In an exclusive interview with WeAreAquaculture, Salmon Evolution CEO Trond Håkon Schaug-Pettersen talks about his professional transformation from investment banking to aquaculture, Salmon Evolution's remarkable rise, and his aspirations for the company's global presence looking ahead.
At only 40 years of age, Trond Håkon Schaug-Pettersen is one of the youngest CEOs in the Norwegian salmon industry, at the helm of one its youngest companies, the land-based salmon farmer Salmon Evolution.
Schaug-Pettersen comes from Ålesund in western Norway, and has returned to work close to his hometown. His wife is also from the same area, and the couple decided to move back to their west coast roots after the birth of their second child. Now a father of three, Schaug-Pettersen says juggling the responsibilities of a CEO with a life at home is always a challenge, but it's one that he is enjoying as Salmon Evolution continues its remarkable rise.
From a promising start-up founded in 2017, Salmon Evolution is well on its way to proving itself as an industrial-scale land-based salmon producer, employing over 60 staff, attracting significant international investments, and in the process of ramping up production.
How does an investment banker get into aquaculture? For Schaug-Pettersen, it has been an interesting journey from finance to salmon farming, and from Oslo to home.
"I was living in Oslo, working for one of the large investment banks there. I worked on various industries including seafood, in M&A, equity issues, IPOs, bonds, strategic advisory, and so on," he says.
Schaug-Pettersen worked for over nine years in the Norwegian capital for investment bank Swedbank/First Securities, but his young family was putting down roots in his home region on the western coast of Norway.
"I was commuting on a weekly basis back and forth to Oslo. During that period I had one client in Ålesund, called Hofseth International. I advised them on several occasions and helped them acquire a farming company. After that transaction was done, they invited me to join them."
The timing was just right, says Schaug-Pettersen. Joining Hofseth enabled him to live and work in the same location, and the perfect opportunity to move into aquaculture at an exciting moment of growth in the industry.
Schaug-Pettersen became Senior Vice President of Finance and Business Development at Hofseth, staying at the salmon farming and processing company for over four years.
"I had worked with seafood when I was in banking, but obviously I came to the business from a different angle. It was a very exciting journey. We had a lot of growth," he recalls.
Then came another the opportunity to develop his career in aquaculture even further: moving to land-based start-up Salmon Evolution.
"It was an opportunity I couldn't say no to. I strongly believed in the people behind Salmon Evolution, as well as the technology and the overall approach."
"Our land-based technology is very different from a typical RAS facility, which a lot of the other players are using. We have a different concept, where we don't reuse or recirculate that much water. We believe that enables us to operate with a significantly lower risk."
"It was an opportunity I couldn't say no to. I strongly believed in the people behind Salmon Evolution, as well as the technology and the overall approach."– Trond Håkon Schaug-Pettersen
Salmon Evolution's hybrid floater system combines the best of flow-through and recirculation, Schaug-Pettersen explains. By re-using around two-thirds of the water, the company's technology means they do not need an advanced water treatment system, eliminating the need for biofilters.
Schaug-Pettersen joined Salmon Evolution in 2020 as Chief Financial Officer, and became interim CEO in October following the departure of Håkon André Berg in 2022. His position as CEO became permanent in January 2023. How does it feel to be at the helm of a company he first came to know from the financial side?
"We're not that big a company yet. As CFO I was already heavily involved in most aspects of the business, but obviously it was more focused on one core area of responsibility. As CEO, you need to have a much broader perspective and follow up all the different parts of the business. At the same time, being a public company, you have a lot of obligations as CEO."
Schaug-Pettersen recently appointed a new CFO, Trond Vadset Veibust, who started in April. "I've been working in two roles, so I'm very glad to have our new CFO on board. He's a great guy and has already proven to be a solid addition to the management team," he says.
Schaug-Pettersen emphasises that Salmon Evolution is very much a team effort, and says that their achievements so far are down to the excellent performance of the company's employees as a whole.
"We're very satisfied with the results we've achieved so far. We are a large team with a lot of dedicated people, and that's enabled us to get the results we have."
"When opportunities come you just have to grab them and do the best job you can."– Trond Håkon Schaug-Pettersen
"I think that what's been unique with this company, is that we have always had a very good culture. We have many highly motivated and dedicated people, who have a strong passion for what we're doing and believe in what we're doing. That's what's really helped us get to where we are today, especially over the last year."
"I've just tried to do as good a job as possible along the way. When opportunities come you just have to grab them and do the best job you can."
Work-life balance continues to remain a challenge for the busy CEO and father-of-three. "That's always a challenge when you're working a lot, trying to do as best as you can on the home front as well with family and kids. Without my wife's support, I couldn't have been doing what I'm doing at work. I think it's OK to work a lot over a period of time, but obviously in long term you need to find an acceptable balance."
