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Seaweed, once reviled as a rudder-fouling nuisance for ships close to shore, has afforded smooth sailing for Jean-Paul Deveau, president of Acadian Seaplants Ltd., as a multimillion-dollar cash crop. Deveau’s 31-year-old family-run company, whose annual revenue reached $40-million last year, harvests more than 40,000 tons of seaweed and sea plant matter in 70 countries around the world. From its base in Dartmouth, N.S., it has become a world leader in technology and processing of sea plants.
Rockweed harvester Kevin Doucette
ASL, which makes 95% of its sales abroad, has divisions that produce seaweed-based products for agriculture and fertilizer (the plant science division), for animal feed (the animal science division), human consumption (the food science division) and a specialty unit for seaweed ingredients that develops products for the cosmetic, brewery and nutraceutical industries.
“Our customer base is all over the place,” says Deveau, who became ASL president in 2002 for the company founded by his father, Louis, in 1981. Louis still serves as chairman.
The company’s roots are rustic, dating back to the use of sea plants as a fertilizer in the Nova Scotia garden of Deveau’s grandfather—there’s a picture of the young Jean-Paul in a wheelbarrow full of the stuff. With science and research, it has grown internationally, with personnel in seven countries. The staff of 300 includes Chile-born marine biologist Raul Ugarte, who is steward of how ASL takes care of its piece of the Atlantic coastline. (“We take less than the ocean can replenish each year,” Mr. Deveau says.) There’s also microbe interaction expert Balakrishnan Prithiviraj from India and the British-born vice-president of research Alan Critchley.
Good business growth requires ownership’s personal touch and understanding of each market and local customs, Deveau says.
“I emphasize the importance of travelling around the world, developing solid relationships with your customers, so that when there is some confusion, some challenges that need to be dealt with, because of the relationship you can work through that,” he says. “Every market that you go to, in every country, is different – even countries that you think are going to be very similar to Canada.
“… I was just in Ireland, and you’d figure with our roots it would be somewhat similar, but it is different politically – and it’s important to spend enough time to understand what is different and to adjust yourself accordingly.”
Ireland, he explains, has a long history of coalition governments, and people might be appointed to a position of authority who are not from the coalition-leading party. “You must understand that,” Deveau says.
“I go back to China: You might think all Chinese can be dealt with the same, but they are different, from Taiwan to Hong Kong to mainland China. They’re all [ethnically] Chinese but they’re very different and have different business styles. In Taiwan and Hong Kong, they have a long history of operating in a capitalist environment. Beijing is relatively new to it.”
Success hasn’t come from using all the seaweed in its natural state—otherwise any country with an ocean shoreline could build a similar industry—but from constant investment in the intensive study of plants, their chemistry and from exploring applications.
“When you take a look at what we’ve done as a company, to be able to differentiate ourselves versus the competition on a world-wide basis, we’ve invested carefully in research and development,” Deveau says.
“We developed technologies that just don’t exist out there and that way we’re able to stay ahead of our competitors. This goes beyond laboratory innovation to harvesting hardware—including the adaptation of machines originally meant for agricultural purposes and special seaweed cutters that allow sea plants a chance to continue growing. They provide to the marketplace something competitors can’t provide.
“We’re not trying to be the low-cost producer. We’re trying to provide more product that adds more value than anybody else can.” The company puts 5% to 10% of its annual revenue back into research and development. Among the fruits of ASL’s labours is a seaweed extract that is used to grow crops. The extract helps to relieve stress in plants.
On the human side, ASL has been fostering Hana-Tsunomata, a sea vegetable that dresses up salads in hues of pink and green and yellow. It’s highly popular in Japan, where 15% of the diet typically consists of seaweed.
“Most of the product we have just disappears [fertilizer, for example]… but take a look at the different product lines we have,” Deveau says. “The products we have in agriculture would be used to help grow crops through the use of natural-based products derived from marine plants. … We’ve done a tremendous amount of research – we have 25 researchers on staff including 10 PhDs – and those people can show that by using the products we have for growing crops you can grow better grapes, raise better tomatoes, anything. … Overall, it’s better and [ultimately] cheaper for the consumer.”
There are 40 or 50 of the 10,000 species of seaweed harvested for economic purposes, Deveau says. The species that makes up the majority of ASL’s harvest is mainly Ascophyllum nodosum, commonly called rockweed, which grows in the North Atlantic.
There are four pillars that underpin success, Deveau says. “No. 1 is investment in research and development which allows world leading technologies. By doing that you’re saying to the world you’re serious. Investment in R&D has allowed us to provide something the competitors can’t.
“No. 2 is really trying to stay as close to the customers as we can. … We have employees that are based in various parts of the world so that we can be as close to our customer base as possible and develop international markets. Also, highly technical products which require a high support level in technology.
“No. 3 is the focus on sustainability, and No. 4 is investment in people. … We’ve hired top people in their field from around the world to work here and kept people in other parts of the world.”