Editor’s Note: We did our photo and interview on a Monday, typically a very busy day for Ready Seafood (pronounced, Reed-ee), operating on Portland’s waterfront. Between phone calls to Shanghai, John and Brendan told me why they’re successful, why they specifically have chosen Portland for their growing businesses, and their big plans for the future. They tend to finish each other’s thoughts.
IP: So how much of the business is Ready Seafood and much is Catch a Piece of Maine?
John: They’re two totally separate businesses. Ready Seafood is a wholesale live lobster company, meaning we do tremendous volume.
John: I like staying away from dollar amounts, but I can tell you poundage. I would say on a slow week we go through 100,000 pounds. When I talk about Catch (a Piece of Maine) I usually talk about number of boxes. What Catch does is a lot more about value-added items. A box may consist of two lobsters but has a lot more value than that. In other words, we may put in steamers, mussels, crab claws, blueberry cheesecake. It’s much more specialized, it’s a higher-end clientele and it’s a clientele that wants service. Ready Seafood is more or less trading a commodity. Most of our business is exporting. Europe and Asia are the two big export markets that we go to as well as Canada.
IP: How much of your business is here in Maine?
Brendan: I’d say maybe 3-4 percent.
John: Hopefully people from the outside respect that we’re trying to bring money into the country and into Maine. We find it’s more important to bring capital in—new money from overseas—which strengthens the Maine economy.
IP: You guys are selling the Maine brand, really. Why would somebody get lobster here…because it’s Maine lobster, right?
John: Catch is probably built heavier on it than Ready. Ready is built on it, but at the same time we have to carry Canadian and Maine (lobster). We don’t have a choice. It’s either lay off 25 people or satisfy the international market.
IP: Brendan, you don’t normally wear this gear, right?
Brendan: Probably this is the first year I haven’t. I probably wore it maybe 10 or 15 days to help out on the floor, when we get in a pinch.
IP: One of the reasons I had you (take photos in overalls) is that everybody starts out on the floor here.
Brendan. Yep. I used to pack every lobster, grade every lobster and drive every lobster.
IP: So what’s normal work attire these days?
Brendan: Whatever I had on before this. Wearing a pair of fleece sweatpants maybe, probably Timberland boots and a sweatshirt. Call it good.
IP: How about when you do your sales?
John: If he’s in Europe at a seafood show or in Asia obviously we wear suits. We clean up very nicely, but at the same time this isn’t a place to wear a suit. it’s a place to be yourself.
IP: You guys started as Ready [in 2004]. How has it been?
John: Ready’s grown exponentially . Catch has been intentionally a slow growth . In regards to our business model we really wanted to use it more as that marketing arm, so a lot of what we use Catch today for is marketing and promotion. It’s the only time that we as the business get to communicate directly with the end consumer. We used to do farmers markets for Catch and the sole reason we did it wasn’t necessarily to sell product. It was to interact with the customer. We find that too many businesses nowadays don’t listen . The customer’s always right; you gotta hear what they have to say and then apply it to your business model.
IP: Not to put you on the spot, but is there anything you can tell me that you found out through Catch that’s influenced the Ready Seafood side?
John: Items other than just live lobster, sell. Consumers want something that’s simpler. Consumers don’t necessarily like to kill a live lobster.
IP: Why’d you get into lobstering in the first place?
John: When we first started we were 10 years old. what are you supposed to do when you’re ten..we were trading baseball cards. Lobstering was our escape into the working world. We’d see our father go off to work or our uncle go out in the boat. Why couldn’t we go?
IP: Was your dad a lobsterman too?
John: No—our father had an oil business, distributing fuel to all the islands in Casco Bay and to the big ships that come in. It was more or less an entrance into that world. We wanted to know what was out there, and we didn’t think of lobstering as a job or as a career. It was a lifestyle.
IP: Were your friends involved in it?
Brendan: Very few. It’s a very old fashioned industry, crying out for new blood.
IP: Speak to that a little bit. What do you bring to the old business to kind of revitalize it?
John: With our background and our knowledge from our college experiences we’re seeing the world very differently than it was 20 or 30 years ago. There’s new technology out there now. With the tighter economy and margins shrinking, the answer’s not necessarily to sell more. It’s to be more efficient. I think that’s where we’ve made huge strides over our competition. We’ve found ways to be a better, more economical company. so in the worst economy that we’ve had we’re still growing by a couple hundred percent. We’re hiring people still today. Look at the media and all you see is layoffs and bad sales, bad business, bankruptcy. We see just the opposite. We see tremendous opportunity.
IP: Where do you like to lobster?
