Enterprise
Smoking palates in a fishy business
Behonce Beh 
Smoked fish such as salmon and tuna are widely served at five star hotels in the country – Albatross Exim
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THE country’s fish-processing business ranges from fishball manufacturers to fish fillet traders. But there are those that deal with niche products too.

Albatross Exim (M) Sdn Bhd is one of them. The company has been producing smoked salmon for over 16 years.

“Our flavours have been adjusted to suit local tastes. Smoked salmon produced for the European market tends to be far saltier while the ones found in Malaysia has a slightly sweeter taste,” says its director Roelof Schoemaker.

Smoked salmon is produced by brining, curing and exposing natural-wood smoke to the fish fillets.

This retains the natural nutrients in seafood and develops a unique texture and flavour.

Schoemaker’s fish processing business has been operating since 2002.

His background in food technology specialising in fish processing served as his base to start the business with his wife Peggy Ng.

Prior to this, Schoemaker was involved in the trading of fish from India and Africa. The financial crisis in 1997 had forced him to exit the import business.

“We wanted a business where we have more control, and that is fish processing. So we decided to venture into smoking salmon,” he says.

The couple wanted to start something with a smaller investment. Smoking, says Schoemaker, requires a lower initial investment owing to its small domestic demand.

“You have to spend more to set up a fishball manufacturing facility as you need a massive plant to achieve the required volumes.

“When we first started, we wanted to focus on manufacturing, so we had a deal with another company to handle our distribution and marketing,” he says.

As demand grew, and the company garnered feedback from users, it decided to set up its own sales and marketing team.

For about a decade, Albatross Exim’s growth hovered around 25% annually, which allowed it to shift from survival mode to profit making.

“Once we established ourselves, things became easier in terms of accessing bank credit, for example,” Schoemaker says.

Schoemaker's background in food technology specialising in fish processing served as his base to start the business

Corporate clients

Today, the bulk of Albatross Exim’s business comes from the hospitality sector – hotels, food and beverage operators, food processors and caterers.

In terms of smoked salmon, the company processes close to a 1,000kg of it daily. It is able to process about 40 tonnes of salmon monthly.

Their operation model has also changed over the years. “When we started, we wanted to make it easy to process by importing salmon fillet and smoking it ourselves.

“Today, we import whole fish and that gives us more options on what we can sell.”

By having the whole fish, Albatross Exim can customise and produce items to suit its customers’ needs, be it whole fillet, smoked or raw fish slice with or without the skin.

“As we are a small operator, we can customise to individual requirements.”

Aside from salmon, Albatross Exim trades in other types of seafood such as white fish, clams, and prawns, among others.

On using automation like fish processors, Schoemaker says it could be detrimental to his business.

“We could automate the business but our strength is in our flexibility and customisation. A fancy machine could easily cost RM200,000 onwards, but we could end up with just a few product variations,” he says.

Though modern food-processing techniques such as flavour-injection directly into the meat could mimic the taste of smoked products, Schoemaker believes in doing things the old-fashioned way.

He likens the process of smoking fish to be an artisanal way of working.

It requires skilled hands to fillet the fish, followed by a two-day marination process before the final smoking.

Schoemaker laments one of the challenges faced in his business is manpower issues, as finding the right talent for the job can be a headache.

“As we grow, the expertise of our team needs to match the scale of the business. That means our production manager must be able to have a different skill set while our administration team must be able to cope with the volume,” he says. 

 

Domestic-centric

Export activities contribute less to Albatross Exim’s bottom line compared with domestic sales.

Last year, exports to India accounted for less than 10% of the business’ turnover.

“This year, we want to grow beyond the 10% mark and are looking at markets such as Singapore and Vietnam,” Schoemaker says.

Meantime, the Klang Valley provides the largest demand for Albatross Exim’s products. Its turnover last year stood at RM24 mil.

Apart from corporate sales, e-commerce presents another platform for Albatross Exim to sell its products under its own brand, Bonfisken Deli.

“E-commerce is not much of a focus for us at this point. But we wanted to try it out to assess market response.

“It does not cost us too much to try it [e-commerce], and you would not know who could be your next customer. We want to do more in the export market, but our survival depends on Malaysia.

“That is why we are looking to diversify our product range to include fish-based offerings, be it a pie or sausages,” he says.

Schoemaker says the company may not produce these items themselves and could work with a partner to co-develop them.

Working with ‘sustainable’ suppliers

THERE are many schools of thought when it comes to what “sustainable fishery” means.

The Marine Stewardship Council issues a blue eco-label which indicates the seafood products bearing it comes from a certified sustainable source.

The certification is awarded to those companies which take into consideration the environmental sustainability of wild-caught fisheries. The Norwegian Seafood Council takes a broader look at sustainability and includes ocean-farmed seafood as well.

It is clear that sustainable certification and measures have become increasingly important to consumers, and global brands are choosing to work with such recognised sources.

Sustainable fish farms in Norway ensure global buyers with long-term supply of fish products


Albatross Exim (M) Sdn Bhd director Roelof Schoemaker says international hotels operating in the country are already showing a keen interest in working with suppliers that carry international certification.

“The only way to be recognised as sustainable is to be certified to an international standard,” he says.

Schoemaker says while the company is already sourcing from sustainable fisheries in Chile, Norway and New Zealand, obtaining its own certification helps to increase awareness among local consumers.

“In order for us to produce smoked fish, we need to have good quality fish regardless of where it comes from. We cannot opt for cheap alternatives,” he says.



This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 275.