The second generation of leadership at Trident Seafoods, America’s biggest fishing company, commits to reinvesting billions to shore up its Alaska operations and pave the way for a third generation to take over.
America’s biggest fishing company has made the remote Alaskan island of Akutan its second home for the past five decades. There’s a church built by the firm’s founder and an airport that the company convinced Congress to help pay for. Then there’s the fish-processing plant, the largest of its kind in the country, with a capacity of 3 million pounds a day. The factory is big enough for 1,400 peak-season workers to sleep there.
The facility and ten others like it, only smaller, are starting to show age, and privately held Trident Seafoods has the task of refurbishing and rebuilding at a cost of billions of dollars. It’s a precarious time to make such a big splash, with challenges like supply chain delays, inflation, construction waitlists and renewed environmental concerns.
Another company might be looking to sell or solicit outside investment. But from a sales office filled with hundreds of Trident product offerings on a Seattle dock 1,900 miles away from Akutan Island, CEO Joe Bundrant, the second generation of the company’s leadership, says in an exclusive interview with Forbes that he and his family are committed to using their own money so that Trident can continue into its third and fourth generations.
“We have no exit strategy,” says Bundrant, 56, over bites of some of Trident’s specialties: herb-crusted pollock, sockeye salmon with a tomato jam glaze, a salmon burger slider and Japanese-style Takoyaki, or fried balls of octopus and pollock. “Less than zero interest in selling.”
The family is at a turning point. Bundrant has been CEO since 2013 but he’s new to the role of family patriarch. His father, Trident founder Chuck Bundrant, died in 2021 at age 79. In earlier days, Joe dropped out of college to work with his father, so he’s been with the company for a long time. But his father’s rubber crabbing boots are still big shoes to fill. Many of Trident’s 1,400 fishermen owed their personal loyalty to Chuck, and there’s never been more pressure on the wild fishing industry from regulators, plastics experts, quota scientists and fish-farm startups.
That’s why Bundrant says now is the time to show just how seriously Trident is all-in on Alaska.
“All of our vessels over time need to be replaced, our plants need to be rebuilt,” Bundrant says. “But the freezing, thawing, 100-mile-an-hour winds, salt air constantly, all increase the costs of all the building supplies, whether it’s steel or concrete, and then the cost to ship it to these remote sites. I don’t know that any venture capitalist or corporate America companies would be willing to make this type of investment.” Bundrant pauses a moment and looks out the office windows at the gray clouds of Seattle. “We don’t manage for next quarter,” he continues. “We don’t manage for next year. We manage for the next generation. That’s why we’re willing to look at this.”
“We have no exit strategy. Less than zero interest in selling.”
If any firm or family could do it, it’s the Bundrants. Chuck was a self-made billionaire, and his estimated $1.3 billion and the Trident ownership have been split between his second wife, Diane, who sits on Trident’s board, and his three children, Joe, Jill Dulcich and Julie Bundrant Rhodes. Trident owns some 40 fishing vessels and 15 plants, from Ketchikan, Alaska to St. Paul, Minnesota. Its annual quotas top 1 billion pounds of fish. Forbes estimates annual sales at roughly $2 billion. Trident declined to comment about its financials – a famous saying of Chuck’s was “a whale only gets shot when it spouts” – but Trident remains one of the last privately held white whales of the food industry.
“They do things that are remarkable,” says Matthew Wadiak, a former customer of Trident’s at packaged-meal startup Blue Apron, which he founded. “They’re harvesting a lot of fish but they’re very dedicated to sustainability. I’ve been to fisheries all over the world, from Latvia to Denmark and South America. Trident does it better than any of them. By far.”