Schaug-Pettersen still has plenty of hard work ahead of him as he grows the business, but he believes Salmon Evolution is on track to expand beyond Norway. He explains that the next stage is to ramp up the business to operate on a global scale. The company is already developing a project in South Korea, which Schaug-Pettersen says gives them significant advantages in being so close to large markets in south-east Asia.
"For Salmon Evolution, it's all about delivering on our strategy. I think we are in very good spot, and we have a unique platform to really drive the company forwards. I think we'll have some very interesting years ahead."
One of the key projects coming up for Salmon Evolution is an expansion into North America, Schaug-Pettersen explains.
"As a company we have global ambitions because land-based salmon farming means you can produce fish close to consumer markets. That means you can avoid the air freight of fish, which is very good both from a sustainability perspective but also from a financial perspective."
"That's been the basis for the company all along, that we are aiming for a global approach. We want to start in Norway, because here we have the full value chain and infrastructure with suppliers and access to people's competence and everything. We need to succeed in Norway before we succeed in overseas markets. Then it's much easier to replicate that model elsewhere."
"The background to why we are now also targeting to establish ourselves in in the North American market is that the lead times in this industry are long. It takes time. First, we need to find a site. You need to have permits, regulatory approvals and so forth, and then you're starting to build, which takes some years. Then it's time to grow the fish and slaughter it eventually."
"For us now in the North American market, we have established an A-Team. We are actively searching for locations, doing the groundwork and then the ambition is to start building in three years. It's all about leveraging the experiences from Norway, narrowing down on some specific sites which we are actively involved in, and then a little bit down the road, maybe 2025 or 2026, be in a position to start building."
Schaug-Pettersen says they are considering locations on both sides of the US-Canada border.
"We are looking at locations on both on the US and Canadian sides, and both on the west and east coasts. We have a methodical approach in terms of scanning the coastline. We need access to water and we need a certain water temperature. So both on the Northwest and northeast, you have very, very good conditions for a facility using our technology."
"I think salmon has a fantastic potential. Over many years, the market has shown an ability to absorb significant growth in supply. But I think that we're approaching the limits of how much can be produced using conventional methods – that's just from a biological perspective. The last couple of years have seen very limited growth, and at least the way things are looking now, this will continue for the next couple of years."
"If you want to continue developing the salmon category, you need to be able to have growth and supply."
So, is land-based production the solution for the salmon industry looking ahead?
"I think it's not black and white. I think you will need conventional farming for the foreseeable future. But to provide meaningful growth, you also need the volume from new technologies and in that respect, land-based is part of the solution."
"With land-based, we're solving most of the main challenges with conventional farming, such as sea lice and escapes, and we can operate with a much lower mortality rate."
"I think you will need conventional farming for the foreseeable future. But to provide meaningful growth, you also need the volume from new technologies… Land-based is part of the solution."– Trond Håkon Schaug-Pettersen
"We strongly believe that land based is part of the future. For the industry, it's all about demonstrating that it's no problem producing salmon on land, that you can produce at an industrial scale, and with viable economics."
"We have been very focused in our approach in how we've designed our facility, and we want to achieve a production cost on a par with conventional farming."
Schaug-Pettersen says the company has demonstrated the viability of the concept at their Indre Harøy facility. "We are now on our sixth generation, and we achieved all-time high biomass production in March. By year end, we will be on our tenth generation and have reached steady state production from phase 1."
The company had a minor setback during April, experiencing increased mortality in selected fish groups at Indre Harøy due to AGD, which impacted gill health. "We took swift and appropriate actions to remedy the situation, which has now stabilized with daily mortality back to normal levels, enabling us to get back into production modus," Schaug-Pettersen explains.
"This is obviously an incident we didn't see coming, but when you are dealing with biology, things can happen. On the other hand, I am very proud of how the organization has handled the situation and strongly believe that we are in a very good position going forward, both in terms of being able to mitigate this from happening in the first place as well as having the necessary tools available on short notice if needed."
The company is currently embarked on Phase 1 of its development, with a production of 8,000 tonnes HOG. "This year the plan is to get started also on the second phase, which is another 8,000 tonnes HOG. A few years down the road, we'll fully build out the facility, bringing that total production to 32,000 tonnes HOG," he says.
"We've been producing for more than 14 months, and we've harvested out our first and second batch with strong results. We have also demonstrated that it is possible to produce salmon on land with low mortality, on an industrial scale, with very strong growth, not only up to a certain weight but all the way through to harvest weight and with the end result being a premium quality product," he says. "So now it's all about just doing more of the of the same."
Salmon Evolution is a Norwegian land-based salmon farming company targeting a production capacity of 100,000 tonnes HOG by 2032. The Company's core focus is on extending the ocean's potential by transferring the best preconditions offered by the sea to farm fish on land through its chosen hybrid flow-through system technology (HFS). This secures a truly sustainable production process with controlled and optimal growth conditions and limiting operational and biological risk. Salmon Evolution ASA is listed on Oslo Børs under the ticker SALME.