On the first day of November, The Kingfish Company made a surprise announcement, Ohad Maiman was stepping down as CEO to take on an advisory role. "I have decided that now would be a good time to step down from the CEO role", Maiman said in the letter sent to the staff announcing this change. The message also made it clear that the now-former CEO was stepping aside, but without going too far, he would continue to support the company "as an active founder". WeAreAquaculture spokes with him to find out why now and, above all, what his plans for the future are.
It's been all good news for The Kingfish Company lately: a 90% increase in sales, final approval to build a plant in Maine, and even the entrance of major new investors like Stolt Nielsen. And right after that, came this announcement. Why at this precise moment? It's a matter of responsibility. If there were any kind of problems, Ohad Maiman tells WeAreAquaculture, it wouldn't be responsible to leave. But there aren't now. "I wouldn't step aside when there is a funding need or if there's challenges in production, or challenges even in the permit", he says. "So, it really felt like all the stars were aligned to do this in a moment where the company is in a strong position and has excellent prospects ahead".
As we said, Ohad Maiman steps aside but doesn't go far. The now-former CEO of The Kingfish Company wants to make it clear that his resignation does not mean he is leaving the company. "Leaving is not the right word, that's why we use 'transition to an active founder'", he explains. "I have a both, very strong belief in the business case of the company, but also, of course, a strong emotional connection to the company and to the people in it", Maiman states.
"I would like to keep supporting it, because I think it has built a position amongst the leaders of RAS and land-based or yellowtail kingfish land-based aquaculture, and I think it has everything going for it to continue to be one of the leaders in the sector", he continues. The Kingfish Company is his creature. Over the past seven years, he has built it "from a PowerPoint presentation to an industry leader" and this stepping aside has nothing to do with a lack of confidence, quite the contrary. Ohad Maiman is very clear about what a CEO should be and what role he should play at any given moment.
In response to one of our questions, Maiman confesses that yes, he does enjoy and get excited by the start-up and the scale-up phase more than the day-to-day operation. However, this decision is not only due to personal liking but rather to the responsibility we were talking about earlier. "I've seen very good entrepreneurs and very good professional executives, and usually it wasn't the same person", he tells us.
There are several personnel business theories about the right person to be a CEO in a company when it reaches a large operational environment, he explains. Some look at it as right brain left brain; some as an entrepreneur versus a professional executive; there's the Peter Thiel concept of 'zero to one'; and there is also 'The "Right" CEO: A Corporate Life Cycle Perspective', a theory of Aswath Damodaran, Professor of Finance at the Stern School of Business at New York University, which is the one Maiman most identifies with.
As he sees it, different characteristics are needed for a CEO to succeed in a start-up, an expansion, or a large-scale operation. The Kingfish Company, he tells us, is becoming a bigger company and requires different sets of skills. "I think that for where the company is going now it needs an operationally minded CEO that spends more time on looking at the details of the operation and profitability than about growth and next species and next technologies", he claims.
"When I first, in 2013, learned about the seafood industry, I was quite excited to see that it is unlike almost any other major protein sector, there's a serious challenge on the supply side", he tells WeAreAquaculture. Although there are environmental implications, there is no technical or technological constraint to producing more chicken or more beef, but in seafood there is. Reading that problem, identifying that there is a global supply need that cannot be met by wild catch alone or, apparently, even by traditional aquaculture, is what made him think a third way was needed.
The solution he and his partners found to that need has a lot to do with Ohad's life path, which makes him think differently. Of Israeli origin, he served for 3 years in the Israel Defense Forces and often uses military similes to explain his views. As he sees it, a start-up would be a special forces unit, as opposed to a large marine corps, which would be what a large company is. He also has a degree in philosophy, which, he says, has left him with "a bit nonlinear, three-dimensional" way of thinking.
As a result, the founder of The Kingfish Company is someone who acts fast, thinking over, analyzing the problem, and building the view on the solution "or on our stand on it", as he says. For them – Maiman himself and his founding partners Hans den Bieman, currently interim CEO, and Kees Kloet, the CTO -, when setting up this business, "the view has been early on that we're not looking to build a one-farm project, but sort of a next-generation seafood company". And that was based on the recirculating aquaculture system (RAS) from the beginning.
In his opinion, the thesis that traditional aquaculture would also follow sort of this flat line of wild catch is becoming a reality. "Whether you think of considerations of banning the practice in Canada or the taxation in Norway, it reminds me of the fishing quotas in the 90s", he says. If sustainable practices are in place, he does not believe they will disappear, but "RAS has all the potential to become an equal third way of producing seafood next to wild catch and traditional aquaculture".
His current experience places Ohad Maiman in a privileged position. "I have quite a clear view of some of the challenges and bottlenecks that are needed to solve to enable RAS to scale up faster", he claims. "For us to become that third way, it needs to have a few additional technical, technological solutions, additional species, more to do than just to wait on the current three or five large operators to continue to grow every couple of years".
He has full confidence in the RAS industry. "I'm quite excited about the sector. I've had the chance to meet entrepreneurs and founders of start-ups that are trying to tackle these challenges, so I can't see myself doing something completely different right now and this seems like a natural evolution", he says. He is clear about what he will do in the future, but also what he won't do. "We built a company that I wouldn't want to compete with in yellowtail kingfish, so I'll be looking for everything other than specifically yellowtail kingfish", he ends.