That was Fun
For four decades Svavar Svavarsson has braved the changing winds of the Icelandic fishing industry. First in production management and increasing automation in fisheries, later in sales and marketing after the dissolution of Iceland´s sales organisation; and most recently in focusing on environmental issues. It’s a testament to Svavar’s sunny disposition that now, on the occasion of his retirement from HB Grandi, he remembers the hustle, bustle and battles with the refrain “Well that was fun”.
“Ever since childhood I’d had an inkling I’d end up here” Svavar says when asked about what led to him working in the fishing industry. Svavar was raised in the neighbourhood of Kleppsholt, then at the very edge of the Reykjavík city limits, and had already worked some coveted office jobs at Landsbankinn when he decided to change paths and headed over to the fishing industry. “I always enjoyed being close to those businesses downtown. I was a courier for the merchant Natan Olsen at Vesturgata 2 from the age of ten and loved popping down to Customs and the bank and collecting invoices all over town. I felt very important walking up the burnished wooden steps of the offices of Silli and Valdi in Aðalstræti when I came to collect from them.” Going up those stairs Svavar was following in the footsteps of entrepreneurs who had, for as long as two centuries, ever since the time of Skúli Magnússon’s initiative marking the birth of urban civilization in Reykjavík, visited this important building in the history of Reykjavík’s industries.
Svavar’s dynamism and energy kept him busy. He studied bookkeeping and business management through correspondence, alongside his job at Landsbankinn, as well as temping as a night watchman at the bank. One spring he saw an opportunity and rented a tract of land in Kjalarnes, an hour drive from Reykjavík. Before he knew he had 8 tons of seed potatoes in the family home where they sprouted in the basement, hallways, living room and bedrooms. The twenty-year old banker had become a part-time potato farmer. This was in the summer of ‘69 - after the disappearance of the herring the year before, unemployment was high in Reykjavík and so Svavar put out an ad for people to come harvest potatoes that fall, promising payment for every kilo harvested. A line of cars formed at Kjalarnes, with throngs of people attending and the potatoes flew up from the ground. Unfortunately, the weather that year was not favourable for the harvest and the potato adventure ended up costing more than it earned the young farmer. But fortune favours the brave and that certainly was true for Svavar that year, as he won a car in the DAS lottery, the price of which was enough to cover the potato debts.
No Going Back to the Bank
Svavar had gotten a taste of the entrepreneur life and when two friends invited him to join them in running a 12 ton fishing boat the next spring - Sæfugl KE 30, he couldn’t refuse. As was his custom, Svavar moved with care and consideration. “I spoke to the bank manager, Jóhann Ágústsson, before deciding on the fishing boat. He was very encouraging and offered me my position at the bank back if I decided fishing wasn’t for me. This was important to me since I’d worked my way up considerably at the bank.” Svavar makes it clear that if it hadn’t been for this, he might have thought twice about taking this chance and it’s clear that he’s grateful to Jóhann for the offer. Svavar would not return to his position at the bank. After two successful seasons on Sæfugl, where the friends hauled in saithe just outside of Reykjanes peninsula, and later participating in herring season in the North Sea, capelin season and netting season, he found that the fishing industry felt like home, even though he never managed to fully get rid of his seasickness. The work was plentiful and fun and the earnings were good for a young man. The die was cast. “I heard two of my shipmates who, like me hadn’t attended school as teenagers, talking about the Fish Processing School, that had then just been founded. It sounded interesting and I immediately had a look at what they offered and signed up. I had the bug by then,” says Svavar and smiles.
“I heard two of my shipmates who, like me hadn’t attended school as teenagers, talking about the Fish Processing School, that had then just been founded. It sounded interesting and I immediately had a look at what they offered and signed up. I had the bug by then,” says Svavar and smiles.
The school years passed by quickly. “I, who was by then 25 years old, much older than my classmates, and hadn’t attended school for ten years, I absorbed everything voraciously - I was obviously very thirsty by then,” Svavar says and believes that the interdisciplinary curriculum was tremendously helpful. “We studied chemistry and statistics, amongst others, and also got to observe the work of the scientists working for the Icelandic Fisheries Laboratories housed in the same building as the school on Skúlagata 4. We also benefitted from the guidance of professionals who taught us to fillet fish and manage people.” The five semesters were interspersed with practical studies and working in fisheries all over the country. “We were sent off with diaries, a sort of nautical logbook where we could document every project, big and small, that we participated in. This was clever and taught us disciplined work practices.” And every summer was spent working in the industry. Svavar got around during these years, working in Vopnafjörður, Eskifjörður, at Norðurstjarnan in Hafnarfjörður and Ísbjörninn freezing plant in Reykjavík, more often than not in a supervisory capacity.
