St. Jean’s Cannery & Smokehouse is a beacon of resilience, principled commitment and business tenacity in a fluctuant — and at times challenging —industry. Originally founded by Armand St. Jean in 1961, St. Jean’s Cannery & Smokehouse specializes in gourmet seafood products and sport fish processing. Over the past six decades, the company has achieved continued growth and expansion to become the largest cannery serving the sport fishing industry in B.C. — selling products throughout Canada, the U.S. and Australia.
In 2015, the business took an even bigger leap in its progression when it was purchased by the NCN Cannery Limited Partnership, which represents five west coast Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations. Armand’s sons, Gerard, Paul and Dave, however, continue to carry on their father’s legacy (across three generations) by remaining involved in the business to this day under the new corporation.
The Nuu-chah-nulth people are closely connected to the ocean and so the NCN Cannery LP’s purchase of St. Jean’s is a natural re-establishment of their connection to their traditional way of life. “The very word ‘Nuu-chah-nulth’ means people of the mountain facing the ocean,” says Larry Johnson, President of NCN Cannery LP. “Our people depended as much on the ocean as we did on land resources.”
Nuu-chah-nulth Seafood Limited Partnership under the same ownership runs a commercial fishing enterprise that was first started by a federal government program called the Pacific Integrated Commercial Fisheries Initiative. “There was $175 million that the federal government was going to use to purchase commercial fishing licences and quota, and transfer it over to aggregates of First Nations based on a business plan,” explains Larry Johnson. “Our group came together to answer the Request for Proposals and present our business plan. Our plan talked about retained earnings for the first five years and that we could not only get firmly established but also have a model that would grow.” Those retained earnings resulted in the company being able to save enough money to use it as leverage to form the NCN Cannery LP and purchase the St. Jean’s business.
Larry emphasizes that the company’s goal has always been to work towards becoming a vertically integrated seafood corporation.
The cornerstone of [the company's] success in working together as six First Nations is rooted in two foundational principles that the Nuu-chah-nulth peoples have always lived by hishuk-tsawalk, meaning everything is one and interconnected, and iisaak, which refers to a ‘greater respect.’
“When you put those principles together, that’s what it means for us to be Nuu-chah-nulth and how we conduct our business,” Larry underscores.
Although the company has achieved much success over the long-term, they have also been met with challenges. Larry recalls that when the federal program first came out, the price of halibut quota was $35 per pound. As a result of the program, the price of licences and quotas has risen exponentially to $130 per pound for quota, which poses a huge challenge for Larry’s company. “It’s hard for us to be able to meet market demand because of this,” says Larry. “However, what we’ve done is convince the federal government that it’s better if the commercial fishing enterprise goes into purchasing the licences and quota rather than the government doing it through a buy-back.”
Another challenge facing the industry is demographic attrition as the baby boomers retire. “There are 25 commercial fishing enterprises in B.C. that are similar to ours,” says Larry. “But we put a lot of energy and effort into training young people to get involved in our industry.” In the last eight years, the Nuu-chah-nulth Seafood Limited Partnership has issued over 300 certificates from its marine safety training programs.
Larry attributes the company’s sustained success, in part, to its continued banking relationship with Canadian Western Bank. “We remained a CWB client after we purchased St. Jean’s,” says Larry. “It was actually part of our business model to use CWB as our business bank of choice because the St. Jean’s family had been their clients forever.” Larry wanted to maintain that foundation and build on the successes they already had – including their bank. “I find CWB to be very service-oriented, and we’re quite happy with the service we get from them,” Larry affirms. “For instance, while most banks aren’t open until 9:00 am, I’ve had to make deposits at 8:00 am and CWB will open up the bank at that time if we call ahead, which is incredibly accommodating.”
Larry anticipates that as his company grows and pursues new opportunities, CWB will be there for them along the way. “We regularly meet with our CWB banking representatives,” says Larry. “We go for lunch with them and are able to talk candidly about projects we’re working on to explore different avenues for solutions and support.” Larry notes that CWB takes the time to review options and get back to their company quickly with a response. He not only appreciates CWB’s personalized service but also the friendliness of all their staff when he walks into his local branch where “everyone says hello to us by our first name.”
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