TalentView: David Ulloa Walker
Do you remember those children's games where you had to connect the dots until the drawing appeared at the end? David Ulloa Walker, General Manager of Imenco Aqua Chile and our new TalentView, sees his career that way, as a succession of dots that make sense when you look back and are finally able to see the final shape beyond the dots and the connections between them.
More than thirty years after starting in aquaculture, David continues to draw lines to connect the dots of his career. He does it with a pencil whose lead is made of curiosity, effort, empathy, and lots and lots of passion. That word, so often written and pronounced in this sector, sounds different when he says it. In David Ulloa's voice, "passion" sounds like the promise of a better world because, as he claims almost at the end of our talk, "Aquaculture is the future, there is no other way."
Magnetic connection to the sea
David was born in Valparaíso, a coastal city and important port in Chile. He later studied in a nearby town, Viña del Mar, in a school where the teachers organized activities around the sea, taking their young students to do things like collecting seaweed. Today he lives in Puerto Montt, the capital of the Chilean salmon industry, and when he looks out the window, he also sees that sea that has always been part of his landscape. "The sea has always been a magnetic connection for me," he says.
The transition from the sea to aquaculture came years later. He remembers the exact moment, in 1988. He was in college and went on a field trip to a fish farm in Río Blanco, in the fifth region of Chile. "That fish farm is iconic in the salmon industry because it was built around 1902, but in 1905 the first trout eggs arrived in that sector and that was the beginning of the history of salmon farming," he recalls. It was the first one to be established in The Andes and David Ulloa's first practical connection with the world of aquaculture. He was 19 or 20 years old.
When he finished his degree, at the end of the 1990s, the salmon industries in southern Chile were experiencing an important upswing and some of his colleagues were already working there. However, in addition to being a biologist, he also wanted to be a teacher, and, after university, he returned to his old school in Viña del Mar to do his internship. There, seeing his potential and his taste for aquaculture, his tutor, Ricardo Bravo, told him: "David, I think you should work in this field," and put him in contact with his brother, who worked in salmon. "I came to work here in the south of Chile in 1991, in the city of Puerto Montt, and I never left again".
That is how he began his career in the sector. At that time the salmon industry was just taking off in Chile. "Many professionals were coming from other areas and there was a great need for people who could be linked to the activity and that's when you start to learn," he recalls. "I started to learn in the farming centers, working, being there, cultivating the fish."
Almost 25 years "on the other side of the table"
The biology graduate with a magnetic attraction to the sea started in aquaculture farming salmon. He spent a few years there and then moved on to a genetic selection company that worked with a family selection program, a stepping stone that led him to another egg production company with genetic improvement, also based on family selection, but more focused on productivity. It was there that his career drifted to the supplier side.
"I was a user of technology equipment, and precisely this company where I worked in genetic improvement had to make a series of investments in equipment and technology to be able to carry out these programs," he recalls. Feeding was a critical variable and the only way to standardize it was with a feeding robot provided by a Norwegian company. He traveled to Norway, they brought the equipment to Chile, and he was in charge of managing it.
He became so involved in the experience, learned so much about them, and had so much contact with his Norwegian suppliers that, when a few years later David Ulloa Walker left the company, they contacted him. "That's where my time on the other side of the table began," he jokes, "I jumped from the producers to the supplier side, and I started working with them from then on." He did it first as a freelancer, but, two years later, the company decided to set up an office in Chile and invited him to participate as General Manager.
"That was '99, and I'm still with that company to this day," David says. The company has changed owners a couple of times. The first stage, as Storvik Aqua, lasted from 1999 to 2016; then the holding company Vard Aqua Chile appeared; and, at the beginning of 2023, there was another name change with the arrival of Imenco, also a Norwegian group, very powerful in technology.
Looking back and connecting the dots
Training in biology, experience in farming and genetics, his innate curiosity... We asked the General Manager of Imenco Aqua Chile what all this brings to him when it comes to managing a technology supplier company, and he answered us with a quote from Steve Jobs: "You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards."
In those points he has spent his entire career connecting, there is his studies as a biologist, which allows him to understand the phenomena of the biological, ecological, and physiological nature of this industry. Also his training as a teacher. "I've always been very keen on trying to understand in the best possible way the things I study, that I analyze, to be able to apply them, and also to explain them well, to teach them." In this world of relationships, of often complex interactions, making it simple to be able to explain is a plus.
Despite this, he confesses, when he was invited to work in a technology company, he had some misgivings. "This is probably not my thing, I'm a biologist," he thought. "I defined myself a lot with that label, with that essence, but in the end, you're young - I was under 30 - so I thought, 'I'm going to try it, the worst that can happen is that I'll go back to my own thing'."
