Andrew Coulbeck: Jumping upstream

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With the salt air running through his veins, Andrew Coulbeck never wanted to be in any profession other than preparing fish.

Born and raised in Grimsby, he was inspired by his father’s ambition along with the knowledge of an old boss. So when his father retired from the business he continued the family trade in the new name of JCS Fish Limited.

In his early 30s Andrew started working for Jack Carlisle Smith of Jack Smith Ltd, a subsidiary of his father’s company Richard Coulbeck Ltd, which sourced wild salmon from Scotland and Ireland. During his time there, Jack passed on his 50 years of knowledge and experience in the industry and Andrew soaked it all in.

“He started that company just after the war. When I went to work for him, he taught me everything about wild salmon. There was no such thing as farmed salmon. Farmed salmon was introduced late 70s and it really came into the market by the middle of the 80s.

“All they did was sell it whole and that’s all people knew. A whole salmon. You never had salmon fillets, where as cod and haddock you always had a fillet of fish. It was always prepared with cucumbers on it as a centre display.”

Seeing the potential that farmed salmon had, Andrew took his 30 years of knowledge and created a new company, in memory of his mentor Jack, naming it JCS Fish Ltd in September 2000.

“He was a fascinating character and a real English gentleman. Jack inspired me in many ways but most of all his huge knowledge and understanding of the fish industry and salmon in particular.

“He taught me a lot of very practical skills and gave me the confidence and inspiration to start my own business.”

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

A fresh water start

Andrew founded the company with his wife Louise, who has 20 years’ experience in running her own business. He has been grateful for all that she has done and sees her as the driving force behind the business. Louise had previously worked in the fashion business, co-owning a clothes store called Hobo with her sister.

Despite the obvious challenges that come with working with family, Andrew wouldn’t have it any other way. “She has a great business mind, although I have difficulty admitting it, I have learned a lot from her. If anything needs doing, and doing quick, then ask Louise.”

“She has a great business mind, although I have difficulty admitting it, I have learned a lot from her. If anything needs doing, and doing quick, then ask Louise.”

Andrew was confident in the business he wanted to set up and Louise supported him in every way. “It was the only thing I knew. Why try and fix something if it’s not broken? You carry on and I know that. It’s just something that I’ve always done and it’s something that I probably always will do.”

As the years went on, the company expanded, investing £700,000 in a new factory to help speed up the process of preparing and freezing the fish, as well as allowing him to look at new products. “We have just got bigger and bigger. We have invested and we have put new machinery in and we’ve put new processes in.

“At one point we would process the salmon and it would take 24 hours before it was frozen, so we would have to work until 2 o’clock and then all the staff would then go off to freezing and would have to lay each fish out so it could freeze over a period of 18 hours.

“But now we can put the fish through and it’s far more efficient. Now overnight, by putting that machinery in, we could do two or three times as much as what we would do before.”

Around 18 months ago Andrew and Louise decided it was time to branch into the retail market, having previously only sold commercially, with a new product Big Fish.

“We had the Big Fish brand since before 2000. The people who do our graphics had done it for someone else and when we started out, before we called ourselves JCS, we called ourselves Big Fish.

“I thought that Big Fish would make a better brand name than it would as a company name. So within that year of starting up, we stayed trading as JCS and we said that eventually we would use Big Fish as a brand.”
Now the Big Fish name can be found in farm shops across the county and can be ordered through Ocado, which JSC has secured on a rolling contract.

“Most people like the brand. They want it in their freezers because it looks good and they don’t have to panic about selling it off cheaper by the end of the week because it’s a frozen product and has a longer shelf life.”

Now his attention turns to expanding his product range and even investing in a new product line: “We are interested in sea trout as it’s a great fish closely related to salmon. So far its potential hasn’t really been recognised by the fish industry or by consumers.

“We’ve found a really great supplier and are looking at launching some new products in the autumn. However, our heart and soul is in salmon and we don’t intend to stray too far into lots of other species as it would dilute our offering.”

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Troubled waters

It’s not always smooth sailing in the fish industry and there’s currently a worldwide salmon shortage, meaning that not only is it hard for Andrew to obtain the stock he needs, but it will also see an increase in the cost of the product due to demand.

“Last year Norway and Scotland had problems with sea lice, which meant that they had to force harvest. They had to take the fish out of the water.

“Then in February this year, Chile had a problem with algae blue. The algae covers the sea and the fish drown because they can’t get any air. So it killed something like $12 million worth of fish.

“With Chile being the main source of fresh salmon to the States, they’re not getting enough fish and the Pound is weak. They now buy from Scotland and Norway which leaves everyone else short. They haven’t got enough fish to hold themselves through the rest of the year.

“Prices have soared and although the prices haven’t gone up yet in the supermarket, it’s because they’re probably still on a contract, so they have a contracted price. We probably won’t see an increase in price in the supermarkets until the end of the year.”

As it takes around two years to rear a salmon ready for process, it could be some time before prices drop again and for the industry to recover.

“I have a very laid-back outlook so when things are tough I just keep going. I just get stuck in. I get in the factory and I get working with the lads. I’d say Louise, my wife, she’s the driver and I just do as I’m told,” Andrew laughed. “I think your wisdom is listening to your wife or the female in your life.”

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Andrew is optimistic about the future of the company and puts his success down to the dedication of his wife and his team of 35 staff. “The thing that inspires me most is when I come to work and the factory is buzzing, there’s a big queue of lorries to deliver fresh salmon and everyone is happy and busy. We’re a tight team and we all get a buzz from each other.”

This feature interview was first published in issue 89 of the Lincolnshire Business weekly magazine.