Keltic Seafare catches world’s attention
Financial Times, 22 April 2013 http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/9bc7f906-a748

Persistent rain and chill winds make the remote Scottish town of Dingwall an unlikely place to launch a global business. But the conditions seemed perfect to Laurence Watkins, who turned 70 this year.

He founded Keltic Seafare aged 49 with his wife Marian and local fisherman Eddie Hughson. The company has grown from a three-person team into a hugely successful business that sells high-quality shellfish to restaurants and supermarkets across Europe and is now the winner of a Queen’s Award for Enterprise for international trade.

Keltic

“In the beginning we had a car, a trailer and a fax machine,” Mr Watkins says. He attributes the company’s early success to Mr Hughson’s unique knowledge of the ocean. Rather than dredging the seabed in a boat, he would dive deep into the saltwater and pick scallops by hand. “He was an incredible scallop diver,”Mr Watkins says. “He knew every nook and cranny for hundreds of miles, and understood the bottom of the sea like no one I’ve ever met.”

Keltic’s real coup came when it sent its catches on sleeper trains to London to be sold to upmarket restaurants willing to pay a premium for the finest ingredients. Soon, the company was supplying scallops to the Ritz and the Savoy, as well as celebrity chefs such as Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver. The business grew rapidly but suffered a tragic blow when its chief fisherman was killed in a road accident.

“Eddie’s death was a heck of a shock,” Mr Watkins says. The experienced diver had bolstered the company’s reputation among the tight-knit fishing community on which Keltic Seafare relies. Mr Hughson’s son and daughter stepped in to take responsibility for the small fleet of boats and were able to continue attracting divers to work with the business.

By 2005, the company’s reputation had spread, largely through word of mouth among elite chefs. Keltic was supplying around 200 of the best restaurants in London and its turnover had grown to over £3m. It added lobsters and crabs to its menu and began catching langoustines with small creel boats. The pale orange crustaceans became its best-selling product, but opportunities to expand in the UK were slowing down. The company had to look to new markets abroad to keep growing.

By hiring specialist agents on the continent and using refrigerated transport, Keltic now sells shellfish throughout Europe, predominantly to France and Spain. The challenge lies in ensuring that they remain fresh and are still alive when they reach restaurants thousands of miles away. “Our real expertise is in handling live shellfish,” says Mr Watkins, who has flown langoustine as far away as New York and Hong Kong.

Global expansion has seen Keltic’s turnover grow to around £6m, and it is for this that the company has won its award. Mr Watkins insists the business has further to go. “We have no intention of holding back,” he says. “There is more business in Europe, and in the Middle East too.”

There seems to be no shortage of demand for Keltic’s shellfish, which hasn’t suffered through the recession. Indeed, finding buyers has never been the company’s biggest problem. “It is an unusual industry in that your suppliers are more important than your customers,” Mr Watkins explains. There are more than enough restaurants but fewer good divers. “There are more than enough restaurants, but fewer good divers.”

Today, the company works with more than 100 of the best fishermen along the Scottish coast, from Oban in the west to Orkney in the far north. It is another strength that the deferential businessman attributes to his former partner.“That was Eddie’s ethos,” he says, “you always respect your fishermen.”