From Roughneck to Seafood King (Jim Gulkin)
Scott Murray: CanChamThailand
In the not-to-distant future, you might do a Google search for the word “perseverance” and Jim Gulkin’s face will probably pop up on your computer. The word epitomizes the career of the Managing Director of Siam Canadian Foods. He’s gone from being a backpacker and oil rig roughneck to running a company with offices in Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, China, India and Indonesia, whose sales will be close to US$156 million this year.
And he’s done it all without a business degree, without a true business background and even without a business mentor of any sort. It’s a truly amazing story, and it just goes to show what one person can do when they set their mind to it.
Jim graduated from high school in 1975, and worked in chemical factory for a while, before becoming a bellboy at the Airport Hilton in Montreal of September of 1975. He managed to accumulate CAN$5,000 while working there, which he used to travel for 13 months through Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
He started his trip in June of 1976 when he landed in London, England, where his sister was studying at the London Film School (she’s now a film editor, based in Toronto). From there he went to Holland, and Germany, where while in Munich he heard of a group of Iranians who were importing cars to Iran. So he joined a convoy and drove from Munich to Tehran in a Fiat. His route took him through Austria, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Turkey and then on to Tehran. He then hopped a bus back to Greece where while staying at a campground he had a fortuitous meeting with a young Brit who was teaching in Saudi Arabia. He told Jim about the oil workers in the Mid-East, who would work one month on, one month off, earn lots of money and then travel extensively: this lifestyle appealed to him.
But first, he wanted to finish what he began – his backpacking journey. He traveled from Cairo to Cape Town stopping in the Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Zaire, Rwanda, Burundi, Zambia, Rhodesia, Botswana, Malawi and Namibia along the way, spending almost eleven months in Africa. Jim’s adventures in Africa are a whole other story, but let’s just say he saw and did things that few others have experienced.
In August of 1977 he returned to Canada. He wanted to try working in the oil fields, so in September he set out for Alberta to work as a roughneck. But it was tougher than he thought it would be, and he hurt his back and elbow, so after a few months he headed back to Quebec.
In Montreal, he took a job in a men’s shop selling shirts and suits for a while, but he realized he wasn’t going to be able to save enough money to enable him to travel again. So after a couple of months, he decided to have another go at the oil business. In February of 1978, he went back to Alberta, but this time he was tougher and better prepared. He stayed until December of that year, working on rigs in southern and central Alberta and saving lots of money.
This enabled him to take his next big trip: to Asia. He landed in Manila in January of 1979, stayed in the Philippines for six months, and then traveled to Hong Kong, Malaysia and Thailand. He ended up in Singapore at the end of the year with US$300 to his name.
He pounded the pavement, and with skyrocketing oil prices he eventually found work with Schlumberger in early 1980 as a production work-over technician. Based out of Singapore, he spent the next four years working in Indonesia, Peninsular Malaysia, Sarawak, Sabah and Brunei. During his time off, he started traveling to and becoming familiar with Thailand. In 1984, he was posted to the Persian Gulf where for two years he worked as a technician in the UAE, Kuwait, Oman, Yemen, Pakistan and India.
In 1986, he took a year off, knowing he wanted to start laying the foundation for running his own business. He thought he would set up shop in Thailand; he just wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. He eventually resigned from Schlumberger, and having spent seven years in the oil business he had some money saved, but he was a high school graduate with no business experience. His forte; he learns quickly.
He thought of starting a fast food franchise, so he enlisted a group of Chulalongkorn University students to conduct a survey for him in 1986. He soon realized he didn’t have enough money to make a go of it but what else could he do? Someone suggested selling Canadian products in Thailand? So he spent the first four months of 1987 in Canada, gleaning what he could about the import/export business. Then a company called Morris National, based out of Montreal took a chance with and he started supplying them with canned pineapple and canned shrimp.
Jim returned from Canada with 16 million different product ideas – everything ranging from steel girders to wire rope. He founded the Siam Canadian Trading Co. in June of 1987, and focused on food because that business was quickly expanding in Thailand. He quickly then went one further and zeroed in on seafood mostly shrimp but also fish and squid. It was a new industry, there was plenty of room to grow and the opportunities it presented were much greater. And as the value of the product much higher, the revenues wrought from a single transaction were also much higher. So Jim and his company focused on seafood and started exporting to Canada, the US and Europe, while opening offices in Vietnam in 1992 and Burma in 1996 along the way.
Then in 2002, the Southern Shrimp Alliance (SSA) in the US brought an anti-dumping suit against Thailand, India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Ecuador and Brazil. They won and not only did this suit force companies from those countries to pay an import tariff to the US, but US Customs also forced them to post a cash bond up front, based on their previous year’s imports. Then through a retroactive review process the companies are potentially subject to further tariffs if the Americans concluded they were still dumping. The Byrd Amendment provided a huge incentive for groups like the American Southern Shrimp alliance to bring these suits as now the money raised from the tariffs went directly to the plaintiffs, whereas before it went into the government coffers.
Jim realized that these tariffs could have a serious impact on sales and future growth. He knew he had to diversify his business and expand his supply, product and customer range. He knew that putting a large percentage of his business in the hands of three or four companies and focusing on a certain geographical area was not the way to go.
So in 2002 he expanded to China, opening up an office in Zhanjiang in Guandong province. Then the next year, he opened up an office in India in Vishakatpatna in Andra Pradesh state, and in 2005 it opened another office in Jakarta, Indonesia. The company’s supply base quickly doubled. It will likely open an office in Malaysia next year and it sources product from the Middle East, Philippines and Argentina as well.
And while the seafood business still takes up 95% of the company’s business, Jim has expanded his customer base so that now it stretches all over the world from the Middle East to Central and South America, the Caribbean, North Africa, Eastern Europe, Russia, Central Asia, China and Australia. He also has diversified the company product range as Siam Canadian now exports frozen fruit and vegetables, frozen poultry and other frozen meats like rabbit, beef and mutton.
On the personal front, Jim only developed a stable home life after he left the oil field. When he first arrived in Thailand, he had a home/office on Sukhumvit 27 and as recounts “it was just a thrill for me to read the newspaper in my own home and sleep in own bed every day.” He’s been married to Khun Jan for nine years now, and she runs Penner-Madison & Co., Ltd., a marketing/public relations firm.
His travels and his work on the oilrigs have forged him. The former gave him a military-type training and discipline, and the later gave him self-confidence to try new things and complete projects he had initiated. Ironically, he says that not having a business background or mentor helped him: “I had no preconceived notions about what was possible and what wasn’t and I soon realized that most things are possible. I made my own mistakes and learned from them.”
Jim Gulkin is a study in determination and perseverance. His can-do attitude and willingness to adapt to and try new things is a great example for young Canadian entrepreneurs to follow. He’s a model entrepreneur and one the Canadian community can be very proud of.