Zeeland, on the Dutch North Sea coast, is not the first province you think of when it comes to innovation. All the more reason for Innovation Origins to adjust that image. In six episodes we show a cross-section of the organisations in Zeeland that give innovation a face.
The story of Adri Bout and his Seafarm in the Jacobahaven of Kamperland, Zeeland is one of trying, trying again, persevering and not stopping until the solution is found. Luctor et Emergo is what it’s called in Zeeland. If it applies to someone, it is Adri Bout. “And to our team”, Bout says when he sees the draft of the interview. “Alone you’re nothing, together you’re strong. Without me, everything goes on, no problem.”
That may be true, but if you look at the origins of Seafarm, you can’t ignore the decisive role of the founder. Coming from a fishing family, the sea was Bout’s logical field of activity. But unlike many of his colleagues, he realised in good time that the future at sea might be less obvious than it was for the generations before him. “I already understood in the early 1990s that fishing would eventually become a niche, something special. The fish we eat on a daily basis will someday all come from farms.”
Calculating and fishing
Those thoughts led to the start of his own fish farm in 1994, on the south side of the Oosterschelde storm surge barrier, although it took Adri Bout five more years before he took charge of it himself. “Until that time I was mainly the remote investor; I could not yet afford to say goodbye to the boat. Onboard, Bout divided his time between new calculations and plans for his farm and fishing. “Actually, I ran the farm from my helmsman’s chair. But in the end, of course, that couldn’t be a sustainable combination. When the farm still didn’t yield anything after five years, I said goodbye to my ship and went ashore for good.”
The fact that, in addition to a degree as a helmsman, he also graduated in mechanical engineering, served him well, but it turned out not to be enough to achieve immediate success. And because Bout and his associates couldn’t figure out what course to take, he decided to buy them out and continue on his own. “That wasn’t a complicated matter by the way, because no one – except me – was confident we could make anything out of it.”
When we talk to him, almost 20 years after that decisive moment, Bout just returned from a trip that took him to South Korea, Spain and Portugal. And that didn’t include a single day’s holiday, because the entire global fishing industry wants to learn from him. To them, he is the man who learned how to crack the code. Who managed to keep the fish on land healthy, generation after generation, and who showed how to build a company that knows how to keep on developing itself and from whom the next innovation is expected. The man who needs to be listened to and whose ideas you would like to copy. Or buy, if necessary.
Bout himself has to laugh about it a bit. “Maybe it’s because I’m not that keen on sales, but apart from that, sales will never be an end in itself for me. If it comes, it will come, but I’m not going to wriggle out of it. Those Koreans had asked me to draw a fish farm based on Seafarm’s success formula. So I came up with that, it was going to cost him 11 million altogether. That turned out to be way too expensive for him, so he asked me if it could not be done any cheaper. Okay, it took me a couple of days to calculate, but in the end I was able to offer a smaller version for about 6 million. Which was still too much, he said. Which was end of the story for me. Oh, I could certainly have made an even cheaper version; would have been lucrative for me as well, but there is a limit to the quality I want to offer. If I can’t guarantee a minimum, I just don’t do it.”
According to Bout, there’s something else to be considered as well. “Those people who think a success formula can simply be copied, they’re wrong. You have to have built up the knowledge yourself, by starting from scratch and going through it by trial and error. Anyone who thinks they can buy a farm without some knowledge and skills of their own is simply never going to make it”.
No matter how successful Adri Bout is now, the disappointments over the past twenty years have been at least as numerous as the successes. That started with the choice of fish to be bred. Turbot was there first, then sea bass “because we liked those too” and then, for the same reason, the dorade. “But then you are deciding purely from emotion, that’s not good of course. Moreover: that dorado had to be held in baths of 25 degrees, how can that be energetically responsible in any sense?”
The sea bass also disappeared, but that did not guarantee the success of the farm either. It only turned out to be the beginning of a very long search for the right proportions and settings: the tanks, the water, the food, the temperature, everything was under discussion. And every time Bout tried to find a middle ground between his own knowledge and that of the outside world. Scholars from Wageningen and Ghent alternated with experts from Norway, but all in all Bout’s own knowledge – in addition to his stubbornness – proved decisive. “I think I’m a bit different from those scientists. I think differently. I also designed my own boat at the time, simply because I wanted to see my own ideas reflected in it. I want to be able to control every component within a system myself, and if something doesn’t go well, I won’t rest until I have fully fathomed out the cause. Until I’ve come up with a solution for it, fully based on my own conviction.”
If you want to discover everything for yourself, you have to accept that the processes can take a little longer, but for Seafarm that observation had some extreme consequences. Bout didn’t make it easy for himself and his team, for example because of the emphasis he placed on sustainability, long before that term became a buzzword. “When the fish are sick, the reflex in our industry is to fill the tanks with antibiotics. Not here. Maybe that’s not smart in business, but I want to be able to do it without these kinds of medication.”
And so, time after time, Bout kept on looking for other solutions. He changed the tanks, the feeding, the water inlet and the oxygen content. The result? Every possible solution only brought new problems, over and over again. “I don’t know if an outsider can really imagine this, but believe me, what you feel is just complete misery when yet another tank of fish has died. At some point, I hardly dared to go to work in the mornings, out of fear for new misfortune.” And although all this was one of the reasons for his eldest son to say goodbye to the company (“He’s doing very well now”), every new disappointment only made Bout more determined. “You just have to know, how come those fish are dying? For example, I built three farms next to each other: one filled with seawater, one with water from our neighbours from Frymarine – now 100% owned by Seafarm – and one with the salty spring water. But it didn’t make any difference. To drive you crazy! Was it the ozone content in the water, the nitrite, nitrate, the argon or nitrogen? We tried everything, but it looked like we weren’t getting any further. Year after year.”
Everything in balance
Nevertheless, the step-by-step approach turned out to be successful in the end. Bout and his team found the right composition of air, water and food and at least as important: they built the systems to keep everything in balance. “The fish are now growing like a rocket and we have less than 1% outage, no one in the world can do that, except for us.” In addition to the farm – which now also contains plenty of shellfish – there is a successful restaurant run by his daughter. Bout’s second son, Dave, is the intended successor and already owns 45% of the shares; he keeps an eye on the company’s finances. Which, by the way, does not mean that the 63-year-old founder is taking a step back. Day after day, Adri Bout is still working on innovations that Seafarm, which currently has some 25 employees, can take even further. The fact that the world is trying to copy his work doesn’t affect him, whether the competition comes from Zeeland, Korea, or anywhere else. “Really, what we’ve put together at our place can’t just be copied. Whoever wants to run a successful fish farm has to be knowledgeable, skilful and be able to endure a lot of disappointments. And one other thing: you have to be able to imagine how a fish thinks: what it likes and why it reacts in a certain way. That’s how it works.”
Bout can talk about it from his extensive experience. “Yeah, sure, there are millions to be made in this business, but if you want to become a millionaire fast, I’d really choose a different business. By the way, do you know that joke about this fish farmer who did want to become a millionaire? He had found the solution: make sure you have ten million to go into business with, if all goes well you’ll still have a million left after a year. Voilà, then you’re a millionaire.”