February 4, 2013
Jim Gulkin, the founder and managing director of Siam Canadian, has been running his Asia-based company for 26 years, during which time he has learnt how to maintain and adapt a business from scratch. The way to ensure your business lasts is to secure long-term relationships with customers, Gulkin told Undercurrent News in our latest Seafood Entrepreneur interview. “The only business worth having is long-term business, and the only way to do long-term business is to do a good job,” said Gulkin.
“To do what your customers expect of you, deliver what you promise you’re going to deliver, keep your word and build a reputation that is worth something.”
Some of Siam Canadian’s customers have been working with it for 22 or 23 of the firm’s 26 years of operation.
“Those relationships are very strong, there’s a level of trust, a level of friendship as well,” said Gulkin.
“Whenever we start business with someone we hope we’ll be able to do business with them for many years to come. The way we do business is to provide a level of service and function that means something and has value to people over the years, and not to go for any quick kills but to be a sustainable business in itself.”
Starting out, Gulkin had no financial backing, business advice, or even any experience of running a company, let alone a long-term plan. At that point he just wanted to build a business, and that ambition has driven the company’s expansion since.
“We’re constantly expanding our business, our customer base, and we’re very aggressive in expanding our customer base – exhibiting at trade fairs, visiting trade fairs, working through the internet, advertising, you name it. We’re there and we’re able to grow our business like that,” explained Gulkin.
This expansion has made it possible to ride out the challenges that inevitably come with running a seafood business.
Back in 1987, if somebody had suggested we’d be exporting product from China to Indonesia, or from India to Thailand or Vietnam, I’d have thought it was laughable
“My own philosophy has been that you need to be quick-footed, able to move in different directions, and the broader one’s product base, supply base and customer base are, the easier it is to get through difficult times,” he said.
“There’s always difficult times, every single year there’s something. There’s always two steps forward one step back, that’s the nature of the seafood business.”
While there are always new hurdles and bumps in the road, the last couple of years have been some of the most challenging the company has seen, said Gulkin.
The economic climate globally has been tough, with Europe and even the US proving difficult, but Siam Canadian grew its business despite this, he said.
The biggest problem has been raw material supply, something which is outside of the company’s control.
“We’re expecting a tough year in terms of raw material supply in shrimp, and Vietnam, China, coming up in Indonesia as well, maybe India later, so this is a big challenge,” said Gulkin.
“When the supply’s not there and the price is too high for the general market to accept, that makes things more challenging. The best thing for us is to try and be as diversified as possible.”
Through expanding the product and customers bases, Gulkin’s company is able to focus more on a different product, with pangasius, tilapia, tuna, squid and cuttlefish being some of the options open to the firm should vannamei shrimp become too difficult to trade.
Local economies in Asia have caused problems in the past as well. The Vietnamese issues with inflation and high interest rates have made life hard for those in the pangasius industry, one which is important to Siam Canadian.
“Expansion has been a natural progression of the business. I could say I saw the future but I didn’t, I didn’t know where the industry would be.” admits Gulkin.
“What I saw was opportunity, to expand the business by having a bigger footprint.”
A Canadian in Thailand
Gulkin has been in Asia since 1979, when he arrived as a backpacker aged 21.
After a year of travel and running out of money, he took a job with a French oil company and worked for them for seven years, across Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Middle East.
“That brought me to 1986, and I decided I wanted to get out of the oil field and start a business of some kind,” he said.
“I’d been coming to Thailand quite frequently on my time off, working in the oil field, and I ended up investigating possibilities to do business in Thailand, and finally I started a business to trade, even though I wasn’t sure which products I was going to trade.
“Thailand was becoming an important place for aquaculture, black tiger shrimp, and was already an important exporter of other frozen seafood products. So I started getting into that and I built up a business from there.”
After 26 years, the possibilities for expansion in Asia are limited. Siam Canadian has about as many offices across different countries as it needs, said Gulkin, and the focus is shifting elsewhere.
“We have looked a little bit at South America but we’re not really feeling ready to make a move there, to establish an office or anything like that.”
“It’s something that we keep in mind for the future. Right now we’re continuing to expand our business and grow our customer base and supply base, and that’s our goal for the time being, and look for other opportunities- importing into other countries and take these opportunities as they appear,” he said.
As Asian consumption of seafood has increased, less and less product is available for export, so Gulkin is beginning to move into importing via Siam Canadian’s offices, another move designed to add strength in depth to the company.
“Back in 1987, if somebody had suggested we’d be exporting product from China to Indonesia, or from India to Thailand or Vietnam, I’d have thought it was laughable. But times change.”