The new culture of farmed cod

We talked to Ola Kvalheim, Ode CEO, about what it means to start a new product, a new company, and even a new culture, that of farmed cod.
Ola Kvalheim is co-founder and CEO of Ode, a Norwegian company determined to create a new culture around farmed cod. Photo: WeAreAquaculture.
Ola Kvalheim is co-founder and CEO of Ode, a Norwegian company determined to create a new culture around farmed cod. Photo: WeAreAquaculture.

The Seafood Expo Global 2023 in Barcelona was about to close its doors when we sat down to chat with Ola Kvalheim and asked him how it had gone. "Very busy but definitely worth spending the time here," he summed up. He seemed tired but also satisfied with what they had accomplished. It had been three days with lots of new relationships and lots of new customers interested in Ode's farmed cod. The Norwegian company formerly known as Gadus Group got its first batch late last year but there it was, much more than opening new markets, starting a new culture. And, as its CEO and founder told us at one point in the talk, "This is just the beginning."

High-quality fresh cod available every day

It's been fantastic reception. People are really excited about the quality of the product." Ola Kvalheim spoke of Ode cod with the pride of someone who knows he has just passed perhaps the most difficult test of his career. Presenting the product for the first time to a small or select group of people in the country of origin is important, but to do it to the whole world at an event of this magnitude is a big deal.

At the Expo, customers see, taste, and test the quality of this "high-quality product fresh" that will be available to them on a consistent basis. "It is a uniform product available every single day, very little variation in quality and taste, in appearance, and with great texture, completely safe, very healthy, very low CO2 footprint," Ode CEO said. "It takes all the boxes that the retailers and the restaurants are interested in," he added. The Norwegian cod farming company knows that in order to position its product in the market and take all those boxes, the final quality is basic, but it must be accompanied by other characteristics.

"It's part of the trend that we see in society now that, consumers ask for convenience," Ola commented. "And what is more convenient than a fresh or even a raw product? You can take it home, you cook it and eat it, or you even have it in a salad or a sushi, and you don't even have to cook it. And for, especially now, the younger generations, smaller households, they cannot make the big dinners, they want to have something quick and easy, and I think is very important now for everyone in the seafood industry to adapt product range to be suitable also for takeaway."

When talking about the convenient option in fish most of the time we are talking about some specific parts of it, such as loins. But is that sustainable? "Using the entire fish is crucial both to have a sustainable product but also to have a competitive product because if you waste parts of the fish, then you will suffer because your loins will be too expensive," Ode CEO explains. "For us it's a big focus on opening a lot of doors to sell also the head, the backs, the skin, to make sure we have a composition of products into the different markets that ensures we can stably utilize all the fish."

General view of the Ode booth at Seafood Expo Global 2023, the first time the company presented its farmed cod to the whole world. Photo: WeAreAquaculture.

The heritage of cod and the know-how in fish farming

It's time to open doors and look for new paths, but the Norwegian farmed cod industry has an advantage. "In Norway, we have the heritage for the cod, hundreds and hundreds of years back, and we have gained the experience and the knowledge in how to farm high-quality seafood with salmon, and now we are combining those two, and we see people all over the world understand that. They trust that we have been able to take the best for both parts, combine it into a new concept and a new product that will innovate the whitefish category in a very substantial way."

What Ode does now will lead the way not only for the company but also for other producers coming on the heels of the handful of companies currently involved in cod farming in Norway. With every step they take, these pioneering companies are building a whole culture around farmed cod. "The timing is right," Ola Kvalheim said. "We have the biology, we have the breeding, we have the technology, we have the knowledge and experience for cod farming, so the production, we know we can do it."

They started just before Covid, in 2019, and in these three and a half almost four years they have grown the team, built their value chain, started farming, and have been able to prove their concept, their farming, and their product. "And now we are really at the commercialization stage where we are trying to build up more and more partnerships with customers to really open the markets for farm cod in every single country. And we want to have the product available for the consumers, both in the retail and in restaurants, so that's why we are here and that's what we keep talking to customers about".

They are ready and so is the market. "The demand for seafood is fantastic, very strong. It's growing quickly and the problem we have in the world is that we are struggling to produce enough healthy, sustainable seafood," Ode CEO explains. "And we believe that what we have demonstrated is not just for ourselves to show that we can produce farmed cod, but it's also an inspiration for others. This is a method of farming, of producing food that is actually viable and could be very successful. And if we can inspire others to invest and develop, create jobs, create activity, and produce food, it's an added benefit."

A leading seafood company over the next 30 years

Ode is competing for success not just in cod farming but in all of Norway's thriving aquaculture industry, but the company is not in a rush. "For us, this is just the beginning, and we will be here for many years working on the same journey," Ola stated. For them, he told WeAreAquaculture, one of their key values is that they work hard every day to improve. "We are positively dissatisfied with where we are, we want to go to the next step, we want to take the next improvement."

"That's the biggest driver of where we are today from as far since 2019," he continues, "that we work very hard and diligently every day to try to improve in all areas. Because fish farming is not a one-man show, you don't come to the office and then you do a home run and go home. You really need to work on all the details along the value chain, and every single day to make sure things are running well. And focus on the details. Improving every single detail, that's the key fabric of the way that we work in our company."

For Ode's CEO, another key factor for success is to build a new culture not only for farmed cod but for the company itself. "If you look at the last three, four years, every single person that works in this company is new. And also, the relationships between each of our employees and the departments are new. So, we need to build a culture of the way to work together," he explains. "We hire smart people, and we want them to make smart decisions every day with freedom, but always with the values and the mission and the culture of what we want to achieve and who we are and how we would like to work."

When setting up a new company, he explains to us, the most frequently asked questions are: How many boats do you have? How many licenses do you have? How many tons do you produce? "And that's a very aquaculture thing to talk about but for us, what we see every day is the people, is the teams that sit and develop and work, and I think that's a bit underappreciated or under reflected when we talk about building a new company."

Detail of Ode's booth at the Seafood Expo Global 2023 in Barcelona, where you can read the company's slogan: "Ode to cod". Photo: WeAreAquaculture.

At Ode, they work in the present with the future in mind. "Our sort of understanding is that we will work on this to create a leading seafood company over the next 30 years," its CEO said. "We are not a listed company, we're a private company with a very long focus. That does not mean that we don't have goals and targets that we want to achieve, but it means that we work with a long-term horizon always at the top of the priority list." As said, Ode is in no rush, and neither is Ola Kvalheim. Who would be when what is being created is an entire culture?

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