Chuck Bundrant, Pacific Fisheries’ ‘Henry Ford,’ Dies at 79
In 1961 he arrived in Seattle with no job, no skills and $80. Over the next 60 years, he built a seafood empire and transformed the industry.,
Chuck Bundrant, who went to Alaska as a poor college dropout from Tennessee and proceeded to build America’s largest seafood company, along the way using his political connections and endless competitive energy to bring order to his often anarchic industry, died on Oct. 17 at his home in Edmonds, Wash. He was 79.
A spokeswoman for his company, Trident Seafoods, confirmed the death but did not specify the cause.
Mr. Bundrant was just 19 when he joined three friends on a summer road trip to Seattle, where they worked in a seafood cannery to make money for school. The others returned home; he saved enough to move to Alaska and buy a crab boat, then used the proceeds from that venture to found Trident, with two partners, in 1973. Its fleet consisted of a single vessel.
Sixty years after his arrival, his empire sprawled across the Pacific Northwest — from the Bering Sea, where his 40 trawlers, crabbers and catcher-processor ships plied the freezing waters in search of fish, to 11 processing plants along the Alaska coast, to a test kitchen in Seattle, where a team of chefs develops recipes for the dozens of seafood brands that Trident sells to restaurants and big-box stores like Costco.
Despite having grown up far from the ocean, Mr. Bundrant took to Alaska as his adopted home and loved commercial fishing as if he had been born on a boat. Tall and thin with a close-cropped beard, he bore more than a passing resemblance to the Gorton’s fisherman — in fact, Trident sold a line of fish sticks with Mr. Bundrant’s face on the box.
Though he was more comfortable on the deck of a crabber than in the halls of Congress, Mr. Bundrant developed close ties with senators from Alaska and Washington State. In 1998, he used those connections to push legislation that drove foreign fishing companies out of American waters and imposed quotas on commercial fishing, bringing order, and immense profit, to the industry.
Perhaps his greatest coup came in the late 1980s, when he persuaded many of America’s leading fast-food chains, including Long John Silver’s and McDonald’s, to switch their fish sandwiches from cod to pollock, a then-unattractive species derided by chefs as a “trash fish.”
Thanks in large part to that switch, Trident’s sales today are estimated at $4 billion (the company is privately held and does not report financial results), and Mr. Bundrant’s personal fortune was estimated at $1.3 billion.
“He was one of those classic empire builders,” Brent Paine, the executive director of United Catcher Boats, an advocacy group, said in an interview. “Some people called him the Henry Ford of Pacific fisheries.”
Charles Hardin Bundrant was born on Jan. 31, 1942, in Lawrenceburg, Tenn. His father, Charles Lawson Bundrant, was a salesman for General Foods, and his mother, Algie Mae (Hill) Bundrant, was a homemaker.
He is survived by his wife, Diane; his sister, Linda Nelson; his children, Joe Bundrant, Jill Dulcich and Julie Bundrant Rhodes; 13 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.
In 1956, his family moved to Evansville, Ind., where he graduated from North High School. He later became one of the school’s top patrons; its football stadium bears his name, and two other buildings are named for family members.
He spent just a year at Middle Tennessee State University, in Murfreesboro, where he studied to be a veterinarian, before heading to the Pacific Northwest.
Mr. Bundrant was an innovator, beginning with Trident’s first ship, a 135-foot crabber called the Billikin. Unlike other boats that brought whole crabs to shore for processing, it had everything on board, including a cooker and freezing equipment, so Trident could deliver the crab meat straight to market.
The scheme paid off quickly. In 1975, Alaskan fishermen went on strike to protest the low prices offered by processing companies. Much of the industry shut down, but Trident kept sailing.
Mr. Bundrant played hardball, both with his competitors and, at times, with his own employees, at one point firing a dozen workers who went on strike for better wages. But he could also be intensely generous. Once, when he heard that a competitor’s boat had capsized, he arranged for a helicopter to fly him to the accident site, where he personally wrenched the crew out of the ailing vessel.
He was also a risk-taker. He built a giant processing facility on Akutan, a remote island in the Aleutians, to get closer to the Bering Sea fisheries, and in the 1980s he switched his fleet’s focus from crabs to pollock.
Mr. Bundrant realized something that restaurants, consumers and other fishing companies didn’t: Cod stocks in the Atlantic were dwindling, prices were set to skyrocket, and pollock, far from being a “trash fish,” was almost indistinguishable from its white, flaky cousin.
In 1989 John Tobe, the chief executive of Long John Silver’s, visited Trident’s facility at Akutan. Mr. Bundrant tried to sell him on the merits of pollock, but Mr. Tobe was unconvinced.
“At that point I brought Tobe into the mess hall, and he was pretty hungry. He was eating a lot of pollock and saying, ‘Wow! This is great cod,'” Mr. Bundrant said in a 2013 interview with Evansville Living. “I said, ‘No sir, that’s pollock.'”
Before Mr. Tobe left, he and Mr. Bundrant had signed a multimillion-dollar deal to supply Long John Silver’s with pollock. That deal forced other fast-food companies, including McDonald’s and Burger King, to follow suit.
Trident was soon one of the most profitable seafood companies in America. But Mr. Bundrant still had a problem. A 1978 law had limited the presence of foreign fishing vessels in U.S. waters, but the company discovered a loophole that let Japanese and Norwegian ships pour in, even as American fleets pounced on the newfound demand for Bering Sea pollock.
The result was the so-called pollock wars, a costly, litigious period of free-for-all fishing that threatened the sustainability of the species.
In the mid-1990s, Mr. Bundrant stepped in, proposing a new law that would close the loophole to foreigners and set a quota for domestic fishing companies, with each company allowed to fish up to a certain amount each year. The result, the American Fisheries Act, brought order to the industry and was a boon for large producers like Trident.
“He was focused like a laser on building Trident,” John Connelly, the president of the National Fisheries Institute, said in an interview. “But he knew it couldn’t happen in a vacuum. He knew he had to help the industry grow.”
Mr. Bundrant was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2006, and in 2013 he named his son, Joe, his replacement as chief executive. He remained as chairman of the board until 2014.