COVID-19: One year on - an interview with Doug Paulin, CEO, Sealord


Photo: Tim Cuff

In 2020, we ran a series of local leadership blogs with a focus on Leading Through COVID-19  That series was designed to inspire and support a sense of togetherness as the region moved through the initial brunt of that challenge.

Now a little over a year on, we are taking the opportunity to reflect back on some of those interviews and revisit some of our local leaders and organisations. We're interested in finding out what's changed, what their outlooks are, and what's gone back to 'normal'.

In this interview, we talk to Doug Paulin, CEO of Sealord. We last interviewed Doug in May 2020, when Sealord was facing challenges around people safety, productivity, market reduction and dealing with peoples' fears relating to COVID. Let's see what difference a year makes.

How are things going now, one year on?

What a difference a year makes. When we last spoke, like the rest of New Zealand, we were in the middle of a crisis. There were a lot of unknowns and the uncertainty made it nearly impossible to predict future impacts to the business.

Thanks to our hard-working people and the ability of our company to quickly adapt and respond to the situation, Sealord operated incredibly well. We achieved a significant net profit result of NZD $29.3 million for our financial year and we also won a 2020 COVID-19 Response Award from Seafood NZ for outstanding leadership and for the wide-ranging support we provided to New Zealanders.

A  year on, things are going well for Sealord. Although, we are certainly navigating a number of challenges related to the longer-term impacts of COVID-19 globally (as noted below).

What have been the biggest changes in your business due to the pandemic? Were any of these changes a surprise?

We have been dealing with changes in food safety regulations from some parts of the globe, due to differing interpretations of World Health Organisation food safety guidelines, which has resulted in some export challenges. This was a surprise!

As well as that we are now starting to see significant challenges within our supply chain. The surprise is that demand has remained and it is the delivery that is turning out to be the harder part to execute.

Has the impact of the pandemic led to new opportunities or business innovations?

We’ve invested in a new modern workplace by Microsoft (Sealord online world), so that all our people are connected online to Sealord including our fishing crew and factory workers.

It became apparent during the crisis last year that we needed to communicate quickly and regularly with all our people, in a very easy and accessible way. In turn, this new intranet and document management technology has allowed everyone at Sealord to be much more connected with video, photos, story-telling and numerous ways to provide feedback and engage with the business. Whilst early days, the launch and feedback has been positive.

Sealord’s retail range of tinned tuna and salmon, as well as our coated frozen products, became even more popular. As people ate at home more, the benefit has been that a number of consumers tried our product for the first time, had a great experience and have remained purchasers even though life in NZ and Australia has mostly normalised.

We have been able to take advantage of the swing to retail supermarkets in the USA and we are producing more products for customers such as Costco.

How has the engagement of your people changed?

Working from home during lockdown for our office-based people was hugely successful. Since then, we’ve introduced the opportunity to work a day from home and other flexible work arrangements (in addition to what we already offered).

We already had a significant wellbeing programme in place but this has become even more important. For instance, our Christmas gifts to staff last year were focused on wellbeing, with things on offer like gym memberships, Wilson Abel Tasman trips, Fitbits, contributions to bikes and so on.

What are the biggest challenges facing your industry moving forward and how do you feel they can be managed?

Like many businesses, we’re having supply chain issues freighting our product around the world. We’re also struggling with recruiting people into seagoing and seasonal manufacturing roles, due to New Zealand’s surprisingly low unemployment rate and the lack of people from overseas on working holiday visas.

Over a year since the country went into lockdown, the vaccine is being rolled out globally and our borders are slowly starting to open up with our neighbours. What’s your future outlook for your business and industry?

Regardless of vaccinations, we can’t see that COVID-19 and the impacts internationally will be disappearing in a hurry, particularly as new variants emerge. It will be something that we learn to live with and manage. For instance, Sealord is looking at investing in electronic temperature checking at our entrance to speed up our site entry process. We currently manually run this process.

In terms of our markets, I think there will be a rebound in foodservice once people are released from lockdowns in other countries. They will have more money and be sick of eating at home - so I’d say we can look positively to the future in Seafood, but it does come with the warning we aren’t out of it yet.

Enjoyed this interview? Read more from our COVID-19: One Year On interview series here.

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