Noray and its CEO ready to drive European shrimp industry transformation

Just a few months after joining the company, the new CEO of indoor shrimp producer Noray Seafood, Benjamin Ajo, tells WeAreAquaculture about his arrival to the position (and to Spain).
Benjamin Ajo has been CEO of Noray Seafood since September. Already adapted to the team and his life in Spain, in these months, he has also managed to get a grip on the business of indoor shrimp farming.

Benjamin Ajo has been CEO of Noray Seafood since September. Already adapted to the team and his life in Spain, in these months, he has also managed to get a grip on the business of indoor shrimp farming.

Photo: Noray Seafood.

On taking up his new position last September, Benjamin Ajo said that "Noray is going to be a game changer for shrimp production." On a quick reading, that statement might have echoes of 'revolution' for the company but we now know that the new CEO is more of a proponent of serenity. "The ambition and the vision are the same," he says when asked about the new strategy, "Our hatchery plays an important role in building up a European shrimp industry and our mission is to drive this transformation."

An avowed foodie, Ajo is enjoying the experience of living in Madrid. "This is the place to be for a food company," he claims. He is also learning Spanish, something key for managing a company the way he likes to do it, with an entrepreneurial spirit and as a "feet on the ground leader" who wants to be in the action. He has the best support, his "terrific" team, both in the offices in the Spanish capital and at the shrimp farm in Medina del Campo, Valladolid.

A loyal, hearty, terrific team

The new CEO of Noray Seafood says that when the opportunity to lead the Spanish company came up, he was thrilled. "I've always dreamed of moving to Spain," he confesses. "I love the country, I love the culture, the laid-back attitude, at the same time hard-working, very good food… I'm a foodie myself, so I enjoy it very much. It's an exciting time."

Upon arrival, he has found "a very loyal and hearty atmosphere" in a team that, he says, "is terrific and has helped me coming on board to the company." In just a few months, Benjamin Ajo not only feels part of the team but believes he has "a grip on the business" they are already developing. 

Convinced that the strongest and most important asset in any company is the people, he emphasizes the international character not only of the management and the owners but of the entire team, which, in addition to Nordic and Spanish nationals, also includes French and South Americans. Profiles of diverse origins which, however, in the eyes of their new leader, share a common feature: "In this company, all of the employees are here for the mission, and that's super engaging. We really have something strong going on here, and building further that is what we are going to do."

The Spanish-Swedish connection

Coming from Sweden, Noray's CEO recognizes, however, that the way of dealing with work in Spain is somewhat different from what he knew. "In the Nordics, you drive efficiency in all you do, small steps forward every day," he explains, "you have 10-15 minutes meetings, and you really push the limits when it comes to efficiency." In Spain, on the contrary, "you push the hours."

"You work long and hard into the evenings,” he continues. “On the other hand, at a maybe a little lower pace all over the day, and you have more of social interaction to get the input from each other. You work even after work, you take a glass of wine or beer with your colleagues and the work continues. So to say, you process all the time." But, in the end, he claims, both of the cultures end up in the same productivity. "There's no difference in productivity, it's just different ways of going there. And I actually enjoy very much the Spanish way, because it gives you more time to analyse."

Nevertheless, he tells us, "The typical Swedish way of leadership is through consensus. So, the difference from Swedish management to Spanish is actually smaller than from other Nordic countries." So, he summarizes, "culturally, I believe that I'm adapting quite ok."

Continuing what his predecessor built on

Benjamin Ajo has taken over from Bjørn Aspheim, who, as he told WeAreAquaculture in his TalentView interview, was called crazy when he said he wanted to farm shrimp in the middle of Spain, far from the sea. "That's why we're going to do it because it's impossible," Aspheim said at the time, and succeeded. We ask the new CEO what's it like to take over for someone like him, for whom Noray was a project he had put a lot of effort and dedication into.

"I fully agree with the craziness of the idea," Ajo replies. "But on the other hand, if you want to make a change in the world, you will for sure not do it by doing everything the way that everybody else does. So, this is what entrepreneurship is about in a nutshell. And that requires a bit of craziness, and boldness, and trust, and visionary thinking, and that is what Bjørn is."

"He has done that in a tremendous way, and I have great respect for what he has built," he continues. Aspheim, who was even part of the team recruiting his successor, blazed the trail that Ajo will now follow. "Our ambition is to continue from what he built and there's no change or conflict in that. It's just that we add up some structures and systems as we add volume and employees, just to be organized and run in the same direction."

An entrepreneur with a solid systematic approach

As Noray's new CEO sees it, every company, no matter how big it grows, needs entrepreneurship. "I like the adage of saying that 'the only thing that is constant in the world is change'," he tells us. "The bigger you are, the more entrepreneurship you need, because you have to adapt to the changing environment. But this company is actually all about change, we're driving the change, so, the entrepreneurship won't change just by changing the leadership."

Entrepreneurship is not only part of the culture at Noray, but also that of its current leader. Since he first did it at the age of 17, Benjamin Ajo has set up and subsequently sold several businesses, but he has also been trained in all the structures and corporate business models through, for example, an MBA. "I'm an entrepreneur in heart but educated with a solid systematic approach," he sums up his experience.  In fact, he thinks this is precisely the reason that brought him to his current position.

"The Board saw that the leap from true entrepreneurship to a more managerial leadership is not that big because I have that in my backbone. So, my, let's say, 'speciality' is maybe that I bridge from entrepreneurship to professional structures, and I'm very careful with keeping the entrepreneurship within the company, so not destroying it with just structures and building a system that doesn't adapt to the environment."

Driving transformation of indoor shrimp farming in Europe

At the time of this interview, Noray is still defining the new strategy under the new leadership but, although he cannot share it yet, the CEO does tell us that there will be no major changes. "Our mission is to drive the transformation of the shrimp industry to sustainability," he told WeAreAquaculture exclusively after his appointment in September. "The ambition and the vision are the same," he says now. "The vision of the company is to increase the self-sufficiency level of shrimp supply in Europe. Our mission is to drive that growth."

"We import some 500,000 tonnes of shrimp to Europe, farmed in open ponds in the Mangroves. This needs to be altered to sustainable and local supply. Part of our business is supporting other indoor farmers in Europe with larvae from our hatchery," he explains.  As he said when he joined the company, Noray intends to be a real game changer for shrimp production, but the company does not intend to go it alone.

"We need more farmers in order to make the change happen and we know that the sourcing of larvae is one of the big challenges. Hence, we aim to support others as we build our own business," Ajo continues. And concludes, "We believe that our hatchery plays an important role in building up a European shrimp industry and our mission is to drive this transformation."

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