Had a Lot of Opinions by Then
“I was hired as foreman at Ísbjörninn in Reykjavík freezing plant on the Women’s Day Off in 1975, before I graduated. I learned a lot over there, mostly from the general foreman Páll Guðmundsson who had studied at the Commercial College of Iceland, which was rare for general staff in the industry at the time,” says Svavar. Ísbjörninn was owned by founder Ingvar Vilhjálmsson and family, and the family and the business were as one at that time. “Ingvar used to come by with his sons, Jón and Vilhjálmur, every day and eat lunch in the cafeteria. They’d sit with me and Páll and go over the day’s business.” It’s clear that Svavar looks back fondly at the years in Ísbjörninn and the people he met and was mentored by.
“When I saw the position of production manager with Bæjarútgerð Reykjavíkur (BÚR) advertised in October 1977 I applied immediately. I really wanted that job,” Svavar reminisces about the time just before he graduated. He was by then getting close to thirty and “had a lot of opinions on how to do things by then,” and was therefore very pleased when he was offered the job and “could do things my own way.” This was a huge undertaking since the company had over 300 employees in Grandagarður and 200 in Meistaravellir. One of the first “suggestions” he made to Einar Sveinsson, who was then the CEO, was the implementation of a bonus system in the processing plant. The bonus system had been in effect in Vestmannaeyjar for years but was new to the Reykjavík area. Svavar had been introduced to it in Ísbjörninn and in Eskifjörður where it had proven to be effective.
He sought the help of implementation consultants at Rekstartækni hf, who specialised in the installation of operating systems and who would later have a hand in implementation of new systems in 18 different fisheries in the Reykjavík area. The bonus system proved effective in improving utilisation and performance, and what’s more, it raised the average wage of the workers considerably. “I remember these ladies coming in from Vestmannaeyjar who were used to the bonus system, the bonus queens we called them, and they showed everyone how things were done. They’d often finished a whole day’s work before noon.” Progress was fast and some employees managed to triple their wages by enhancing their performance and by improving utilisation. Svavar believes that the bonus system was the first step towards the production management that would become the guiding principle of the Icelandic fishing industry for the next two decades. Svavar remembers the CEOs of BÚR his first years there fondly. Einar, as the head of production, was someone who “fully utilised things” but he would not be around long, because after the city council elections in 1978 the new liberal majority wanted a new man at the helm and hired Björgvin “the social democrat” Guðmundsson as the new CEO. “I found him easy to work with and remember when he assigned me the restructuring of the dried- and salted fish operations in Meistaravellir in order to implement the bonus system.” The project was successful but that didn’t make much of a difference to the big picture during those years. The operating conditions in the fishing industry continued to worsen with increased capacity to fishing and processing, but dwindling catches. “During those years we came close to exterminating the fish stock and the business operated at a loss. This arrangement was based on uncontrolled fishing and created a situation that was not desirable, to say the least, and we knew it.”
The bonus system proved effective in improving utilisation and performance, and what’s more, it raised the average wage of the workers considerably. “I remember these ladies coming in from Vestmannaeyjar who were used to the bonus system, the bonus queens we called them, and they showed everyone how things were done. They’d often finished a whole day’s work before noon.”
Fresh Winds of Change - and a Wake-Up Call
In the 1982 city elections the old majority lost and the young, new Mayor Davíð Oddsson calls for a re-examination of BÚR’s structure and operations. As a result, the decision was made to hire one man to oversee both fishing and processing and Brynjólfur Bjarnason, former CEO of the publishing company Almenna bókafélagið, was hired. Brynjólfur was an operations engineer and one of the first Icelanders to hold an MBA degree in business administration - from a North-American university no less. But he had never worked in the fishing industry, a sure sign of the changing times. Not everyone was happy with the changes but the young Mayor Oddsson appeared in a staff meeting to discuss the situation. “His leadership talents were on full display then. He got people to see things from a different perspective, which boosted morale.”
