“I will retire in summer next year, but I love my job, now is time to put in next generation”. This is one of the first things Truls Eirik Aasjord told us when we met him at Cermaq’s factory facility in Steigen, Norway. You might think it’s been a few years since he had his first fish in 1975, but even though he calls himself an “old man”, the factory manager at Cermaq Steigen exudes vitality and passion for what he does.
Working in a processing facility is hard, he told us, and in all those years he has seen a lot and accumulated a lot of anecdotes, but, although it has not all been plain sailing, Truls Eirik is happy that now everything is simpler, and safer for those who, like him, work in the aquaculture industry. “In the past things were more complicated”, he claimed. Everything in place for those who come.
Love for his work
“I am an old man”, Truls Eirik Aasjord told WeAreAquaculture right at the start of the interview, and added, “I will retire next summer, now is time to put in next generation”. He had been doing processing and farming in Hamarøy since 1986, and the butchery opened in 1990. “And as you can see here now we have a totally new one in Steigen from 2018, top-notch quality”, he told us as he showed us around Cermaq’s facilities in the Norwegian town. Truls Eirik has worked on this project from design to completion and the pride in a well-done job shows in his speech.
Prior to this, Cermaq Norway had two processing facilities in the Nordland region, one in Alsvåg in Øksnes municipality and one in Skutvik in Hamarøy municipality, where he worked. The need for more capacity led the company to evaluate different possibilities and, finally, they decided that building a new joint facility at Storskjæret in Steigen was a better, more efficient, and forward-looking solution than expanding the two existing slaughterhouses.
During the first two years, a commuting round was planned for all employees at the old location. Once the plan was completed, only four resigned. “Of the 28 people who have been with us since the beginning, 4 have been working with us since 1990, with 30 years of experience”, he told us. “It was key for us to have them there when starting up with everything being new and unused”, he continued.
Aquaculture, a family matter
Truls Eirik starts his day very early, at 6:30 am. The first thing he does is to check that everything is running as it should, then he pays the invoices and approves the purchases. Lots of emails, meetings, and investments. “Look at the future, what trends we have in the market and what needs to be done to improve operations”, he said. The company has a number of projects to be implemented, NOK 15 million (€1.4 million / $1.5 million) that have been budgeted for the future. In short, the day-to-day life of a factory manager.
To put his path to his current position at Cermaq Steigen in context, Truls Eirik told us that he started with the farming side in 1986, but he had had his first fish “as early as 1975”. For him, aquaculture is a family matter. His father was one of the brothers who owned Brødrene Aasjord in Helnessund. The company was sold a few years ago. His son also works in the industry. Tom Eirik Aasjord is the CEO of Nova Sea, one of the largest salmon farmers in northern Norway. The two often talk about aquaculture, Truls Eirik told us, and we guess they have certainly talked about the salmon tax that has led both Cermaq and Nova Sea to announce a halt in their investments.
The current situation is a complicated time for the industry in general, but if we talk about the daily work in a processing facility, the factory manager of Cermaq Steigen assures us that before everything was much harder. “In the past, things were more complicated”, he claimed, “for example before we produced the ice in a room, then we also chopped the ice in tubs for the fish. Had to lift all the boxes by hand, much labour work”. Now, “automation and digitization have made everyday life easier” and all the logistics are more controlled.
A not for everyone job
However, despite all the changes and conveniences that automation has brought, Truls Eirik Aasjord acknowledged that a job in a processing facility is still hard work. A job that is not for everyone, as the anecdote he shared with us demonstrates. “The shortest employment time I have had was 25 minutes, where the person realized that it was too heavy work and too monotonous”. It was about 15 years ago but, between conscious and amused, he remembers it as the first day.
The hardness of this work is not the only obstacle they encounter when looking for employees. “Hard to also find people with a more technical background”, he shared with us. Although, what worries him most is something that is out of his hands to solve. “Renting prices are getting insane and also getting there are so few places to rent in the more remote areas”, he explained. This combined with the arrival of new people also makes prices higher because sometimes they need temporary workers.
“We have had several good candidates that we have lost simply because we have not been able to provide housing for them”, Truls Eirik Aasfjord told us. “Houses are the most important thing we have to have control over, considering where Steigen is located in terms of location”. Ultimately, it is a matter of offering workers a place to live that is within the definition of nearby, a problem that the Norwegian coast shares with other salmon production areas, such as Scotland.
Taking care of your own
As factory manager, Truls Eirik Aasjord also takes on tasks such as driving 5 hours to make sure his temporary workers have good beds and mattresses when they start on the job. “Steigen is not exactly a big city, so it is important that the facilities are good for the temporary workers”, he explained. “By helping the temps feel good, we help ourselves to address any irritations before they become problems”, he added.
