Industries

High Liner Foods expands in Newport News and abroad

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High Liner Foods is the largest producer of frozen seafood
for retail chains. Photo courtesy High Liner Foods Inc.

The fish in an Arby’s fish sandwich may be harvested from international waters, but the breaded filet is made at the High Liner Foods plant in Newport News. “It’s the company’s most well-known product that comes out of that plant,” says Keith Decker, the company president and chief operating officer. High Liner also makes fish filets for McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s, as well as bee-battered cod for Sam’s Club.

Founded in 1899, High Liner Foods Inc. is based in a small fishing community in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. “It started as a fishing company producing salt fish,” says Decker.

High Liner went on to become one of the two largest fishing companies in Canada. “When the fisheries were shut down in eastern Canada in the early 1990s, High Liner went into the world market and created a name for itself as an importer and marketer of fish products,” Decker says.

In December 2011, the company acquired the U.S. subsidiary of Icelandic Seafood in Newport News for about $230 million. Icelandic was one of the largest suppliers of value-added seafood to the U.S. food service market, so the deal raised High Liner’s profile as a player in the industry.

Icelandic is one of four U.S. companies that High Liner has acquired in the past seven years. “Our sales have grown dramatically,” Decker says.  “Today we are the largest producer of frozen value-added seafood — battered, glazed and sauced — for retail chains and food service.”

The Newport News facility opened in 1997 and dealt primarily with food service accounts such as schools and chain restaurants in the U.S. “They were a very good competitor of ours,” Decker says. “It was a logical acquisition to add that portfolio into ours. From our perspective it was a great facility, probably the newest manufacturing plant in the U.S. for seafood.”

High Liner liked the fact that Newport News had a large workforce to draw from as well as access to port facilities. “It is also ideally located for trucking logistics across the U.S.,” Decker says.

The company has about 420 employees in Newport News and 1,500 companywide. The 250,000-square-foot Newport News plant, one of five company plants in North America, produces about 65 million pounds of seafood. High Liner is investing $6.6 million to modernize and expand the facility with new equipment and systems to increase production. Work is underway on the expansion, and the company has started hiring for 57 new positions. 

“Our vision is to be the leading supplier of frozen seafood in North America, and this expansion of our Newport News operation puts us a step closer to that goal,” Decker says, noting that all of the company’s sales are focused on North America.

High Liner processes more than 20 species of fish from more than 30 countries around the world, from tilapia and salmon to cod and shrimp. “We bring raw fish material through the Port of Norfolk and also by truck,” Decker says. 

The company sells to every major supermarket, restaurant and food service chain as well as club stores in North America. Its brands include Fisher Boy and Sea Cuisine as well as High Liner. “We have the leading market share in the food service sector, but we are not a leader on the retail side,” Decker says. “There are two or three companies more dominant on that side.”

High Liner gets seafood from around the world. Alaska is a source of salmon as is Russia, which also provides cod, haddock and pollock. Shrimp comes from Southeast Asia and Central America. “We also get product out of China and Scandinavian countries, such as Norway and Iceland,” Decker says.

The business has its challenges. Salmon runs, for example, may occur only eight weeks during the salmon season. “We have to take seasonal fishery and produce a product that is the same size, quality and price and deliver it 52 weeks a year to chain restaurants or supermarkets,” Decker says.

Because of the seasonality of salmon runs, High Liner has to make an educated guess as to how much salmon it will need for the year. “We are buying and committing to a year’s worth of inventory upfront,” Decker says. “It could be as much as 50 million pounds of product.”

By the end of this year, the company will purchase all its seafood from certified sustainable or responsible fisheries and aquaculture farms.

Because of its Icelandic acquisition, High Liner has strong purchasing ties with Reykjavik, Iceland, buying cod and haddock from local fisheries. “We import a lot of products from them,” Decker says. “They produce fantastic quality products that are well respected in the U.S. food service market.”

When he meets with businessmen in Reykjavik, Decker finds them to be more conservative than American businessmen. “They are more reserved,” he says. “As far as doing business with them, they are excellent businessmen. They have a lot of pride in their country. [It is] a great country to work in.”

Business meetings are similar to meetings in the U.S., he adds. “They all speak excellent English.” 

Economy in Newport News
Known for its shipbuilding industry, Newport News also is home to a fast growing technology sector. Other industries include health-care services, manufacturing and wholesale distribution. Large employers include Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc. (the parent company of Newport News Shipbuilding), Riverside Health System, Ferguson Enterprises/Wolseley North America, the Department of Defense and Canon Virginia Inc. Canon is investing $27 million to expand its operation in the city. The city also has several proposed developments in the works, including the $250 million Tech Center development that includes commercial and research enterprises as well as residential housing. The center is a partnership between the city and construction company W.M. Jordan, developer S.J. Collins Enterprises, Jefferson Lab and the Virginia Tech Foundation. Also underway is a $48.2 million, 22-acre mixed-use project in the city’s Southeast Community. Brooks Crossing is being designed as a project that will help renovate this part of the city and so far has attracted a new police precinct and a 30,000-square-foot commercial building. Construction is scheduled to begin this spring.


Economy in Reykjavik
The capital and largest city in Iceland, Reykjavik is a major player in the economic growth of the country. Industries include geothermal energy, seafood, biotech, medical equipment and information technology. Large employers include retail giant Hagar, the marine energy management and research company Marorka, clothing manufacturer 66°North and airlines Air Iceland and Icelandair. In 2011, the city built The Harpa concert hall and conference center, making it more attractive in the meeting planning industry.


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