John: The same place we did when we were kids. The same rocks we were looking down at 20 years ago are the same rocks that we’re looking down at today. The best way to put it is between Portland Headlight and Two Lights. That’s our fishing ground. I could take you to any cove blindfolded and I could tell you where every rock is.
IP: Why have Ready and Catch been so successful?
John: It’s like athletics or anything else you’re passionate about. It’s a team effort. I’m convinced our team is stronger, it’ll last longer than the rest, and I think our team believes that as well.
Brendan: We’re all competetive, always want to the be the best at whatever we do.
IP: What’s hard about what you do?
John: Hiring is the most difficult thing that we do. It’s easy as hell hiring people. it’s hard hiring the right people. As Brandon said, this is the first year he’s been able to take his overalls off. If you came 18 months ago you’d see him in (skins) every day of the year.
IP: So why Portland?
Brendan: Portland is one of the few places where you still have a mix of tradition, in terms of a working waterfront, that is respected and important to the city. You have a mix of whatever you need for businesses to grow, mixed with a working waterfront tradition that you can’t find elsewhere…if you go further up the coast of Maine you’d find tradition but you wouldn’t have this [business] hub at your fingertips.
John: We believe we can really build on that, too. We’re looking at a place where we can continue to make investments and this is a place where we can continue to grow. Today if I were to run out of packaging supplies, I can make a phone call and in ten minutes the packaging company is on my loading dock. Brendan: For small companies, you have to be flexible and move quick on your feet. Being in Portland you can do that.
IP: What do you do in your spare time if you have any?
John: Travel. Brendan loves fishing, goes striper fishing.
Brendan: I’d go fishing every day, if I could. We go lobstering for fun too..it’s kind of wierd to say.
IP: How are you viewed in the industry?
John: We don’t really pay attention to what other people think, first of all. We’re not flashy, as you can see. We live a simple life. I think we’re respected by a lot of others in the industry the same way that we respected them.
IP: What would you like to see happen in Portland?
John: I’d like to put Portland, Maine on the map as the capital of lobster for the state…..not where it’s all harvested, but as the hub from which it goes all over the world. Right now I can’t tell you how much stuff comes out of Maine and goes right to Boston. It misses Maine. The people in Boston get those export sales.
IP: Where do you like to travel?
John: I like going all down through the Caribbean. I’d love to go back to the Middle East again. I was in Dubai four years ago. This spring I’m going to go there, I’m convinced. Either there or i’m going to go to Brazil. Central America is another place that I’ve always wanted to go to.
IP: Where are you going this week?
John: St. Johns. I’m fascinated with that. When I was younger, I never wanted to leave Maine. I was sheltered. The more I travel now, the more I want to see. Brendan does more of the Europe stuff.
IP: What would you be doing now if you weren’t doing this interview?
Brendan: Trying to get a better freight discount for 6,000 lbs that needs to be in Shanghai on Wednesday morning.
John: I’d be checking in with both my phones, which are in the other office being answered by someone else.
IP: What’s your normal work schedule?
John: This time of year it’s lax for me . Maybe 7 am to 5 pm. I come in on the weekends but I’m not here for long.
Brendan: Sundays are the best day to get things done. I come in every weekend. I can get a whole week’s worth of work done in two mornings.
IP: What’s the secret of your success?
Brendan: Enjoy what you’re doing. Work hard.
John: It’s all what you put into it—and it’s your team.
IP: What’s something else people might not know about you?
John: We’ve been very very selfish towards the business. We’ve made tremendous sacrifices. I remember once being on the loading docks, after midnight, unloading a truck from Canada. It was December during the holidays and all I remember is my friends calling me saying, ‘We’re partying. We’re in New York City.” All our friends were still living the college life, all over the country, and I remember looking up on one of the few nights I could actually see the stars—and I remember thinking to myself, what the Hell am I doing. I’m here, it’s the middle of the night, I’m unloading a truck and all the rest of my friends are just living it up. Today I realize why we did that. I see the payoff, but it was very very hard when I was trying to grow a business and giving it everything I had to give.
IP: Worth it?
John: As I walk around the facility and I see our workers, yeah, it’s worth it.
IP: How often do you eat lobster?
Brendan: A lot. three times a week maybe. It’s tough when we pick lobster meat here. It’s just sitting there, asking to be eaten. Especially if you didn’t bring a lunch. I’ll bring lobsters home maybe once a week and I’ll also eat them here.
IP: You should just have a butter dispenser here.
John: It’s a lot healthier without butter, though.
Brendan: I now eat lobster with nothing. I used to eat it with butter or vinegar or lemon, but now I eat it 100 percent straight every time I eat it.
John: So that’s another thing people may not know. We love creating new things. We like questioning the system of can we be more efficient, or whether there’s a better way to go about doing things.
Brendan: I’m getting hungry.