Barramundi tank on fish farm

(Photo: Easton Kuboushek)

Lessons in aquaculture and leadership

July 13, 2023

Editor’s note: Easton Kuboushek was recently named as one of 10 Nuffield International Farming Scholars for 2023. The designation allows Kuboushek, the executive director of the Soy Aquaculture Alliance, to travel around the world on behalf of Iowa farmers and U.S. aquaculture where he will explore success stories, best practices, technology and regulations that have created huge growth in aquaculture production around the world. This is his latest report from Australia.

Throughout my career, I've been fortunate to meet many outstanding leaders - from tech firm executives to college presidents, trade association executives, global banking juggernauts, volunteer farmers to emerging entrepreneurs.

After some time in the outback, I would rank a humble Australian barramundi farmer among the best of them.Humpty Doo Barramundi farm owner

My fellow Nuffield Farming Scholarships Trust scholars and I were hosted by the CEO of Humpty Doo Barramundi, a family- and values-based farm located in Darwin, Northern Territory. As we were escorted among the diverse vegetable farms, local markets, and government agencies during our Global Focus Program, the subtle leadership style of Dan Richards shone.

Dan is a fellow Nuffield scholar who, years ago, set out to explore if barramundi could be the white fish equivalent to salmon. When he returned to the outback, he and his father built their business from harvesting a mere 6,000 kilograms of fish per year to 120,000 kilograms per week, becoming the largest barramundi farm in Australia.

As I watched this unconventional CEO sporting a branded fishing shirt, worn sun hat, and work boots explain his sprawling farm, I found his "keys to success" to be remarkably simple. Yet in the “busyness” of business, his lessons seem to move lower on our priority list or be forgotten altogether.

Hopefully, a few of these observations can be helpful to emerging leaders, entrepreneurs or anyone else aspiring to be a better person. And to my constituents following Soy Aquaculture Alliance — take note as you build aquaculture farms of your own.

Living Values

Value statements are common among organizations. How often do we hear speakers or read websites with goodwill statements like these?

Our people are our best asset.

We’re data-driven and transparent.

Fiscal integrity is at our core.

Love thy neighbor.

These can be like the “Live. Laugh. Love.” vinyl decals in your mother’s kitchen — nice to have, but a little tacky (sorry, Mom). Facetiousness aside, my point is that you or your company may state values, but it’s more important to embody them.

Dan speaking to group

Dan's values are on his sleeve. He’s honest, in a way that develops trust with every encounter positive or negative. He’s humble, giving the success of his company to others, luck, learning from mistakes and hard work. He’s authentic as he presents himself, offers advice, analyzes competitors and prioritizes his family. And he cares — mostly about his people, product and running a business that grows “beautiful, sustainable Australian barramundi” and he supports the local community — not just the bottom line.

As a leader, Dan sets an example of what he expects from others by what he says and does every day. It was refreshing when so often we see prepared messages and false images. 

People First

As we navigated the facilities of Humpty Doo, it was clear its success is much a story of people management as it is of growing fish. Dan knows the name of every member of his "Aquatic Brilliance Team" and they know him. Whether farm managers or part-time help, the culture makes them want to jump in and take part.

Dan continued to share that "without our people, we don't have anything." If staff chose not to subscribe to the team culture, they were politely asked to leave.

This was a great reminder that the work, the product, the challenges — whatever it may be — people come first.

Accelerate Learning

Often, we get lost in productivity: Meet the target. Hit the quota. Finish the LinkedIn article so the newsletter can go out on time.

"When left to leadership, a company will always prioritize production over research," said Dan.Fish in net

Where Humpty Doo differentiates is in focusing on accelerating learning. Dan made the decision to build a state-of-the-art R&D facility that allows them to conduct trials on stocking rates, commercial breeds, genetics and more. They've also started testing new feeds and supplements before incorporating into the farm, rather than taking the manufacturer's word.

"It pays itself off several times per year," he said.

This was a reminder to build systems of learning and knowledge creation in addition to high productivity. Whether a simple habit of expanding your expertise or an impressive barramundi research facility, finding ways to accelerate learning will pay dividends for your company and life.

Understand your Customer

Where I was most impressed and inspired by Dan was in his focus on solving the customers' problem. Humpty Doo became a volume producer in a niche market, earning exclusive barramundi contracts for the leading grocers in Australia.

Obviously, this didn't happen overnight. But when I asked Dan how he grew into this success, he simply said "you can't survive if you can't differentiate."

For Humpty Doo, differentiation came through:

  1. Convenience: Making it as easy as possible to do business.
  2. Taste: Growing and processing fish in a way that makes his Australian barramundi preferred by customers.
  3. Price: Remaining competitive in price while still maintaining a margin by keeping strong relationships with consumers and grocers.

In today's world especially, the convenience of a product will beat price, quality, label, and, unfortunately, logic. Think of the price of a can of my wife's and my beloved Dr. Pepper. We prefer to pay 50 cents a can at Costco, but we'll happily pay $7.50 when it's convenient at Monster Jam with a toddler running amuck, just to be able to sit down again. As you build your business, convenience will drive growth above all.

Wrapping Up

There are a dozen lessons and even more "Australianisms" I pulled from my week with Dan, but I hope these few reminders were helpful. Remember, regardless of your title or tenure, that everyone is important and everyone deserves respect.