The Remarkable Rise of Louisbourg Seafoods
Time after time, the company has succeeded in communities where others have failed… so what’s its secret?
There was a lilac tree in the front yard of Lori Kennedy’s childhood home. Come springtime, when the branches teemed with purple blooms, she’d pick handfuls and sell them—at 25 cents a bunch—to passersby who were on their way to visit loved ones in the hospital.
After the rains, she’d dig up worms and sell them to fishermen down on the Mira; 75 cents would get you an even dozen. She was the fifth child of 12, raised in a three-room house, with no water and no bathroom. It shouldn’t have been fun. But somehow, it was. “We weren’t poor,” she says. “We just didn’t have any money.”
She was resourceful: she learned to catch smelt and snare rabbits, and got a job cutting fillets at the local fish plant, dropping out of school after Grade 8.
That’s where she met fisherman Jimmy Kennedy: sea-strong, tough and scary smart. He had the same fire in his belly, forged from their meagre beginnings. They got married, and so begins the story of how two former fish plant workers joined fates and forces to create one of Nova Scotia’s most innovative and unlikely family business empires: Louisbourg Seafoods.
Today, the company the Kennedys started in 1984 operates five processing plants throughout Cape Breton and northern Nova Scotia. Renowned for its ecologically oriented management practices, Louisbourg Seafoods harvests and processes not only traditional groundfish such as halibut, haddock and cod, but also underutilized species such as skate and whelk.
They sell their products under the brand name Mira Bay throughout Europe and Asia, and are currently working on developing a domestic market. The company has won awards for its products from the International Taste and Quality Institute, which is governed by chefs and drink experts from some of Europe’s leading culinary associations. It employs 500 people—including children Rena, in ship supplies, Jim Jr, in administration, and MJ, a fisherman—and has annual revenues of roughly $60 million.
CEOs Jimmy and Lori Kennedy have come a long way.
Is it true? Is it going to come? For weeks, months even, news that Louisbourg Seafoods was planning to open a new plant this year in Canso, NS, was the talk of the town. Billy Bond, an inshore fisherman and vice-president of the Canso Harbour Authority told the CBC he could barely get through a game of 45s without having to talk about it.
“Yes, it’s going to come,” he would say over cards. “A lot of paper work, a lot of red tape.”
The historic fishing community had once been home to the largest fish plant on the East Coast, employing 700 people plus a fleet of trawlers, but the collapse of the groundfish fishery had pulled the rug out. The last plant closed in 2006, forcing many former employees to become migrant seasonal workers in their own province.
But a new plant could keep them at home. A new plant could help rekindle a historic industry and a spirit of hope.
And so emotions were high this past February 20th when the Kennedys and government officials officially opened Canso Seafoods. The couple put $675,000 of the company’s money and an additional $800,000 in government loans into the project. The plant will process sea cucumbers and whelk targeted for Asian markets and employ 20 people—a number that could increase to as many as 100 in a few years’ time.
That, at least, is the plan. Fish plants in Canso have failed several times before, but that’s not stopping the Kennedys. “When your family has been doing something for hundreds of years, you have an inherent knowledge of the industry,” Lori says. Indeed, the most remarkable thing about the rise of Louisbourg Seafoods is that, time after time, the company has succeeded in communities where others have failed.
It was 1984 and for months—years even—the catches had been falling off in Louisbourg. When the fish did arrive at the plant, they were punier than they had once been.
“The talk was all around,” Lori remembers. “And the fishermen were screaming about overfishing.” When the plant closed—as she and Jimmy believed it would—they’d be out of work, at a time when their family, which would eventually swell to six children, was growing.
They hedged their bets and started a small marine services company, unloading boats and supplying groceries to the fishermen who came to the Louisbourg port. Lori worked all day at the plant; she’d do the books at night, in pencil, on a Hilroy scribbler that she still has to this day, as a reminder of how far they’ve come. Daughter Rena can still see her mother hunched over the kitchen table in their one-bedroom apartment.
“They were young, they had setbacks, but they worked so hard,” says Rena.
Today, as well as working for Louisbourg Seafoods, Rena owns Louisbourg Ship Supply, a company she took over from her parents, which provides marine supplies such as traps and sophisticated electronics to fishing boats. She’s also responsible for ship services for the Louisbourg Seafoods fleet, a job that involves working with the fishers to ensure they are in constant compliance with international fishing regulations.
Back in 1984, Rena was a precocious 10-year-old, living in that one-bedroom apartment with three siblings, learning invaluable lessons about the virtues of hard work. She watched her parents labour from six in the morning until midnight. She saw her mother take her high school equivalency tests and go on to study business at Cape Breton University.
Rena remembers going down to the wharf with her mother and siblings, taking tea to her dad, whose fingers were so cold from baiting trawl that he could barely hold his cup.
In 2007, when Louisbourg Seafoods announced plans to reopen a plant in North Sydney that had been recently vacated by Clearwater Seafoods, people in the industry thought the Kennedys were crazy. They had built up a good business already, watching their margins, budgeting ruthlessly, reinvesting profits into their business.
By this time, they already owned the plant that had once employed them, and others in Glace Bay and Sydney. But the North Sydney plant was roughly 10 times the size of the company’s combined processing capacity. If Clearwater, the giant of the East Coast fishery, couldn’t operate the plant successfully, what made them think they could?
“It was a huge gamble for them,” says George Karaphillis, director of Cape Breton University’s MBA in Community Economic Development, and a friend of the Kennedys. “On the other hand, they knew they’d never see an opportunity like this again.”
Karaphillis had first met the Kennedys in the 1990s when he installed a computer system for Louisbourg Seafoods. “I saw them at first as hands-on small business people,” he says.
“What I didn’t immediately recognize was that there was a lot more sophistication there than meets the eye.
“They have good intuition and they’re opportunistic, but they can see in the long-term,” he says. In addition, the couple give back to the communities in which they operate, sponsoring school breakfast programs and supporting local soccer teams, among other things.
This vision, combined with Jimmy’s formidable operational talent and negotiating skills, has made the North Sydney plant—known as Northsyde Processing—a success, says Karaphillis.
Indeed, the plant, which opened in 2008, has become emblematic of the company’s approach to growth through innovation and sustainability.
What the Kennedys saw was what they’ve always seen, as far back as 1984: opportunity in plants, places and people that others might have simply written off.