“Brynjólfur brought new emphasis into the business that I really enjoyed. A new way of thinking, new phrases; like margin, productivity, operating plan, cost consciousness and the like. He had regular meetings with the captains of the fishing vessels and got them to estimate how much they would catch, thereby creating weekly, and later, monthly production plans that became the basis for the operating plan. BÚR’s first operating plan based on the estimated fishing for each vessel was drawn before 1984. These new practices ushered in better analyses and tighter production control. “It wasn’t just us at BÚR who could tell the difference. Brynjólfur’s emphasis ushered in the winds of change all throughout the industry,” says Svavar.
“Brynjólfur brought new emphasis into the business that I really enjoyed. A new way of thinking, new phrases; like margin, productivity, operating plan, cost consciousness and the like.”
A more modern structure was implemented and Svavar became one of four managing directors, responsible for all company production. Brynjólfur also brought a change in attitude regarding communications with staff, the media and the public and so he hired Jón Hákon Magnússon with KOM Consulting as a PR manager. It was clear that BÚR was important to a lot of people - it was owned by the City of Reykjavík as well as being the largest employer in the city and therefore it was important to handle information disclosure and publicity professionally. This would prove vital later on when circumstances changed and almost every other member of staff needed to be laid off. “Those were incredibly difficult times,” says Svavar, “I was forced to lay off people who were close to me and trusted me,” stressing that nothing in his career has been as tough on him mentally, in his four decades of working in the business. “The eighties were really tough, the debt was huge, production capacity too high and that’s why we were forced to make cutbacks and layoffs. The fishing industry got itself into that condition. We were putting out fires and situation was so bad that the congress was preparing a bill for a government bailout to save the industry, and one time the city of Reykjavík had to put up money for oil so the trawlers could leave harbour and fish. Up until then people believed that it would all work out, like it usually did, but that was a wake-up call.”
New System - New Goals
Major changes in the fishing industry were inevitable. The quota system was introduced in 1984, limiting fishing so the production plants had less and less fish to process. This situation caused the merger of BÚR and Ísbjörninn in 1985, creating Grandi, the country’s biggest fishing company - with 10 trawlers combined. “The merger was successful. Ísbjörninn’s owners were fully aware of the importance of a smooth merger. They basically handed over the keys to BÚR’s management team but kept members on the board. Brynjólfur insisted that all changes would go through a cautious, mindful process. Everyone was working towards the same goal - there was no Us vs. Them, everyone was in the same boat. This process was successful and very enjoyable.” The merger of BÚR and Ísbjörninn was the first big merger in the fishing industry but it was followed by a surge of changes and restructuring leading into the new century.
The company leaders had a vision for Grandi’s future. The emphasis was on specialisation, but to make that as profitable as possible they needed to establish the sort of fish-markets where a company like Grandi could sell species they weren’t focused on processing and buy species they could process more profitably than others. Brynjólfur was one of the main instigators in founding the fish-markets in 1987, and they would prove to be influential later on, especially in regards to the arrangement of sales, according to Svavar. “We processed redfish in the BÚR building and other species we specialised in in the old Ísbjörninn building in Norðurgarður. Other species we sold in auction markets. This specialisation lead to us being able to invest in fish processing machinery designed specifically for certain species, thereby increasing profitability even more. Our new goal was to make the most of our quota and utilise our fleet and resources fully.”
Transition and Stability
The City of Reykjavík, under the mayor ship of Oddsson, always planned to disengage from Grandi’s operation and did so by selling its shares in the company in the late eighties. The buyers were Hvalur hf, Venus hf, Hampiðjan and Sjóvá and the biggest shareholders were Árni Vilhjálmsson and Kristján Loftsson and their families. They would go on to leave their mark on future developments of the company. Soon after the introduction of the new owners the company was listed on the Icelandic Stock Exchange - the first of the fisheries to do so. Before that, Hraðfrystistöðin í Reykjavík under Ágúst Einarsson CEO had merged with Grandi. Grandi now had the luxury of having two innovators of business studies in Iceland, Árni Vilhjálmsson and Ágúst Einarsson at the helm.
This was a time of great change in Icelandic business and economy. The government got the inflation under control, national wage agreements were signed, the financial markets started to recover after the difficult autumn of 1987 and the Icelandic government permitted the free transfer of fishing rights, which greatly stimulated the changes in the fishing industry since the quota could now go to those who could utilise it best. There was greater stability ahead, both for the economy and politics, than there had been for decades. “This is when we started seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. The processing became more specialised and focussed and soon after we bought the first automated processing line - and both staff and the fleet was reduced. These were all necessary and important changes. The willingness for change increased and we invested in equipment and technology, both on land and sea, continuously throughout the decade.” Other fishing companies followed suit, fishing and processing became more streamlined, access to funds became easier with the stocks listed, and investment in equipment, technology and above all quota increased. “This was the decade of technological advances in the industry,” says Svavar.
