Best Managed Companies

How Cooke Aquaculture built a fish-farming empire—Settlers of Catan-style

Cooke Aquaculture built an empire from New Brunswick to Uruguay to Spain by always worrying about the local community

Canada’s Best Managed Companies
At its salmon farm sites in Atlantic Canada and Maine, Cooke Aquaculture utilizes state-of-the-art, automated feeding systems like this one at Rattling Beach in Nova Scotia. (Cooke Aquaculture)

At its salmon farm sites in Atlantic Canada and Maine, Cooke Aquaculture utilizes state-of-the-art, automated feeding systems like this one at Rattling Beach in Nova Scotia. (Cooke Aquaculture)

Growing up on a dairy farm in New Brunswick, Kris Nicholls knew two things for certain: he would become a farmer himself, and he would stay in Atlantic Canada. After high school, he enrolled in agricultural college to get a formal education and entered the livestock feed business after graduation. But, just as he launched a career, the local farming industry dried up.

There was one niche, however, where the opposite was happening. In the late 1980s, commercial fish farming was in its infancy, and Atlantic Canada was a promising epicentre for the burgeoning sector, so Nicholls shifted from farm feed to fish feed. Others also saw a similar opportunity. Glenn Cooke, his father Gifford and brother Michael launched Kelly Cove Salmon, with a small government grant and 5,000 salmon hatchlings in two wooden cages. The trio was motivated not only by a desire to start their own business, but to create jobs for other locals who had skills and ambition—people like Nicholls, who joined in 2007 when the Cookes acquired a previous employer.

Today, the Blacks Harbour, New Brunswick-based company is called Cooke Aquaculture and employs over 1,600 people in the region: including Nicholls, who is now the chief operating officer. It has been recognized as one of Canada’s Best Managed Companies since 2006. Outside Canada, the company has farming operations across the United States, Chile, Spain, Scotland, Argentina, and Uruguay, along with corporate offices in France, China and Japan. They’ve gained control of virtually all aspects of the business in Atlantic Canada and Maine, from farming to packaging to distribution. In 2015, they ventured into the wild fishing business.

“We doubled production every year in the beginning, reinvesting everything we made back into the company and gradually bought up [other companies] as we went,” CEO Glenn Cooke says with a breezy nonchalance that is rooted in humility. Indeed, Cooke’s corporate timeline reads like the marine edition of Settlers of Catan—a constant cycle of acquiring territory, expanding geographic reach and diversifying the business.

But becoming a US$2-billion company is more complex than Cooke humbly suggests. The company can only build its empire with the support of the communities where it operates. “Whether we’re fishing or growing fish, we need a social licence to do that,” says Cooke. “When you’re using a common resource, you have a responsibility to the people who use the resources—to better the communities, to make sure the people have good lives, that they’re happy.”

The company is serious about its commitment to its wider community. When torrential rains flooded southwest New Brunswick in 2010, Cooke’s staff contributed labour, food and other emergency aid resources. In 2016, Cooke rallied employees to raise over $11,000 for relief efforts following the Fort McMurray wildfires. And, this past January, the company donated firewood to homes in New Brunswick’s Acadian peninsula that were left without power for weeks after a severe ice storm. Outside Canada, Cooke’s causes include protecting orphans in Moldova from abuse, and providing financial support and advocacy for men battling addictions in Estonia. For his community work, Cooke is being recognized with the Red Cross Humanitarian Award for New Brunswick this November.

Beyond their social commitments, Cooke Aquaculture is dedicated to aquatic conservation and scientific research around aquaculture and its environmental impacts. “I am an angler,” says Cooke, “but it goes back to our responsibility. We farm Atlantic salmon, we farm the species that builds our livelihood, and we sure as goodness got to make sure the wild stays around.” Some environmentalists and health enthusiasts have long criticized farmed fish as a threat to natural marine habitats. As rearing techniques improve, however, and concerns around dwindling wild fish stocks mount, consumers are warming up to aquaculture as a sustainable alternative to fishing. “Science is on our side,” Cooke says, “and when it’s not on our side, we better change.”

While Cooke Aquaculture has ballooned from its humble beginnings, it maintains the hustle and heart of a family business. “Glenn has built a very strong feeling of inclusiveness across the organization,” says Jonathan Calabrese, a partner at Deloitte who helped coach Cooke during their Best Managed application process. “Regardless of an individual’s role within the organization, their input matters, their opinion counts.”

This willingness to empower employees is key to the company’s culture, says Nicholls, who oversees the global fish feed operations and has all managers across eastern North America reporting to him. “All our people, including myself, are workers,” Nicholls adds. “We don’t have assistants. Everyone works every day and adds value.” Nicholls, for example, is involved in everything from harvesting operations to purchasing to research. Seeing the leadership take initiative and get their hands dirty sets the tone for what’s expected of all staff, says Nicholls.

And while Cooke is humble about his company’s success, he also makes it clear that it wasn’t an accident. “Did we plan on being as big as we are today?” he says. “Yes. We knew we wanted to be global, and also build an engine that keeps generating Atlantic Canadian jobs. And we’re not done yet.”