Johnson Seafarms: Karol Rzepkowski and Laurent Viguié

The cod farmer that has got its customers hooked


Sometimes it takes someone on the outside to spot the opportunity that’s right under your nose.

Entrepreneur Karol Rzepkowski was asked in 2004 to revive the fortunes of Shetland-based family-run salmon farm Johnson Seafarms. After recognising it was a market in decline and that a student project could be the answer to the farm’s woes, he roped in Laurent Viguié, raised £21m and completed an MBO in March 2005.

“The original owners wanted us to keep the company going, but salmon farming was in crisis,” says Rzepkowski. “We noticed one tiny case of cod and found out the owners had agreed to look after it for students at the North Atlantic Fisheries College who had pioneered the production of juvenile cod. We sent some to the US and there was a tremendous reaction.”

Viguié and Rzepkowski, with no experience in fish, recognised, amid declining cod stocks, there was far more interest in sustainable cod than salmon farming. On the back of it, they secured £3.5m in two rounds of EIS funding to start growing the cod.

However, the owners Angus and Ivor Johnson were adamant they’d remain salmon farmers and saw the cod as a side-project managed for investors. “They just didn’t get it,” says Viguié. “In the end they asked us to sell.” Seeing the potential, Viguié and Rzepkowski put their vision into a business plan.

That vision was to mass-produce the world’s fi rst organic sustainable cod. “We had to get away from the negative image of fish farming, so we decided to go organic,” says Rzepkowski. Fed on off-cuts of herring and mackerel reared for human consumption with no hormones, dyes, pesticides, chemicals or genetically modifi ed feed, Johnson’s cod is 100% organic. It’s completely ethical too. The Marine Conservation Society, Organic Food Federation, RSPCA, Soil Association and Scottish Environmental Protection Agency were brought onside from the start to ensure all environmental and fish welfare issues were addressed.

The bulk of investment has gone on the acquisition and expansion of a local cod hatchery, one of only two in Europe, and the establishment of an ‘egg-to-plate’ production process. “We’ve built facilities to fi llet, gut and package. Salmon farmers never developed an ability to take the product to market. They’d grow it but the processors would make all the profi ts,” says Rzepkowski. The cod will be sold in two ways. A supermarket brand ‘No Catch’ will launch in May, while ‘Shetland Organic Cod’ will be supplied to top restaurants and exported to the US. By 2007, 1.5m cod will have been harvested, and trout and mussels will also be on the menu.

Rzepkowski insists the potential is massive. “This is a total innovation for agriculture and essential for fi sh stocks. If we hadn’t started rearing livestock there’d be none left by now as we’d have eaten them all – it’s the same with fi sh. In the future you won’t eat cod that’s not organic and sustainable.”

COMPANY PROFILE

Company: Johnson Seafarms

Proposition: Organic sustainable cod farm

Co-owners: Laurent Vigui? and Karol Rzepkowski

Formed: 1985

Turnover: ?9m predicted for 2006

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