Fight Club 2, a 10-issue sequel, will be written by author Chuck Palahniuk, while an upcoming edition of Dark Horse Presents will include a story by Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn. Meanwhile, the Joss Whedon “Whedonverse,” which includes longtime favorites Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel & Faith, Serenity, and others, continues to expand, as do the Japanese manga publications and partnerships.

Even now, on the eve of losing his highest profile license, Richardson sets his sights higher.

Origin stories

“In this country—underline that—you’re going to eat, and you’re going to have a place to stay,” Richardson says. “It might not be the best place to stay and it might not be the best food you could find in the best restaurant, but you can eat and you can sleep.” And therein lies freedom to pursue your dreams.

A Milwaukie, Oregon, native, Richardson earned a bachelor’s degree in art from Portland State University in 1977, where the 6’ 9” student lettered in basketball alongside basketball legend Freeman Williams (whose 3,245 career point total trails only Pistol Pete Maravich among all-time NCAA Division I men’s players).

When Richardson’s wife, Karie, became pregnant, he took the somewhat unconventional step of quitting his job as furniture package designer—and encouraging his wife to leave hers as well.

“I quit because I didn’t want to work for someone else.”

Together they moved to Bend, Oregon, where Richardson leased a 400-square-foot retail space. He worked construction jobs building houses while getting his store ready.

Pegasus Comics opened on New Year’s Day, 1980, even though he was still getting the space ready.

“My wife said, ‘Why don’t you be open while you’re doing this?’ So I walked over and flipped the sign around to ‘Open.’”

Our hero’s journey

Like many small business owners, Richardson struggled at the outset.

A month in, his landlord offered to let him out of the lease “because how could I make money in comics?” Late that winter, his friends staged an intervention, where they tried to get Mike to take his old job back. He was not deterred. “It didn’t matter. I knew where I was going. Every day was better than the last day and every week better than the last week.”

Richardson treated the store like a real business “rather than a hobby shop” and advertised on television and radio. He focused on building cash flow and expanding his business. He learned accounting. In the meantime, his wife worked as a waitress to support the family.

“I didn’t take home a regular income for seven years—I put it all in the business. We lived in a duplex that was the cheapest one I could find and socially, when we met new people and they came to our place we never saw them again. I didn’t care—I was into building my business.”

Creator rights

From those early days, Richardson would fly in comic book artists for in-store promotions, and then take them out to dinner.

“They all complained about the same thing: They’d create these characters but they didn’t own them.” This was nothing new, Richardson says the practice harkens “clear back to [Jerry] Siegel and [Joe] Shuster—they created Superman—got paid a few hundred bucks and were let go a few years later out their own door.”

Frustrated by a lack of quality content available to comic sellers, Richardson decided to try something different.

“We offered creators complete ownership over their material—and we paid them Marvel and DC rates.”

His comic book company launched in 1986 with the anthology Dark Horse Presents #1.

The issue introduced Paul Chadwick’s Concrete, a speechwriter who transforms into a one-ton creature (a seven-foot-tall likeness stands just inside the entryway at the Dark Horse offices). The early catalog generated sales, buzz, and industry awards, and Dark Horse was off and running. His logo, a black knight chess piece, confirmed his status as an outsider to be reckoned with.

Own your work

Not long after, Richardson inked a deal with Frank Miller, one of the biggest names in comics, best-known for his work reinvigorating franchises such as Daredevil and that other Dark Knight, Batman. Miller’s work led to the seminal series Sin City, and helped attract other A-level talents like Mike Mignola.

“You can own it. We’ll pay you to produce it. And we’ll be partners in it. If you decide to leave, you can leave.”

That’s the pitch Richardson makes to artists and writers who crave financial independence and creative control.

“I’ll go up to a creator from one of the big two [DC/Marvel] and ask what they’re working on. ‘Oh, Spider-Man.’ Well, why don’t you do something for Dark Horse?”

“They ask me why they would do that, and I ask them, ‘Who did Spider-Man ten years ago?’ They don’t know. ‘Who did Sin City 20 years ago? Oh that’s Frank Miller. Who did Hellboy 20 years ago? That’s Mike Mignola.’ And the light goes on.”

Today, many companies in the industry have followed this approach.

“If you have the talent to do it, you should be out creating your own material,” Richardson says.

The Force will not be with you, always

Many Star Wars fans rejoiced at Disney’s $4 billion 2012 purchase of Lucasfilm, Ltd., which signaled new hope and new films for the venerable franchise. The announcement from Disney, whose holdings already included Marvel Comics, even included the long-awaited release date for Episode VII.

For Dark Horse, it signaled the beginning of the end to a two-decades-long partnership with George Lucas, during which time it had published multitudes of properties related to the Star Wars universe. (A framed thank-you note from Lucas hangs in the Dark Horse lobby.)

The transfer of rights to Disney and Marvel takes place in January 2015. Aside from running closeout specials on Star Wars merchandise, Dark Horse has set its sights on backfilling the loss with deals Richardson was hustling to make while at New York Comic Con this October.

He acknowledges the outsized presence of The Force in his catalog, but hastens to point out that this represents only six percent of the bottom line—an amount that entails a tremendous amount of work and energy to maintain.

“I’m not happy about it, but these big licenses coming in will more than make up for Star Wars.”

Aliens and Predators and BRAAIIINSSS

Licenses have been a way of balancing creator-owned content almost since the inception of Dark Horse.

“Our diversity is what has kept us going,” Richardson says. “Trust me: I’d like a Batman or a Superman. But our Batman is Hellboy. Our Superman is Sin City. Our Spiderman is The Goon.”