“This is when we started seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. The processing became more specialised and focussed and soon after we bought the first automated processing line - and both staff and the fleet was reduced. These were all necessary and important changes. The willingness for change increased and we invested in equipment and technology, both on land and sea, continuously throughout the decade.”
The fish-markets also played a big part in the changes to the life and work of the product manager in those years. “It was a whole different reality, suddenly having two processing plants and huge staff but not getting the whole catch to process. Part of it went to the fish-markets and from there we got the species that we processed. Then independent processing plants started popping up and they swiped the fish right from under our noses and sold it outside of the sales organisations that we were a part of. We had to submit certain products to the sales organisation - frozen fish to SH and salted fish to SÍF, that had the exclusive rights to that product. The fish-markets encouraged the growth of independent processing plants that could easily dodge the rules, like by flattening the fish in Iceland and then export the fresh flattened fish to other countries where it was salted and fully processed.” Svavar believes that it was the auction markets that had the biggest impact on the sales organisation, which became a lot weaker in those years, after independent processors found more ways to circumvent their rules for higher product prices. The existence of a sales organisation meant to guarantee manufacturers higher prices was obviously not built on solid ground.
Chairman of the Board Árni Vilhjálmsson and CEO Brynjólfur Bjarnason recognised the changes the fishing industry was experiencing and used Grandi’s access to funds through Iceland stock exchange to strengthen the company and prepare for the future. During those years Grandi invested in a number of related companies such as Þormóður rammi in Siglufjörður, Eskja in Eskifjörður, Ísfélag Vestmannaeyja, Gunnvör in Ísafjörður, Þorbjörn in Grindavík, HB in Akranes and the food production company Bakkavör. The shares were influential since the goal was to support collaboration and be prepared to face abrupt changes or pursue opportunities when they presented themselves.
Constant Despite the Changes
Svavar was the production manager for the 18 years he and Brynjólfur worked together, until the latter’s departure in 2002. They had transformed the company through some radical changes - from fishing and running smaller processing plants to a high-tech food processing company. Brynjólfur’s successor was the Chairman of the Board, Árni Vilhjálmsson. Svavar speaks of him with affection. “Árni always did things his own way. He was always in the office. He was a meticulous man and from him I learned the value of precision and dependability in your professional work.” Árni was only CEO for a year but was active in the company afterwards and was presnt every day in his office in Norðurgarður. He was followed by Kristján Davíðsson, who didn’t hold that position for long, since Árni and other major shareholders had planned the merger of Grandi and Haraldur Böðvarsson in Akranes, which meant that Sturlaugur Sturlaugsson from Akranes took over as CEO. In reality Grandi was buying HB using i.a. stocks from other fisheries companies Grandi had bought a share in. The year was 2004 and the company Svavar Svavarsson had managed all production for 25 years was now the biggest fishing company in Iceland and renamed HB Grandi.
Yet another wave of change and transition had passed but one of the constants remained, Svavar. His contemporaries know the reason for his successful career. He was a great boss - hard working and selfless and always treated people honestly, said what had to be said, whether good news or bad. He was determined and followed through in a friendly manner and when he acted on things they got done. Projects entrusted to Svavar were in good hands.
From Production to Sales
When Eggert Benedikt Guðmundsson became the CEO of HB Grandi in 2005 change was imminent for Svavar. Eggert Benedikt had been hired the previous year as head of sales and marketing. A lot had been brewing for that division since the dissolution of the sales organizations, SH and SÍF, at the turn of the century. Grandi had early on made the decision to keep customer service and sales inhouse in order to keep their customers close. This made the company a participant in the harsh competition of the international markets. Eggert Benedikt had the knowledge and experience of international sales and marketing through his work for the international tech company Phillips and based on that experience was the ideal man to lead Grandi’s sales and marketing team into the new century. In his role as production manager, Svavar had through SH and SÍF often been in direct contact with the customers and had a knowledge of their requirements and way of thinking, as well as being well liked by them. It was therefore no surprise to most people at HB Grandi when Eggert offered Svavar to take over his position as head of sales and marketing. It emphasised the importance of the division and signalled that the time for action was now.
