Business interview: Alastair Salvesen

For Alastair Salvesen, scion of the Christian Salvesen shipping empire, it is all about the trout, writes Erikka Askeland.

Alastair Salvesen. Picture: Julie Bull
Alastair Salvesen. Picture: Julie Bull

Or at least it was last week. At the Queen’s gala coronation festival held at Buckingham Palace, the Scottish billionaire presented a new range of smoked trout products. Salvesen’s company has recently launched its cold- and kiln-smoked varieties of trout from historic Arbroath firm RR Spink & Sons, which has been processing fish since 1715 and is the proud owner of a royal warrant.

Salvesen and his family have been in the seafood processing business since before 1983, when he spun out Dawnfresh from the Christian Salvesen group founded by his great-grandfather.

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The company was mainly into langoustine, providing much of the UK’s breaded and battered scampi from its processing plant at Uddingston, built in 1993. In 2008, the company bought out a company called Scot Trout, including more than 20 fish farms and a hatchery, turning the firm into the UK’s biggest trout producer.

But the deal didn’t go as smoothly as planned. Within months, Salvesen had to restructure the company, having to put the firm he bought into administration. He bought it back out again, but the company has been losing money.

“I don’t really want to go into the problems they had,” says Salvesen now. “That would be counter-productive.”

Since then, Salvesen has invested millions into the business – he declines to say how much. But it is only just now that the deal, which included the RR Spink business, is allowing Salvesen to reel in the benefits.

“We have spent a lot of money on it. Many people say I am totally mad. But it is a matter that I certainly see there is a great opportunity,” he insists. “It is bottoming out. It has taken longer than I’d hoped, but we are seeing considerable progress.”

Much of the investment has focused on upgrading the company’s facilities, particularly on Loch Etive. If the size of the fish Dawnfresh has started to produce is anything to go by, the investment has reaped benefits. The firm is thought to be the first to produce larger trout – weighing between 5kg and 7kg – on a commercial scale.

“We produce 1,500 to 2,000 tonnes a year of large-sized trout that we are processing and growing, whereas we process 8,000 tonnes of the ‘portion’ trout, “ he says.

“The headache is portion trout take a year and half to grow, the large trout take two and a half years to grow.

“When you compare that with chicken, which only take a few weeks to grow, it shows the scale of investment.”

Last year Salvesen took a prize-fighter of a trout to the annual European Seafood Exposition in Brussels, the world’s largest seafood trade fair.

He says: “We are the first company in Scotland that is concentrating on growing larger trout. When I took these fish to a stand at the European Seafood exhibition, I held one of them up in my hand. That just really wowed the show. From having difficulty selling the product, I am now in a position that I can’t take on any new customers. In the last year, I have opened up a £3.5 million ­export business. Large trout is really quite something.”

The company is eyeing further expansion and has applied for planning permission for another trout farm on Loch Etive. The loch is brackish – containing both salt and fresh water – which is suitable for trout, but the company has also found success growing them in sea lochs off Skye.

With a new managing director for Dawnfresh, Andrew Cooksey, on board, the company also plans to get a Freedom Foods accreditation, which will only serve underline the neatly-­packaged smoked trout morsels as both sustainable and premium.

“There isn’t such a thing as Freedom Food-accredited trout at the moment and this will be first time in ten years there has been a new designation,” Salvesen says.

“We have a very confident team come in on the farming side, plus a good production team and the facilities.

“As a company, we are working very closely with the major retailers.

“In the case of the Spinks brand, this is far more than an artisan approach. We are looking at selling the Spinks brand first and foremost into what I call the premium shops, delicatessens, the very high-quality smaller retailers rather than anything else.”

His great-grandfather, a Norwegian, started the Christian Salvesen company in the UK in 1846. His first venture was sponsoring a ship to catch herring. The firm grew into ship management, import and export and then whaling.

Earlier this year, Salvesen took a trip with the South Georgia Heritage Trust on a British Antarctic Survey vessel sailing 1,000 miles south from the Falkland Islands, during which he visited an abandoned whaling station founded by his forebears.

The South Georgia Heritage Trust works to eradicate rats introduced to the island in the 18th century, which have plagued its bird population.

“This year they managed to clear 65 per cent of the island. They reckon this project will multiply wildlife there.

“It was fascinating to see. You realise when you get there that you are not the boss – the weather is. You have four season in one day.”

Yet despite his family pedigree, he’s not much of a seafarer.

“I’ve never been out like that before. I went to visit Leith Harbour [on the north-east coast of South Georgia], which my family set up as the oldest whale factory in the world. To see the scale of it – it is incredible to see all the steel. We had as many as 500 people overwintering down there.”

He also mentions that the reason why Edinburgh Zoo has such a wide array of penguins was also a legacy of his family.

“That is why Edinburgh Zoo has the largest selection of penguins. We brought them back for the zoo.”

His other interest include backing Dovecot Studios, a tapestry workshop and gallery originally founded by the Fourth Marquis of Bute in 1912.

But the trout are still important and he expects Dawnfresh to return to profit. “Put it this way, I wouldn’t be involved if I didn’t think so,” he says.


Born: 1941

Education: Educated at Fettes College; achieved MBA at Cranfield; chartered accountant

First job: Towel and bedding maker at Montreal, in Canada

Ambition while at school:

To succeed in industry

Kindle or book? Book

Can’t live without: Contemporary paintings and tapestries

What makes you angry: Incompetence

Best thing about your job: The development of people, streamlining business and the environment