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By: Russell Pearlman
The frigid depths around Antarctica are home to some of the planet’s most fascinating creatures. But scientists, nutritionists, and businesspeople are increasingly interested in one of the region’s smallest—a tiny crustacean that is no bigger than a human finger and no heavier than a paper clip.
They’re known as krill, and while they’re individually small, there are a whole lot of them. They’re found in such abundance, an estimated 400 million tons of biomass, that massive groups of them can color the sea a reddish-brown and be seen from space.
There are strict regulations that limit the fishing around Antarctica, in some areas to less than 1 percent of the overall krill population. Still, one particular firm, Aker BioMarine, led by CEO Matts Johansen, believes these tiny, prawn-shaped creatures will eventually lead to some enormous profit. As Johansen envisions it, his Norway-based firm, which fishes these creatures and boasts more than $300 million in revenue, can not only profitably catch and process krill, but also convince people to incorporate more krill-based products into their diets and medications.
Matts Johansen has been CEO of Aker BioMarine since 2015.
That’s no small ambition. The world population is projected to reach 10 billion people by 2050, and feeding all those people would require a dramatic increase in food production from the sea. Krill can help because it’s used for fish farming, but as Johansen sees it, the biggest opportunity centers around the creature’s potential for humans. Krill oil is full of omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, and other nutrients. Worldwide, the krill oil market is worth about $530 million today, but is expected to rise to more than $900 million by 2026, according to Global Industry Analysts.
Building a business around one production, as Aker BioMarine has, is a challenging task, requiring successful ownership, production, marketing, and distribution. Environmental issues around commercial fishing pose a particular challenge too. Johansen says he’s tried to build a bold corporate culture at the firm since becoming CEO in 2015. “You want to take enough risk to make progress, but not so much that you get hurt,” he says.
Will it pay off? Korn Ferry spoke with the 45-year-old Johansen about managing a sprawling company, negotiating with environmental groups, building a corporate culture when many of the employees are literally out to sea, and how his philosophy around risk-taking was shaped by skateboarding.
(This conversation has been edited and condensed.)
Briefings: OK, what’s the big deal about krill?
Johansen: Individual krill are really small, but collectively they have twice the biomass of all the humans on earth. Through millions of years of evolution, and being on the bottom of the food chain, krill and its nutrients have become important for all life on the planet. We’re building a new factory in Norway so we can isolate the protein from krill and put it in nearly anything.
Briefings: Your firm fishes tons of krill. Did you fish growing up?
Johansen: I grew up in a small Norwegian city of about 5,000 people. I’d been out fishing, but never for more than a few hours, and not on a large fishing vessel. I skateboarded growing up. I moved to Oslo for university and there were hundreds of skaters. I was kind of impulsive and I dropped out of school after six months and skated full-time for three years. It was a great time. I got to challenge myself, but at one point I went broke.
Briefings: You’ve said skateboarding helped you prepare for business. How so?
Johansen: It has taught me a lot about risk-taking. Skateboarding is all about progression: how you can develop, how you can learn new tricks
But your equity in that risk is your body. So over the years you really learn to balance that risk, taking enough risk so that you actually make progress, but not so much that you get injured for half the year.
I like to bring that mentality over to my team here, or in business in general. I think people tend to have trouble taking risks. A lot of our society and businesses are not risk-taker friendly; you just sit in a cube and wait for instructions. As a leader, you need to help your organization and employees take risks. You do that by holding yourself accountable and carrying some of their risk on your shoulders.
“I think people tend to have trouble taking risks.”
Briefings: So how do you create a culture of calculated risk-takers?
Johansen: Some of it is already there. Being out on a huge boat right at the end of the world, in Antarctica, creates a very interesting culture. You are two weeks from the nearest civilization. You have to manage on your own and be very creative to solve problems. I used to say that our crews could make a ship propeller out of a drum if they had to. We wanted to drive that mentality back into the rest of the organization.
We’re an integrated business, so you can imagine that we have a lot of personality types, including fishers in Antarctica, factory workers in Texas, researchers with double PhDs, and business-development experts who used to be management consultants. About five years ago, we started asking all of our employees what it looks like when we are all at our best. We came up with eight common elements, including “Think outside the ordinary,” “Dare to go big,” and “Can do and grind through.”
Briefings: How do you live those elements?
Johansen: We’re not only a fishing company in Antarctica; we’re also manufacturers and marketers of our own brands of krill products to Walmart and Costco. That’s not very ordinary. As for going big, that’s right out of skateboarding. We are on a mission to improve human and planetary health. That’s pretty big.
But we also recognize that at some points we’re going to hit a wall. When things do get difficult we need to have the mentality that we can grind through that wall. It’s very important that we all have the passion to do this. It’s not an 8-to-4 job.
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Briefings: Sounds like a big challenge.
Johansen: You have to be able to manage that chaos. It’s why every couple of weeks we ask every employee if they’re feeling stressed, and if so, if it is something more than day-to-day stuff. That’s how, before COVID, we learned that our employees were really stressed because we, as managers, were saying yes to too many things and starting too many initiatives too fast. That meant that not everything was finished as the newest initiative became the most important. We realized we needed to wind back a little bit on starting new things.
Briefings: Being a vertically integrated firm is pretty rare these days. Why bet on that strategy?
Johansen: Let’s start on the fishing side. Fishing requires a big investment in ships. Plus you have to do everything correctly if you are in Antarctica. You are in pristine water. You need a license to operate there. All that involves doing it yourself. With all the rest, it’s about future-proofing our business. I believe in the coming years you’re going be able to get premiums on products that have a clear sustainable profile.
All of it takes investment—a lot of it. It’s taken 15 years of losses to actually get to scale on the fishing side. But when you’re vertically integrated, most of those costs are fixed. We can continue with our leadership in sustainability, then have price premiums on the branded products that we are continuing to develop. It’s a $100 million business now, but given the retailers we work with, it’s just the beginning of how we can scale that business.
Briefings: What did environmental activists have to say about Aker BioMarine fishing in Antarctica?
Johansen: You know, to make sure that you are set up to not be attacked. You do that by having the best, most sustainable practices. So before we started fishing, we teamed up with nongovernmental organizations WWF and asked them, “What do we need to do to be the world’s most sustainable fishing company?” They brought up some things that we hadn’t thought about, such as how far away from land we needed to fish in order to not threaten the food supply of penguins. At the same time, the NGOs learned about us and what we were trying to do.
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Briefings: You’re in an unusual position being the CEO of a publicly-traded corporation that has one majority shareholder, Kjell Inge Røkke, one of Norway’s richest people. What’s that like?
Johansen: He, like me, doesn’t have a traditional background. He was a fisherman and, like me, learned in his own kind of way.
When I was looking to come back to Norway to work in the late 2000s, I thought he matched my personality and my view on life and business. We both believe you have to take risks; you have to be ambitious; you have to be optimistic; and you have to just work through problems.
Whether it’s with your board or your owners, you need to be on the same page and fight for the same cause.
Briefings: Are you still skateboarding?
Johansen: I am. I tried to teach my kids, but it hasn’t worked out. Skateboarding is a sport that takes up a lot of time. I grew up in the 1980s in a small town. I had nothing to do, so I could just be out in my skateboard for hours and hours. Kids now have a maximum of like, 50 minutes.