“Eggert and I did a lot of work together,” says Svavar, “we were rebuilding and developing, hired staff, started gathering information and analysing in order to locate the best customers. One of the most important questions at the time was whether we’d establish direct contact with the final seller of the product. That could be a matter of evaluating on a case by case basis. We looked at the option of selling straight to the German supermarket chain Aldi, but decided in the end to continue our relationship with the German sales company that specialised in the supermarkets and knew us inside out. That collaboration was very successful. In the case of Bofrost, which is a large German company that sells and distributes into homes, we decided to do business with them directly and that always worked smoothly. In the UK we’ve had a fruitful partnership with a supplier for Fish & Chips restaurants. They work for over 11.000 restaurants so it made no sense for us to trade directly with them all,” Svavar says. He points out that pelagic products are sold widely, although mainly to Eastern Europe and Asia, while the fishmeal and fish liver oil is sold to few buyers, mainly for aquafarming in Norway and the Faroe Islands.
Dependable Partners in the Markets are Crucial
It’s crystal clear that Svavar believes that working with collaborators, or partners as he refers to them, who are experts in different markets and also have an intimate knowledge of HB Grandi, know the seasonal fluctuations and delivery reliability of the company and can calculate when supply can best meet demand, is important. The advantage of having such partners is that they can maintain a dependable and stable relationship with the manufacturer in spite of fluctuations in the markets. They’re skilled in opening a window when a door closes. According to Svavar HB Grandi does business in 40 countries, with over 300 customers, 20 of which are considered large. “Our work focussed on finding interesting countries and sectors, that is what kind of product, and then find the partners we’ve stuck with. The trust between us and our partners is imperative. Our collaborators need to be prepared to share information, be reliable and proud to spread the Icelandic origin of the product and the brand of HB Grandi,” says Svavar.
“Our work focussed on finding interesting countries and sectors, that is what kind of product, and then find the partners we’ve stuck with. The trust between us and our partners is imperative. Our collaborators need to be prepared to share information, be reliable and proud to spread the Icelandic origin of the product and the brand of HB Grandi,” says Svavar.
A significant project for Svavar during this time was to find new markets. The global economy underwent massive changes both because of the growth of the financial sector in the West and the incredible economic growth in Asia, South - America, and partly in Eastern Europe. During those years the BRIC - countries were a huge part of the concourse - the countries where things were moving quickly, Brazil, Russia, India and China. HB Grandi started to build business relationships in these countries, as well as others, and Svavar travelled all over to find collaborators, strengthen connections and gain a better understanding of the customers and local consumer culture. “We’ve had a lot more success in China than, for example, Brazil, and that has a lot to do with the fact that in China we’ve found partners that know us and trust us, as we trust them. These are exciting and growing markets as China is an indication of, in just a few years the country has become one of five largest markets for HB Grandi’s seafood products. This a long-term project and the long-term goals need to be clear.” Svavar says that marketing strategies in all markets are similar and based on frequent visits to clients all over the world, as well as buyers coming to Iceland, sometimes multiple times a year. A lot of good work is also done during expositions and trade fairs, and food promotions are also important, where influential chefs are often invited to come to Iceland to get acquainted with the unique qualities of Icelandic seafood. “One important thing to remember is to never go into new markets with below average prices. It might look good in the beginning but it always comes back to bite you in the end.”
The Big Challenge - Environmental Issues
Svavar had been leading the sales and marketing team for a decade when the new CEO, Vilhjálmur Vilhjálmsson approached him with an offer to head up a new division for product development, including the matters of their subsidiaries in Chile and environmental issues. “I’d started to realise that it was unlikely I’d be the marketing director for the company until I was seventy years old and welcomed the transition. Although I presumed the Chilean subsidiaries would take up most of my time, but it turned out I was completely wrong,” says Svavar.
Like many in the industry, environmental issues had been on Svavar’s mind for a long time, especially regarding the issue of sustainable utilisation of natural resources that had developed alongside the quota system. Once he started working in the field, he became increasingly aware of how much was going on in the community and the business sector in regards to environmental issues. “We got multiple requests to discuss what was going on with environmental policies in the fishing industry and so I started to gather information on the subject. I thoroughly enjoyed the work, especially when I realised how positive the history of the industry in Iceland is in this regard. When I looked at carbon dioxide emission, I found that the fishing industry - one of few industries, has reduced that considerably, or around 40% since 1990, which is the reference year for the United Nations Climate Convention. One of Vilhjálmur’s first projects was to renew the fleet with newer, more economical vessels and before that the fishmeal plant in Vopnafjörður had switched over to electricity instead of oil, the first of its kind on the world. From 2005 to last year HB Grandi has reduced its carbon dioxide emission by 50%. This is a fantastic result in only 13 years and can be traced to the streamlining that has taken place in the company’s operations as a result of mergers with other companies, renewal and reduction of the fleet and the electrification of the fishmeal plants.