Trident’s tale starts with Tennessee-born Chuck Bundrant, who dropped out of college in 1961 after one semester. He drove a 1953 Ford station wagon with three buddies from what was then Middle Tennessee State College to Seattle with $80 in his pocket. He’d grown up wanting to be a veterinarian, but the 19-year-old found himself falling in love with the industry while cutting up fish for a local processor. Instead of going back to school, he made his way to Alaska. There, he slept on the docks and worked on any fishing boat that would have him. That winter he worked on a commercial crabbing boat. He eventually became captain.
“He didn’t sleep much,” Joe Bundrant recalls. “He didn’t eat much. When I was young he lived on caffeine and cigarettes.”
In 1973, Chuck Bundrant cofounded Trident Seafoods in Alaska with two crab fishermen. They created the 135-foot Bilikin, the first fishing boat with on-board crab cookers and freezing equipment. Trident still operates it. In the 1980s, competition for Pacific cod peaked. Chuck Bundrant turned to Alaskan pollock, a bottom-feeder that chefs called a trash fish. As Joe Bundrant recalls, there was no sales plan. When his dad bought the first ten containers of wild Alaskan pollock filets into the office, he sent it straight to where they kept inventory, and everyone asked what it was. His response: “I don’t know, but we’ll figure out how to sell it.”
In 1981, Chuck Bundrant invited executives from fast-food chain Long John Silver’s over for a taste test. They wanted to try some Alaskan cod because their supply of Atlantic cod wasn’t stable. Chuck served the executives Alaskan pollock instead but didn’t tell them what it was.
“They kept eating and saying how good it was, and then he finally told them,” says Joe Bundrant. Long John Silver’s signed a multimillion-dollar deal. Pollock eventually became Trident’s goldmine. “That’s how the change was made. That scrappiness and pioneering is part of our DNA.”
Trident’s Remote Fishing Hub
Also in 1981, Trident built its fish-processing plant in Akutan, Alaska. Located 750 miles southwest of Anchorage in the Aleutian Island chain, its proximity to the Bering Sea means that the plant has processed crab, Pacific cod and halibut over the years, but most of what’s processed at Akutan these days is pollock.
Trident pioneered the commercialization of the species, eventually becoming the main supplier to national fast-food chains, including Burger King, because Bundrant sold pollock cheaper than the cod they were used to buying.
“I’ve been to fisheries all over the world, from Latvia to Denmark and South America. Trident does it better than any of them. By far.”
The Bundrant family accumulated 80% ownership in the company through a series of deals. ConAgra acquired 50% in 1989, when Trident was a small company that needed the fuel to grow and ConAgra had a Northwest fish division that wasn’t making any money. Chuck Bundrant turned it around, and after seven years, ConAgra offered to buy out the cofounders’ shares. Bundrant decided to roll the dice again.
Chuck called his son Joe, who’d left Trident and was working at Cisco, and asked him to come back. As Joe recalls, his father started out his pitch with some advice. “You start a business for your own ego,” Chuck told him. “You can be the man, set your own hours, whatever you make, you get to keep. The second stage of owning a business is fear. ‘I’ve made all these commitments. I’ve taken on this debt. If I don’t make it, it’s going to be pretty darn embarrassing.’ The third stage is where I’m at, son, and that is, responsibility.” Joe Bundrant recalls that his father named a long list of employees who he knew Joe loved, and said, “If we sell this company, these people become numbers to some corporate America. And they’re not numbers, they’re my family, and we owe it to them.” Joe Bundrant returned to Trident in 1996, a step toward keeping the company in private hands.
Back at the firm, Joe Bundrant made it his personal mission to secure a blue-chip customer that had eluded Trident for years: McDonald’s. The chain’s Filet-O-Fish sandwich had been made with cod for decades before switching over to pollock, though McDonald’s didn’t buy the pollock from Trident. Many at Trident told Joe that he was wasting his time. But his dad pushed him, saying, “Don’t give up. You’re going to get this done.” After years of hitting dead ends, Joe Bundrant eventually won the contract to supply the Filet-O-Fish for the entire Asian market.
“Trident survived because they were diversified.”
