VIDEO: Largest seafood plant in Caribbean opening in Kingston

BY JULIAN RICHARDSON Assistant business co-ordinator richardsonj@jamaicaobserver.com

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

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FROM its near-finished US$8 million ($688 million) processing plant on Slipe Road in Kingston, Rainforest Seafoods is set to make a foray into the lucrative regional market for value-added seafood.


Rainforest chief executive officer Brian Jardim told the Business Observer last week that it represents the company's biggest investment in its 16 years of operation.


"It's going to be the largest-value added seafood plant in the Caribbean -- the first of its kind in our region," Jardim told this newspaper during a press tour of his company's headquarters in Montego Bay and the state-of-the-art processing facility being constructed on 3.5 acres of land at 67 Slipe Road in the nation's capital.


It is from its base in Montego Bay that Rainforest has established itself as one of the premier regional distributors of seafood sourced from all across the globe. The Slipe Road plant, Jardim said, represents the next step for the company towards its goal to become as vertically integrated as possible.


"We are creating as many new markets as we can... focusing on product niches that haven't been explored before," explained Jardim.


The Slipe Road facility will have the ability to store six million pounds of products - more than doubling the storage capacity of the plant in Montego Bay -- and its operations will include cooking and breading, smoking, filleting, producing ready-to-eat meals and modified atmosphere packaging. Among the value-added products that will be produced at the facility are a heat and serve conch soup and a jerk shrimp that is being developed with the help of the Scientific Research Council.


"That product," Jardim said of the jerk shrimp, "we have big plans for... we are looking at potentially getting it into the North American and European markets."


Rainforest is particularly eyeing the Slipe Road facility as the platform from which it will take aim at the quick service restaurant (QSR) market, one of the biggest consumers of seafood products.


"We don't currently serve many of the fast food restaurants in Jamaica and that's a big chunk of business -- fish fingers, breaded fish fillets, popcorn shrimp etc -- all tailored to each QSR's preferred flavour profile in each island." noted Jardim.


"That represents for us, in Jamaica and the Caribbean, a huge new niche that we are targeting," he added.


The Slipe Road initiative will also see the firm engaging local aquaculture producers to include them along in its supply chain. For instance, tilapia is a popular fish offering of QSRs and it is against this background that Rainforest plans on working with local tilapia growers.


"We have been working closely with the Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries and his team, headed by Dr Marc Panton, on this initiatve and are very impressed with their focus and commitment to making this project a reality for all stakeholders. We are looking to pull in a lot of local artisenal fishermen and fish and shrimp farmers as we ramp up this facility," declared Jardim.


Furthermore, the Slipe Road plant is expected to add another 100 persons to the Rainforest workforce.


However, Jardim noted that all of these positive spin-offs would not have been possible if the company did not get support from the Government under its Modernisation of Industry programme, which offers waivers of duties on capital equipment and is made available on a rigorous pre-qualification basis.


"In fairness, it's a project that we wouldn't have hung our hat on if we didn't have that sort of support," admitted the Rainforest boss. "We simply couldn't have afforded to make it happen, due to the scope and size of the required capital investment."


He said Rainforest received a total of a half-a-million US dollars worth of duty and GCT waivers on the US$8 million project, which was funded by First Global and PanCaribbean banks.


"The whole modernisation programme was very important to making this investment happen and approximately half of our project's total capital expenditure qualified for tariff exemptions,"said Jardim. The exempt equipment includes cookers, breaders, formers, IQF spiral freezers, tumble scalers and graders among other specialised seafood processing machinery.


"It is not something that you get randomly or politically... you have to qualify as a business that is expanding significantly and you have to prove your case clearly," he said, directly addressing persons who have criticised the Government for providing Rainforest and other local businesses with the waivers.


Indeed, Rainforest's big expansion plan is a remarkable achievement for a company that started in 1995 without any assets and a US$100,000 line of credit borrowed from the then Manufacturers' Merchant Bank. The line was used to finance the company's first container load of seafood, Jardim told the Business Observer.


"For a while we brokered products directly to hotels and distributors; we were sourcing it from Guyana and Suriname at the time." he revealed. "For the first two or three years we did straight brokering without a shop front or distribution system," he said.


Rainforest flourished in those years by bringing affordability and variety to what was at the time an under-serviced and growing market for seafood, Rainforest general manager Ernest Grant explained.


"I think Jamaicans generally had seen the necessity to eat healthy and there had been a void in the marketplace for affordable seafood and Rainforest sought to add affordability and variety of seafood offerings, especially for the hoteliers and the consumers who started recognising its wholesome benefits," said Grant.


By 1998, the company bought its first truck and leased a property in Montego Bay, just across the road from the Freeport facility it now operates from in that city.


"We just grew organically as we went along," noted Jardim.


"In the early days, we shipped from plants at source and sold to islands such as Antigua, Barbados and St Lucia in container loads -- we worked along with the plants that we had developed relationships with," Jardim continued. "Then for several years after that we just focused inwards on developing the local Jamaican market...we started exporting our Rainforest branded products to the Caribbean about five years ago."


The long and short of it is that Rainforest now has 15 outlets across the island servicing thousands of customers daily, as well as processing operations and fishing vessels in Belize and Honduras. Additionally, the company now has a fleet of 30 freezer trucks and will have over 350 employees when its Slipe Road facility opens later this year.


What's more is that Rainforest has expanded to sourcing from all over the world and now exports to ten islands within the Caribbean region. Its portfolio of 500-plus stock units includes mussels from New Zealand; salmon from Chile; squid from China; saltfish from Norway; mackerel from Spain; herring from Canada, among many other products from all over the world.


"We are suppliers of whatever the Jamaican and Caribbean seafood pallet demands," Grant interjected.


A major part of the company's success has been its ability to remain efficient, Jardim said, investing in energy measures that save the company tens of millions of dollars annually.


"We are trying to do a few things right because our carbon footprint is quite large in terms of energy consumption," the Rainforest head revealed.


The cost-saving measures include converting all of the company's lighting in its freezers to LED, energy delay timers on its dozens of motors and compressors and producing hundreds of gallons of bio-diesel per week from used cooking oil.


Addressing the latter, Jardim said: "We collect used oil from hotels and restaurants islandwide and it's a process where you add methane and basically produce a diesel equivalent in our small bio-diesel plant. Our fleet of freezer trucks and containers that circle the island daily are currently fuelled by 10 to 15 per cent bio-diesel."


The company has also invested in the construction of a well on the new Slipe Road premises which will provide thousands of gallons of water daily.


"Our processing is very water intensive and a lot of ice making is required in fresh seafood production... the well will help to conserve on this vital function" said Jardim.


But, when it's all said and done, it is Jardim's confidence in Jamaica that has been the catalyst of all the success that Rainforest has enjoyed since it was established. And right now he is bullish on Jamaica.


"Honestly, doing business in Jamaica has gotten a lot better over the last several years," said Jardim, "The infrastructure that we have here in our Montego Bay HQ -- the new and improved road network from Port Antonio to Negril, excellent airlift and seaport access -- is a significant fillip for us. Our dollar is stable and interest rates have been trending down -- there is no better time to roll the dice with an aggressive expansion like this." The upshot is that, in Rainforest's Slipe Road operations, he is pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into a semi-depressed community in Kingston.


"We feel that we will be doing our part in the neighbourhood in bringing a quality facility there and providing stable employment opportunities as well," Jardim said, in a tone of a man who is confident that he made the right move.


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