“I remember Vilhjálmur and I were once discussing social responsibility. Later he came into my office and simply said “We have a social responsibility” and that set the tone going forward.”
The conversation around environmental issues in the business sector has in the last decade become a part of the larger discussion around corporate social responsibility, that includes the wider effect large companies have on society, apart from just economical and financial. It touches upon various social factors like gender equality and human rights, as well as environmental issues. Svavar’s long-sanding co-workers say that this subject was right up his alley and point out that, as well as being a fundamentally decent man, he’s also a visionary and was a proponent of equality long before many men of his generation even understood the fight for women’s rights. So for those who knew him, the long-time production manager and sales and marketing director embracing these “soft issues” didn’t come as a surprise. “I remember Vilhjálmur and I were once discussing social responsibility. Later he came into my office and simply said “We have a social responsibility” and that set the tone going forward. We immediately joined Festa - The Icelandic Center for Corporate Social Responsibility, and worked towards becoming leaders in the field.” HB Grandi was among the first companies to sign Festa’s and the City of Reykjavík’s declaration of intent regarding the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and to minimize negative impact on the environment signed in November 2015, around the same time as nearly all participating nations of the UN signed the Paris Agreement.
HB Grandi’s Leadership
Svavar worked on a detailed analysis of HB Grandi’s points of contact with the community, drew up paths towards responsible fishing, analysed emissions and more. The results laid the foundation for the company’s environmental policy. “This will be fun I thought,” says Svavar, “I wanted us to start with something tangible and visible and something everyone would recognise. That’s why we chose to tackle waste - sorting, recycling or reusing it in some other way. Svavar says that HB Grandi was lucky to get into a collaboration on this with Klappir Green Solutions, a company with vast knowledge and understanding of the subject that develops software to measure and analyse environmental impact in order to form the basis of an environmental settlement and sustainability reports. “There we had people with 20 - 30 years of experience of the operation and energy economy of ships with a clear vision of digital intelligence and analysis of environmental data to reduce the corporate carbon footprint. I found this extremely fascinating and so we connected with Klappir in order to develop methods and technology that could be beneficial to fishing companies. We’ve also established a great connection with the Environment Agency of Iceland and we’ve established an inhouse committee consisting of people from different divisions and production sites, as well as running a committee in headquarters focused on social responsibility. I’m pretty certain that we’ve succeeded in gaining considerable leadership in the area, since not only have we received multiple awards, but we are also continuously asked to come present this part of our operation to others. Not to mention the numerous seminars and the many university students from different courses that have sought our help in learning about social responsibility in the fishing industry, environmental issues, equality and the like,” says Svavar.
“The energy exchange is equally important, we need to bear in mind that 95% of HB Grandi’s emission come from the ships.”
“What’s most important though is the progress we’ve made and there’s still room for improvement. We can adjust the fleet and organise the fishing better, but already the Icelandic fishing industry has reduced fuel use by half of what it used to be, or down to 140 thousand tonnes from 250 thousand from the reference year 1990. The quota is a fixed point and therefore we need to exert increasingly less effort in gathering the commodity. The energy exchange is equally important, we need to bear in mind that 95% of HB Grandi’s emission come from the ships. One thing is for certain, the fuels that will replace fossil fuels will be more expensive,” says Svavar. That’s why it’s so important to reduce the use through new technology and streamlining. He believes there is a wealth of opportunities ahead but it’s important to move forward sensibly, i.e. by the electrification of harbours and fishmeal plants. “We don’t need to dive into risky procedures - no U-turns. We can succeed without them.”
Change Upon Change
It’s not only changes in technology, fishing and processing that Svavar has been through during his time manning the bridge in times of upheaval in the management and shareholders of the company. Since he started working at BÚR and till today there have been 14 CEOs and the company has mutated from a small operator to a listed company on the Stock Exchange where new owners can come and go in the blink of an eye. Svavar has been through the mill and is probably better acquainted than most with that has become known as change management. And now HB Grandi faces yet another season of change since Guðmundur Kristjánsson, owner of the Brim Seafood in Iceland, has bought the controlling stake in the company from Kristján Loftsson of Hvalur hf., who had held the shares for nearly three decades alongside Árni Vilhjálmsson.