Over the decades, Chuck Bundrant also played politics to his advantage. In 1998, Trident and other fishing companies pushed Congress to pass the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which limited foreign outfits from working less than 200 miles offshore in U.S. waters by requiring 75% American ownership. Bundrant was one of the bill’s architects. He promised U.S. Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska that if Congress approved the 200-mile limit he’d reinvest every dollar of profit in the state of Alaska to Americanize the fisheries. “That’s why we’re sitting here today,” Joe Bundrant says. “My father had vision and intestinal fortitude.”
Chuck Bundrant convinced Stevens to earmark funds for an airport on Akutan Island so that seasonal Trident workers could fly closer to the plant where they worked instead of taking an hours-long ferry ride. The airport opened in 2012 at a cost to the government of $54 million.
Rough waters are still coming for the largest vertically integrated seafood company in North America. Alaska is one of the few states which protects its agricultural products, and Trident has benefited from that more than any other company. It means that any label indicating the fish comes from Alaska means it’s wild-caught. But Alaskan seafood is constantly getting undercut by foreign vessels, mainly from Russia, China or Japan.
There’s also the changing environment to consider. A few years ago, when Alaska’s Bristol Bay, home to one of the most plentiful salmon runs on earth, was threatened by a mining project known as Pebble Mine, Trident’s lobbyists worked to halt excavation.
“Faced with variability in fish runs, being diversified across a wide range of fisheries and regions is a good idea,” says Alaskan fisheries scientist Ray Hillborn. “Back in the early 2000s, several salmon specialist companies failed, but companies like Trident survived because they were diversified.”
Recently, crab stocks in Alaska have receded at an alarming rate – so much so that Bristol Bay’s king crab fishery is closed this year for the first time in 25 years. The reason is still up for debate. It could be overfishing, faulty science, overzealous quotas, warming waters, too many hungry sockeye predators or something else entirely. But after selling the Bristol Bay crustaceans for decades, Trident faces the unprecedented shortage and the possibility it can be ongoing.
Trident’s marketing focuses on wild-caught fish’s sustainability, and how catching and processing fish emits less greenhouse gas than the production of chicken, beef and pork. Yet the plastic-polluted oceans have been warming and changing, while trawlers like Trident’s harvest billions of pounds of seafood every year, leaving less and less for future generations. Plus, there are questions about current stocks collapsing. That’s where farmed fish and aquaculture proponents take aim at Trident. The company could invest in alternatives, like big meatpackers have, but Bundrant says he has no interest in how much feed it takes fish to eat in captivity. Plus, Alaska doesn’t allow commercial farming.
“When you’re looking at making investments in these remote sites, without that confidence in our fisheries management, you’d be really foolish to be investing in remote sites,” Bundrant says.
Bundrant says that he’ll eventually move into an executive chairman role. Whether he’s succeeded by a Bundrant is another story. That’s far from a done deal. If a family member becomes interested in the job, Joe says they’ll have to interview along with any other candidates.
Chuck Bundrant’s 13 grandchildren and handful of great-grandchildren provide potential candidates for succession. There are a few family rules that any Bundrants interested in working at Trident must follow: a college degree and four years spent working elsewhere before they apply to Trident. The final requirement: they have to work summers in Alaska – described by Joe as “rubber boots and dead fish training, 16 hours a day.”
Three of the grandchildren, from Joe’s branch, are involved in Trident today. Joe’s son has captained his own fishing boat for years and even spent time on the popular Discovery Channel show, The Deadliest Catch. That catch was, of course, sold to Trident. Two daughters hold key roles at the headquarters in Seattle. Alison is in sales and manages the account for a key client, mega-distributor US Foods, while Analise Gonzalez heads up marketing, including the creation of new lines of products that use otherwise wasted parts of the supply chain: pet food and fish oil supplements for people.
“There’s only so much we can catch,” Gonzalez says. “We have to get the most out of every fish, and insure that we’re carrying this on for generations to come.”