Every year they have staff meetings, organize courses for employees – of Norwegian, for example, as this is the language used in the factory -, provide facilities where workers can meet outside working hours, finance part of the cost of the gym… The aim is to ensure that employees can develop on the job if they want to. “It is important to take care of your own”, he said, and he tries to do so.
“In the office, the door is always open for people who want to strike up a conversation, this is for everyone”, he claimed. The working culture at Cermaq Steigen is an inclusive environment where everyone talks to everyone else. There is no marked hierarchy in this factory, not at all what one would imagine from the outside for a place like a fish processing facility. “It is important for me to be down to earth with my workers”, Aasjord said, which is why he always sets aside time to be with those in production. “They see me, and I see them”, explained. He engages with people to gain an understanding of what can make their everyday life better. “Don’t want to be in the office all day, and only be in meetings”. He wants to see the activity, “and workers needs to be seen and get feedback from us”, he said, “we are like a big family here on Storskjæret, everyone’s work is important for our daily production”.
Projects to implement
When Truls Eirik Aasjord started working at Cermaq, the company was owned by the Norwegian government but in 2014 the Japanese Mitsubishi Corporation bought 100% of the shares. That has made a slight difference in the way he works, especially because, as he explained to us, in a private company “there is a shorter path to decisions and obtaining funding”. If it is public, “it has and can take longer for a decision to be made”. With one or the other owner, he is satisfied. “I feel that the growth phase of Cermaq has been very good throughout these 30 years, where we have ensured that we have a management where we play each other well, as well as having good and regular communication through all stages”, he stated.
“It is also very important to us that a message and news that arrives does not go through too many stages so that it becomes difficult to keep track of whether the right people have received that information”, he added. If communication is key in any company, it is even more so in a large company like this one. There are many subsidiaries in Mitsubishi, and that makes some things go very fast, but others take a little longer. As he told us, the ultimate goal is “to get the owners to believe in the projects you want to implement”.
In the end, he told us, with the current owners of the company, if there are good results, there is investment, and that is leading them to gradually expand. “As we get hold of more fish, we see that we have to expand so that we can slaughter more per day”, he said. They are proud of the slaughterhouse and, while acknowledging that it was a matter of luck, they are also very happy with the timing, as today the price would probably have doubled, if not more. However, they are still looking for future investments. “Salmon oil is one of those projects you want to do”, he told us, and talked also about “possibilities for another fillet line”. But this was before the tax, now it’s time to wait and see.
Pride of the factory N-2284
In fact, the uncertainty in the industry following the government’s announcement of the ground rent tax on salmon farms could jeopardize another of Truls Eirik’s joys at the helm of Cermaq Steigen. Although seasonality is inherent in this industry, in the last two years, they have not laid anyone off, “for a single day”, and they are proud of it. “Before then, we had leaves of 3-4 months a year. Those who have been involved from the start miss leave, where they want to go home to their families and have a holiday”, he told us when we met.
That pride spreads throughout the factory. The management team, IT and administration… “lots of young people working in the company who are willing to work hard”, he said. “It’s always fun to see that we break the record for the number of fish slaughtered”, he told us when we asked him about milestones achieved. “And not least”, he added, “the recognition from customers that they are satisfied with what we deliver from factory N-2284”.
When asked about the future of the aquaculture industry in general, Truls Eirik Aasfjord talks about offshore aquaculture, powerful facilities that can withstand weather and wind as the weather becomes more and more unstable, but also places where the waste from farming becomes less visible, something he believes politicians are interested in. Ending the lice problem will be another challenge, in his opinion, and in the long term, he relies on closed cages, something his company, Cermaq, is already testing in Canada.
We ended our talk by taking stock with Truls Eirik Aasjord about his experience at the company on a personal level. “Moved over to Steigen”, he said, “just one technician in the start”. Now, from his position as a factory manager, he thinks it’s “fun to watch those who have joined the company have achieved a lot and become very good”, and he also adds that it’s “nice to see that the owners are happy with the investment that has been made”. He loves his job and, as he told us at the beginning, he would love to work longer, because the passion for the aquaculture industry of this “old man”, seems to be endless.
Cermaq Steigen is part of Cermaq Norway, which in turn is part of Cermaq, a fully-owned subsidiary of Mitsubishi Corporation. The company is a leading global producer of sustainable salmon and trout with operations in Norway, Canada, and Chile. Headquartered in Oslo, Norway, it has some 2,800 employees and supplies salmon to customers in more than 70 countries around the world. Its goal is to drive the transition of the food system towards healthier and climate-friendly food. With an approach based on transparency, performance, and partnerships, Cermaq has set ambitious climate targets in which innovation for clean agriculture plays a key role.