He never went back, although he has never abandoned it either, he just followed what life and the industry were putting in front of him. "You look back and connect the dots in your career. You don't look for them, they happen, they are circumstances, context, and suddenly when you look back, everything has made a lot of sense because it has been adding up," David Ulloa Walker tells WeAreAquaculture looking back.
Thirst for knowledge to serve his customers
This trajectory has been an important contribution to his career because it allows him to better understand his clients. "You go precisely from experience understanding these problems, understanding the urgency that producers have, and also putting yourself in their place. That empathy allows you to respond in a better way to their needs. I think it is an advantage to have that path. This experience in the production area allows me to understand much better the needs of customers and how to assist them, support them, accompany them," says the General Manager of Imenco Aqua in Chile.
The challenges of the road are a motivation for him. He faces them, takes them on, but sometimes David Ulloa also seeks them out. Biologist, professor - although not in a regular class, but in talks in which he shares all the knowledge he has accumulated over the years with his team and his clients -, high-level executive... To top it all off, a few years ago he returned to the university to do his doctorate.
"I felt the need to be able to challenge myself in terms of doing something different and being able to study and explore things," he explains. That's why his thesis wasn't about salmon. He went back to his roots and another of the people who shaped his career, Sergio Zimmermann. In his time at the farming company, the Brazilian specialist taught David how to produce tilapia and shrimp with biofloc technology. "A totally revolutionary concept, almost like a natural recirculation, where the water is not recycled and there are all some phenomena of interaction between bacteria, microorganisms, etcetera, which allow these animals, fish or shrimp, to live in a controlled environment, on the one hand, but very isolated from the rest, which has environmental advantages."
So many years in salmon, he felt this was still pending and so, to continue advancing, he did his doctorate in aquaculture, yes, but his doctoral thesis was on a species of shrimp native to northern Chile, which could be used for biofloc. That led him to link up with three universities that together dictate this doctoral program: the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso; the Universidad de Chile; and also, the Universidad Católica del Norte. There he met María Cristina Morales who, besides working at the university, also participated in the Board of AquaPacífico, an aquaculture innovation center, and another point to connect in the drawing of our TalentView's career.
Doing things right from where you are in the industry
Of the five members of AquaPacífico's Board of Directors, two belong to each of the partner institutions, and there is a fifth independent member. When the latter position became vacant, María Cristina Morales recommended David Ulloa to fill it. His background and experience in private business in an already powerful and developed industry in the south of the country, such as salmon farming, gives him a unique vision that he can bring to a region, the north, where aquaculture is focused on another species, shrimp, and the industry is still on a different scale.
As mentioned, David has a career of more than thirty years behind him, but that does not detract one ounce of passion from his speech when he talks about aquaculture, quite the contrary. How do you stay motivated after so long? we asked him. "Motivation has to do with the pleasure of doing things, with being in the place where you want to be, being in the place where you feel that your contribution can mark a certain degree of well-being in general to the community, to society and, of course, to the activity that you develops."
Is the General Manager of Imenco Aqua Chile looking to leave a legacy for future generations of the industry? "My claim is rather humbler," he answers with a smile. It's more, he says, about doing things well from where you are in the industry, to give it the importance it deserves because what you do always has an impact and consequences beyond your immediate environment. David Ulloa thinks it is too much to talk about legacy, but if you can motivate... "Every time someone asks me - young people, who are studying and starting this career -, I tell them the same thing: 'You have to like this, you have to be passionate about it, you have to find something different'."
Like all jobs, he says, in aquaculture there are also difficult moments, there is sacrifice, there is perseverance, there is patience. "There are a lot of things, but it's like life itself. This is life itself in an activity, and the big difference is how you live it, how you find meaning in it, how, to the extent that you are working in a place, you make it, not an obligation, but also part of what you like to do, and if you can combine those two things it is ideal."
Everything that lies behind the brand
His work, which began in salmon farming, is now - as he said earlier - "on the other side of the table." Belonging to a holding company headquartered in Norway, Imenco Aqua Chile is a technology company that offers products ranging from feeding, oxygenation, and aeration equipment, to underwater cameras. As in our domestic lives, technology is also gaining ground in aquaculture, and, today, it is already essential when it comes to collecting data to be able to process it and make decisions at the production level.