Those properties build up faithful and sustaining audiences over time, but in the meantime, Richardson saw a need to fill a financial and creative gap.

“Let’s take our favorite movies and make sequels in comic book form.”

Aliens Fire and Stone TPB 4x6The idea was simple enough, but in the late-1980s, movie tie-ins were typically low-budget cash-grabs that did little to extend storylines or expand imaginations. Then came Aliens, Dark Horse’s follow-up to the Ridley Scott blockbuster, and soon thereafter, Predator. These series sold hundreds of thousands of copies while engaging new readers with the comic book form.

With Dark Horse at the helm, the company pushed the properties even further, creating an unholy mash-up: Alien vs. Predator, selling sold copies “in the millions” Richardson says, and the AvP franchise was born.

This fall, Dark Horse announced the latest AvP installment. This time, the “A” is for Archie and his pals Jughead, Betty, and Veronica who will face off against “P”—which is still the Predator.

“If Archie approves some of the covers I’ve seen, I’ll be shocked,” Richardson laughs.

Shocking, indeed.

Today, these property licenses are big business for books, comics, and merchandise at Dark Horse. Other big sellers include Tomb Raider with Lara Croft, Plants vs. Zombies, and even Tim Burton’s “Tragic Toys for Girls and Boys,” a line of figurines designed by the iconic filmmaker.

Despite comics’ traditional status as “low culture,” Richardson has always approached the form as worthy of craft and quality. When a coloring shop once returned an issue with sub-par results, he called the owner to complain. “What do you care? It’s only comics,” the owner replied. “That was the last job he ever got from me,” Richardson says. Instead, he spent the money to bring coloring operations in-house, building a system from scratch.

Browsing the digital racks

“Every generation has an affinity for the technology of its time. The rest of us can grab onto it, but never understand it the way they can, and maybe never see the same kind of potential.” These digital natives don’t just live with this technology, “They live inside it.”

That’s Richardson’s roundabout way of explaining his ongoing pursuit of digital platforms for comic books.

The days of picking up the latest in a comic series at the corner drugstore have long-since passed. The market for these “floppies”—32 pages with two staples—has given way to more immediate content online and omnibus collections that can be read more like a novel.

As a publisher and a retailer, Richardson sees this digital step as inevitable, and one that other companies will have to take eventually. Rather than joining some 75 publishers on the industry-leading Comixology platform, Dark Horse spent a considerable sum to create its own digital storefront and app.

Leading the charge

Richardson doesn’t fear getting ahead of the curve on this. Dark Horse fully embraced the social media network MySpace as a platform for original content back in the late-2000s (those stories have since been collected and anthologized in paperback).

His goal is nothing short of “the entire Dark Horse library available 24 hours a day, every day of the year, in every deliverable form of distribution in existence, in every country in the world, in seven languages. If people want to anticipate what we’re going to do in the future, that’s our grand vision.”

And with improvements in technology, this creates a better reading experience anyway, says Richardson. “Comics readers today are more likely to be 25 than 12, and they’d rather have a book on a shelf than a comic in a box.” His preference? “I like it both ways.”

While Dark Horse has made an industry-wide impact with its focus on creator rights, it’s also had a pronounced impact regionally. When it began in Portland 28 years ago, “there was no comic books industry” out here, Richardson says. Dark Horse drew a crowd of creators for the coloring, lettering, illustration, writing and more, and many of those went on to create their own companies or characters.

Meanwhile, interest in comics continues to grow nationally as well as here in Oregon. Portland’s own Rose City Comic Con has ballooned from just 4,100 attendees in its first year to approximately 20,000 in its third, while the DIY ethos of comics and publishing, as a form for storytelling and creative expression, fits within the rising maker movement as well as the ecosystem of content creators working in the digital space.

Still working

atomic-legionWhat’s most surprising about the fact that Mike Richardson still writes is that he has time to do so. But, this is the man who first envisioned The Mask, among other characters. On his desk is a copy of The Atomic Legion, a new collection that he’s written, chronicling the adventures of a familiar-yet-forgotten set of superheroes.

He also finally completed Ronin 47, a retelling of “Japan’s Alamo,” that he has researched and studied off-and-on for 20 years, including visits to temples and graves. Working with longtime Dark Horse collaborator Stan Sakai, the two produced the five-issue series, which was nominated for an Eisner Award in 2014.

Richardson stays busy outside of work. Although he’s never illustrated any of Dark Horse’s comics, he’s taken up drawing again. He’s trying to improve his electric guitar skills. His basketball team won the championship at the 2013 World Master’s Games in Turin, Italy, and he finished restoring a 1973 red Corvette that he spent three years finding parts for.

He’s a grandfather now (or in his words, “father with daughter with daughter,” and when asked how long he plans to stay at Dark Horse: “Right now? Until I’m dead.” He clarifies: “40 years.”

“I’m a storyteller,” Richardson says. That defines what he does, and the ways in which he does it. He encourages others to take the same kinds of chances because, well, why not?

“The odds of anybody being alive are infinitesimal—if you calculate the odds, you’ll see that it’s impossible for you to sit here. And to be here, in a time when we can live a decent life, when most people in history didn’t get that chance? We are so lucky.”

“I just want to take advantage of that to do something and leave something behind that means something. Let’s inspire people. Let’s do great things.”

“That’s the fight.”

For more information, visit http://www.darkhorse.com, follow Dark Horse on Twitter, like Dark Horse on Facebook, or follow Dark Horse on Instagram.

(Image courtesy Erik Urdahl/PSU. Used with permission.)