Rune Mikalsen is already learning to call Boston home. The small-town Norwegian recently moved State-side as CEO of Kvarøy Arctic, bringing Norwegian salmon from the Arctic circle to the dinner plates of sustainability-conscious U.S. consumers.
WeAreAquaculture caught up with the busy CEO as he settles into his new location and new role, to ask him about his experience in the seafood industry, his aspirations for Kvarøy Arctic, and his priorities in the months ahead.
"It's certainly a new chapter," Rune admits, talking to us from his new office in Boston. "I've visited the U.S. quite a lot, but of course it's totally different to living here. There are a lot of things I need to learn, but I have a good team here, with great colleagues that are helping me out every day."
Boston is a strategic location for Kvarøy, Rune explains. With only six hours difference between the U.S. East Coast and Norway, the Boston office acts like an anchor between the two sides of the business – with Rune linking Norway with the U.S. market.
Boston is also one of the key locations for the U.S. seafood industry, playing host to the annual Seafood Expo, with Massachusetts the State landing most of the U.S.'s wild catch.
"Boston is very important for the U.S. seafood industry. It's a good place to be," Rune says.
Rune has extensive experience within Norway's aquaculture industry, beginning with the AKVA group, one of the leading suppliers of equipment and technology in aquaculture industry worldwide. Later, he worked for four years as CEO of Helgeland Marine Systems, leaving to join family-run salmon farming business Kvarøy Fiskeoppdrett in 2018, as Chief Financial Officer.
Kvarøy, run by third-generation owner Alf-Goran Knutsen, is a privately-owned salmon company that prides itself on its roots and sense of community. Founded by Knutsen's grandfather Alf Olsen in 1976 as one of the first salmon farms in the North of Norway, the company and farm is still based on the remote northern island of Kvarøy.
"In 2019, when Alf-Goran Knutsen made the decision to establish a company in the U.S., I worked side by side with him to build out what would become Kvarøy Arctic – the U.S. brand representing the parent company on the market side," Rune explains.
Rune helped Knutsen in defining the U.S. sister company's aspirations, including sales, marketing, promotion, and communication efforts that span across the U.S., as well as deciding where and how those efforts should be focused.
Since then, the U.S. team has grown from four to eleven people, while the company's customer base has expanded significantly.
"We've gone from one customer to hundreds of customers nationwide," Rune says.
To keep that momentum, and fulfil their ambitious vision for the U.S. market, the company needed a CEO with the ability to understand both the Norwegian and the U.S. sides of the business – and Rune was the right man for the job.
"I was honored that Alf-Goran and the board of directors felt that I was the one to take on that challenge. I am also grateful that my wife and my daughter saw this as a unique opportunity." he says.
Rune and his family are now living full-time in Boston. It's a time of new experiences all round: his daughter has just started school, while the new CEO has been rapidly getting to grips with the North American market.
Part of this includes attending partner trade shows, going out on sales calls, and "putting my ear to the ground to learn about what is happening in the very dynamic U.S. fish and seafood market," he explains.
Over the following months, his priorities will also include strengthening the logistical relationship between the Norwegian parent company Kvarøy Fiskeoppdrett and the U.S.-based Kvarøy Arctic.
"The learning curve has been quite high. Norway is a small country, and my hometown has 25,000 citizens, while Norway as a whole is 5.5 million people. The U.S. is on a different scale."
However, Rune says, when it comes to seafood, there's no culture gap: "Seafood is international, whether you are in the U.S. or Europe."
"The U.S. has always been important for us, and it's becoming even more important. We wanted to give the needed support to our colleagues and customers in the U.S. It's good to meet people, especially with customers and potential new customers. At the end of the day, we all want to grow new business," he says.
Rune notes that increasing numbers of food service companies and retailers in the U.S. are recognizing the global environmental impact they can have by implementing sustainability strategies.
It's something that also makes good financial sense, he says, as consumers increasingly expect companies to put environmental priorities and sustainability front and center of their operations.
"The U.S. Market has tremendous growth potential," Rune believes. Together with Chief Marketing Officer Jennifer Bushman, part of the new CEO's role is communicating Kvarøy Arctic's values and identity to its U.S. customers and partners. Rune's roots in Norwegian culture, and ability to work both in English and in Norwegian with across both companies, also help him to communicate the Kvarøy message of sustainability, and the story of where the salmon comes from.
"As a company, we see our sustainably produced products as a way to not only do what's right for our community where the fish is raised, but also what is right for the environment and that meets the moment in the market in supporting our desire to grow our customer base," he says.
"Kvarøy Arctic is uniquely positioned to expand our customer base as we support these partners in filling the gaps that they may have with their salmon sourcing," says Rune.
Rune notes that 85% of U.S. consumers have become consciously greener in their purchasing habits, and one third are willing to pay more for a greener product.
"Our sustainability standards have also helped us to be resilient. The quality of our salmon and the level with which it is raised has given us the ability to think about all possible future needs and adapt to market changes."
"The future growth that we have hinges on our practices and the practices of the industry at large. We are grateful to stand side by side with many companies that are working in the same direction. Companies that can inspire us, teach us and help to make us better so that we can meet the demands of the market for sustainably raised products."
A key part of sustainability is being able to trace the product throughout the supply chain, and Kvarøy has its sights set on full vertical integration, with its new processing plant, 1814 Salmon, coming fully online in Oslo in September 2023.
"It is a best-in-class facility that has only just started to process fish this month," Rune explains. The new plant, representing a NOK 100 million (USD 10 million, EUR 9.4 million) investment in partnership with Fram Seafood and investment company Nyhamn, will allow Kvarøy to process most of its own salmon. The ultimate aim is for Kvarøy to process 100% of its salmon in-house.
"Our goal is to have more and better control over our own fish. Instead of using third party processors, having our own processing plant will make us stronger, and make it easier to follow up the entire value chain," he says.
"In the U.S. economy, there is a lot of focus on inflation and rising prices in fish and seafood. Even in the face of these challenges, the demand for Norwegian salmon continues to grow," Rune notes.
"We have a team of people in Norway working on value-added product ideation specifically for the U.S. market. This is hand in hand with our U.S. based Culinary Ambassador, Chef Eric Gephart," he says, noting that Kvarøy intends to expand its product range beyond its existing hot dogs, burgers and club packs.
"At Kvarøy Arctic, we feel that we are uniquely positioned as a brand and the attributes we bring put us on a solid foundation. We need to expand our customer base with more best-in-class partners that value the sustainability standards that we bring and are willing to tell our story."
Rune says he believes customers want to spend on products that reflect their values and contribute "to something that they believe can make a difference. We are working hard each and every day to ensure that this happens."