As the head of a business that can trace seafood from “net to plate” to boost efficiency, Alan Steele was understandably pleased during a family holiday in Portugal to see a lobster evening advertised at a small seaside restaurant.
“We thought ‘great — a real treat’,” he explains, and they gave the required week’s notice to secure a spot, thinking that the lobster was caught locally specially for the evening.
But Steele, who grew up in Ayr, laughs that when he asked the restaurant if the advance booking was to give the fishermen enough notice, “they said ‘no, no — it’s so we can order the lobster in — we get it from Troon in Scotland’.”
“I thought, ‘I know exactly who they buy it from’ because it’s one of our customers.”
The chief executive and president of Traceall Global says the firm, which specialises in traceability software, came into being more than a decade ago on the back of monitoring fishing vessels in north-east Scotland, with software calculating everything from how much fish was caught, and where, to fuel usage.
Seeing the potential of all this data, Steele bought the software’s intellectual-property rights, having spent 17 years in the fashion industry with his own knitwear-manufacturing business in Ayrshire supplying the likes of Topshop.
He says that when he bought the rights, traceability was still just “an emerging industry” with nobody even using the term, but he believed that both consumers and retailers were going become to increasingly interested in the provenance of a product.
The technology was then rewritten to become a traceability tool, and helping one client transform a seafood product into something more prestigious, highlighting its Hebridean provenance, proved a key moment.
“At that point we realised our software could really add value to a product, and we developed it,” he says, adding that he then started speaking in Europe on traceability and provenance to governments and the EU, “and became an expert in the industry”.
Around this time, firms like Coca-Cola and McDonald’s started hearing about the firm’s work. “Their brands were paramount, so they asked us to start tracking and tracing their product.”
While people may have wondered what monitoring fish has to do with Coca Cola, the answer is “everything,” he says, adding: “We’re monitoring drink — or whatever [the product] is — just the same as we monitor the tuna fish.”
The soft-drinks giant is now a key customer for the Glasgow-based business, which offers “state-of-the-art cloud-based technology” enabling real-time auditable traceability of a product.
He says the food industry is “probably the most heavily legislated in the world” with his firm’s software delivering the required provenance and control. Its supplier-exchange product, for example, “provides full traceability of a retail client’s suppliers’ products, ensuring the full supply chain meets the strict criteria of the retailer” and the traceability firm can certify that a product has been produced humanely and without slave labour.
Among its clients are Jamie Oliver’s global business, as well as Harrods and Selfridges, and tracking services for FedEx.
In a world where corporate scandals can reach millions in seconds, he’s heard that a brand only lasts two years after being attacked, so a company’s reputation means “everything”. “A brand is what you buy,” he says, adding that this is why the firm secured a contract with the Indonesian government, which is “starting to realise that Indonesia as a brand has a value”.
The agreement between the two organisations, for a project aimed at reducing illegal fishing that is costing the country’s economy $20 billion a year, was announced in April, and Steele says he’d been travelling to Indonesia for four years “to get to that one moment”.
Steele now travels the world two or three weeks a month, going from meetings with senior executives at Coca-Cola in Atlanta, “then the next week on a beach barefoot”.
Traceall Global has even helped fishermen in Asia, who after the tsunamis couldn’t get loans as they had no records, by enabling them to upload information verbally using a mobile phone so they could get paid. “It was empowerment of the poorest people in the world,” he says.
It is now looking at broadening its reach across south-east Asia, into the likes of Vietnam, and another area in its sights is palm oil, which he describes as “another huge issue to humanity” with production in some cases linked not just to removing orangutans’ habitats with deforestation, but also to worker exploitation.
The business has grown to 14 staff, with representation in the US, Indonesia, Malaysia and New Zealand. It has also created standards for traceability for the EU and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and has eliminated illegal fishing in UK and EU waters using its software.
Now, Steele says the aim is to “build it into a global presence” that is the ‘go-to’ company for traceability and sustainability. “We’re pioneers,” he says.
First job: Trainee accountant
Ambition while at school: To be a dentist but didn’t make the grades
What car do you drive: Don’t own a car
Favourite mode of transport: Bicycle
Kindle or book: Use both. Love my Kindle when travelling
Reading material: Currently reading A Brief History of Mankind by Yuval Noah Harari
Music: I have an eclectic taste in music, everything from classical to blues, opera to rock
What makes you angry: Hypocrisy
What inspires you: The natural world
Favourite place: Carvoiero in Portugal
Best thing about your job: Meeting and working with amazing people from around the world and making real changes