I guarantee that few of people have heard of the intelligent fanatic Chuck Bundrant. Chuck Bundrant is the founder and 51% owner of Trident Seafoods, the largest vertically integrated seafood company in North America. The company owns 16 processing plants and 41 fishing vessels and produces $2.4 billion in revenue. Chuck is a billionaire, and his son now leads the company. If you eat wild salmon at a fine restaurant or a fish sandwich at fast food restaurant, chances are that it was caught, processed, packed, and shipped by Trident.
Chuck Bundrant’s story reads like an action movie. In fact, one of Bundrant’s early childhood inspirations to go to Alaska was seeded by the John Wayne movie “North to Alaska”. Bundrant and the rise of Trident Seafoods involves guns, God, grizzly bears, suitcases of cash, big boats, rough men, and some luck. But it’s also a story of an intelligent fanatic with great character, integrity, and one who has built a culture of excellence.
In 2011, Chuck Bundrant gave a rare keynote speech. In the 8-minute speech he credited Trident “people” for the company’s success 14 separate times. This wasn’t an afterthought, but something Bundrant has been saying and doing for decades.
Here is a 1-minute clip of Chuck from 1990 talking about his people:
Bundrant has always had an uncanny ability to inspire and lead by example. John van Amerongen, author of Catching A Deckload of Dreams, traveled with Bundrant for several years:
“After I joined Trident in 2006, I got to travel around with the boss, spending more time in Alaska on boats and in fish plants, meeting customers at trade shows, and getting to know his family, his business partners, his friends, and hundreds of Trident employees – from fisherman and forklift drivers to freezer busters, plant managers, presidents, and pinbone pickers. He treated everyone the same. He looked them in the eye, he shook their hands and said thank you, and he always picked up the biggest box or bag on the dock when it was time to load up and move on. Chuck was always out in front, and you always wanted to keep up, carrying the biggest bag you could lift.”There are lots to learn from this intelligent fanatic, but I’d like to first start with the beginning. Here is the story of how one good deed can launch an empire.
It was the winter of 1961, and nineteen-year-old Chuck Bundrant, told his parents he was quitting college after the first semester. He did the math and spending $100,000 on college to make $10,000 per year as a Veterinarian just didn’t make much sense. He was a hard worker, working 40 hour weeks during high school and 80 hour weeks during the summers. He was in a hurry to make it on his own. He heard from a friend that you could make enough money in one fishing season in Alaska to pay for an entire college education. That was a lot of money.
His mother said, “We just trusted the Lord to take care of him.” Seen above, Chuck loaded up a 53’ Ford station wagon with his belongings and left his home in Evansville, Indiana for the West Coast. He had convinced a couple friends to go with him. Neither of them had ever been on a fishing boat. It would take several months of travel while working odd jobs at a Renault Dealership, A&P grocery store, and others, all the while searching for a job that would take him to Alaska.
Finally, he landed a job “bustin freezers” with Pan Alaska Fisheries in Adak, Alaska. Adak is about as far away from the rest of the United States as you can get (the red pin above). Adak is literally closer to Russia than it is Anchorage. Bustin freezers is the most entry level position in the king crab industry. He spent 16 hour days in the bottom of a king crab processing boat stacking 60 pound cases of king crab meat. The metal trays were packed with crab and inserted between the plates from the side of the bank of freezers. Once frozen, the trays had to be broken loose by the crew working the other side. They had to slam the trays upside down to release the 15 pound blocks of frozen crab. It was back breaking work. He would stay on for a season and then head back to Seattle. But he was hooked on Alaska.
In Seattle, Chuck put all is savings into an old salmon gillnetter [boat] named Alameda. It was a piece of crap. Somehow, he and a friend with no experience sailed it 200 nautical miles to Seldovia. They made it to Seldovia but no one wanted to work with them or sell them any equipment because they were broke.
He needed a break. Although he wouldn’t know it for ten more years, on July 4, 1963, he got a lucky break. He was at the right place at the right time. A man named Clem Tillion fell into the water and Chuck was the only person around. “I got him with the pike pole and pulled him out and rowed him ashore.” Clem told Chuck, “Hey, boy, if there’s anything I can do for you, let me know.”
Remember the name Clem Tillion.
Fast forward ten years to 1973. Chuck and two partners pool their capital to build the Billikin, a 135-foot boat that not only was the start of Trident Seafoods, but would change the fishing industry forever. The Billiken was the first vessel of its kind to feature crab cookers and freezing equipment onboard, so their fresh catch could be processed as soon as it was pulled out of the water instead of coming all the way back to shore.
Building such a boat was a huge financial risk. Chuck put all his savings made from working and owning/reselling another boat into this new concept boat. It was also a risk because it was disruptive to the old way of fishing. The old guard processors weren’t happy with the prospect of being bypassed by upstarts like Bundrant, and these large old guard companies were also supported by fisherman and processing workers who wanted to protect their local jobs.
The powerful old guard companies pushed their friends in the Alaska legislature to introduce a law that would make it illegal for vessels like the Billikin to operate anywhere in Alaska waters.
It was known as the Billikin Bill.
The bill was waiting for Clem Tillion’s signature. The bill if signed would bankrupt Bundrant and Trident before it ever got off the ground.
Ever since Chuck Bundrant pulled Clem Tillion out of the icy waters of Halibut Cove in Seldovia, Tillion had been working his way through the Alaskan legislature. He was a big fish now.
Bundrant would say, “So I flew up to Juneau, and I went in to see Mr. Tillion. I remembered this guy, but he didn’t remember me.
“I said, ‘Mr. Tillion, you wouldn’t be where you’re at if it wasn’t for me.’
He said, ‘How’s that, boy?’ looking over his glasses.
“I said, ‘You remember July 4th, 1963? Do you remember that date? Halibut Cove? You fell over the side and said, ‘Boy, if there’s anything I can ever do, let me know.’ ‘Well’, I said, ‘this boy’s asking.’
“He looked over his glasses and slammed his fist on the desk and said, ‘Thank you, son. The bill’s dead – but you’ve got to promise me you’ll never fish in the Gulf of Alaska.’ Which I never did – fish crab with the Billikin in the Gulf of Alaska. And he killed the bill. If he hadn’t done that, I’d have been dead.”
Tillion was able to protect his local constituents in the Gulf of Alaska and still pay a debt to the kid who saved his life. In another stretch of irony, Tillion would go on to pass laws that ended up protecting and reviving fishing in Alaska. If Chuck Bundrant wouldn’t have saved Tillion’s life in 1963, not only would Trident Seafoods not exist today, but many believe the Alaskan fishing industry would be a fraction of its current size.
Many intelligent fanatics got a lucky break. Chuck Bundrant was no different. But his brain, work ethic, and leadership is what would produce the largest seafood company in North America.
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