They sell that technology, but always a professor - and also always Chilean, where closeness and personal contact with the client is part of the culture - David tells us that if there is something he especially identifies with, it is the company's slogan: 'Smart solutions'. "You sell a package, a product that is a hardware, a physical thing and many of those have packaged software, but in that camera that we sell to the market with a series of properties, attributes, technical characteristics, specifications, etcetera, finally that package says 'Imenco'. That is the label and in 'Imenco' we all go there, we go there with our experience, with our support, with our after-sales, with our commitment to do things better."
"You sell a product, but more than that, you sell a solution. You try to ensure that the customer who receives your equipment, your system, has a solution because that is what he is looking for in the end. And we have been working in that accompaniment, and that is why our contribution has to do with that, with generating solutions to certain control problems, for example, monitoring of environmental parameters, feed control... which are key in production."
Technology at the service of production decision-making, at the service of salmon farming, serves to optimize processes. Generally, this optimization generates both economic and environmental benefits. "If I am more efficient, use resources better, use less feed, etcetera, I will have less water footprint, less carbon footprint; I will have much more efficient feed conversions,..." In short, sustainability.
Produce more, produce better
Key in all countries with an aquaculture industry, the relationship of salmon production with its environment is especially relevant in Chile, where, despite the great weight of the activity in the country's economy, there is still a part of public opinion that considers salmon an invasive species. David Ulloa dreams of the day when this will cease to be the case, the day when, as with other cultivated species such as grapes, salmon will be considered an introduced species and not an invasive one. In the country they speak with pride of 'Chilean wine', he tells us, "I would like that in the future at some point we would also say 'Chilean salmon', that we would feel identified with this activity regardless of the origin."
Industrial activity, he reflects, like any activity, even tourism, has negative externalities, nothing can be said to have zero effect. "As long as it is well regulated, as long as things are somehow with a sustainable production, sustained over time, with benefits for the community, it is a good activity," he says. "For Chile, I think it's important to have this type of activity because if not, you guess 'what do we have, what do we do if we don't have this?'" He doesn't buy the argument that the industry is only growing to grow. "That's a cliché. The industry has to have a responsibility and it's going to grow as the demand for food does. The population is growing, fine, and how do we feed it? We also have to respond to those needs."
At this point, David takes another break from the talk to quote someone who has influenced him. This time it is the economist Peter Drucker who, in the late 1990s, stated that "aquaculture not the internet, represents the most promising investment opportunity of the 21st Century." Indeed, if well managed, aquaculture makes it possible to generate these resources to feed the world with quality animal protein.
"What you have to ask yourself, or challenge yourself, is how do we do it better, how do we make this production very sustainable, more responsible," David says. "I would hope in Chile that image is going to change as you communicate better and people feel more identified and, finally, we have that pride of saying, 'well, we work in an activity that, effectively, creates more benefits than problems'," he tells WeAreAquaculture.
Aquaculture as a tool for a better society
Imenco Aqua's General Manager in Chile is proud to be a salmon farmer - a 'war cry' in southern Chile in recent months - but, he remarks, aquaculture is more than salmon. "I work in salmon and I like it, I'm passionate about that farming, but I also have a natural restlessness to be able to learn about other species." That is why, he says, he feels that passion, that desire to understand, to learn, and to teach, which he transfers to his daily work.
"We as a company that sells technological solutions, our division is aquaculture, it is not salmon farming, it is aquaculture. Therefore, all species in farming where we can contribute with solutions, contribute to better production," he explains. "That's why our spectrum is much broader, that's why it makes sense to the game I escaped a little bit from my local trajectory, but, in the end, I was building a much broader professional platform to be able to move in different scenarios, not only in salmon, but also in other species."
When asked about the future of the activity, David talks about finding solutions to be more efficient and sustainable, to make the activity more visible, to give it value beyond mere production, to produce more, to produce better. But not only that, he also talks about showing aquaculture and motivating more people "so that they can also fall in love with this activity and can see in this area, in this industry, a path of professional development."
"The future is in this production, in how to make the production of quality protein sources more responsible to be able to feed the world," he says. "We see ourselves as very terrestrial, but the ocean is much more, 70%, we are perhaps much more connected sometimes with the sea or with the water than with the land itself, and from that look, I would say yes, we are aquaculture." And he concludes, "Aquaculture is the future, there is no other way. We have to be able to learn to coexist, learn to produce, learn to connect with this world of water so that we can also be responsible and leave a better society."
At every step, David Ulloa Walker tries to spread his passion for aquaculture to those around him. He seeks that, like him, they have that look to the future, that they see that work, perseverance, what we do, has that gradualness. "Things don't happen magically, you build what you are going to sow tomorrow, so I have always been on that path, trying to do things well, putting a lot of effort, a lot of desire, a lot of passion." On that path he continues, drawing lines, connecting the dots.