“The fishing industry wouldn’t be what it is today if it hadn’t been through periods of upheaval and change”, says Svavar when asked about the looming changes.
“The fishing industry wouldn’t be what it is today if it hadn’t been through periods of upheaval and change”, says Svavar when asked about the looming changes. “It’s extremely important to stay on your toes, to seek new ways of increasing production and increasing value. Companies need to be able to handle change.” Svavar continues to say that radical changes like these can be hard on individuals and it’s often hard on both those who are let go and those who remain. But change is necessary, also when things are going well.
“Guðmundur Kristjánsson’s arrival certainly heralds more changes for the company. I’ve only had a positive experience of him and I like where his emphasis lies. Guðmundur is one of the most knowledgeable people in the industry, has decades of experience and goes all in on the fishing industry. He is without a doubt one of the industry leaders and therefore it’s good to get him onboard, Svavar says and adds that history shows that Guðmundur has been proven right on more than one occasion when he’s been vocal about unpopular and controversial subjects. “It’s absolutely correct that companies in a fast-changing industry like fishing need to cover all bases - need to be resilient. What happened with Russia is a good example. The actions of the Icelandic government lead to Russia shutting out Icelandic seafood and the industry lost a very important market. But it managed to weather the storm on its own, without any government aid. The only thing the government did was increasing the fishing fees.”
“Guðmundur is one of the most knowledgeable people in the industry, has decades of experience and goes all in on the fishing industry. He is without a doubt one of the industry leaders and therefore it’s good to get him onboard,”
In Svavar’s opinion the industry leaders will experience some turbulence in the coming years since they must convince politicians of the necessity of changes. “Now the danger is that politicians will get apathetic because we’ve had a lot of success in the last decade and they think that everything is great and we can continue down the same road but that’s a huge misunderstanding and the great danger that we face,” says Svavar and the conversation turns to the proposed quota limitation imposed on big companies. “If nothing is done in order to lift limitations, in stages, we run the risk of halting the progression of progress. Leading companies have already reached their limit and struggle to develop further and keep up with the times.” He says that politicians need to step up and create the space for larger companies to evolve and forcing Icelandic companies to circumvent local rules in order to be able to compete globally is ridiculous. “The Icelandic fishing industry has been given the opportunity to evolve and change in the last four decades and it needs the space to continue doing that for the foreseeable future. Companies can’t face stagnation.” says Svavar Svavarsson who’s been at the forefront of change in the industry for four decades and leaves it as one of the leading fishing industries in the world in many ways. Svavar emphasizes that the Icelandic fishing industry is an example to others, mindful of the of the myriad of problems the industry faced thirty years ago. “In my opinion the problems that we face today are miniscule compared to what we faced then.”
Strumming New Chords
Svavar Svavarsson seems content with his life’s work at HB Grandi and is prepared to cheerfully step ashore. He’s full of energy and those who know him are in no doubt that before they know he will have his hands full with new projects. But those won’t be related to the fishing industry. “I’m relishing the thought of a bit of a break. It’s been pretty hectic. I’m incredibly interested in the industry and will be keeping up with new developments but I have no plans to get involved. I’ll just be an observer and enjoy the luxury of distance.”
He plans on pulling strings and strumming new chords. It’s clear that he intends on devoting a lot of time to his family. By now he has 10 grandchildren. Throughout our conversation it becomes apparent that when you devote as much time as Svavar has to his work, there’s little time left for family. “My wife’s been open to suggestions of bringing a piano into the home and I can imagine myself learning to play,” says Svavar who’s been a serviceable guitar player since his teenage years. “I also want to refresh my Spanish skills. I studied the language a bit around the millennium and I’m not opposed to the idea of staying in a Spanish speaking country for a while and taking classes,” says Svavar who lived for a while in the historic town of Salamanca in Castilla in Spain during his first attempt at learning Spanish and obviously has some fond memories from that time.
Svavar radiates brightness as he prepares to say his goodbyes to HB Grandi. After four decades as an executive in a company that’s seen continuous and successful change he’s looking forward to the changes in his personal life. “This will be fun,” he says with a smile.