Karol Rzepkowski talks at a million miles an hour, with the story-telling prowess of an East Coast Billy Connolly – only faster. And often more convoluted. The MD of Shetland-based Johnsons Fish Farms is in Edinburgh to address the Scottish Parliament. That was yesterday, this is today. It’s lunchtime and he’s just emerged from his hotel room having spent all morning on a mammoth conference call.
He’s staying in Edinburgh’s plush Tigerlily Hotel, and it’s here we meet to talk over what might be one of the most exciting brands to come out of Scotland in a long time – No Catch, sustainable, organic cod.
For years, Scotland has been plagued by a lack of exciting new brands being created – brands that can cause an excitement, brands that are doing things differently. No Dysons. No Innocents. Nothing for the country’s creative teams to get their teeth into. Well, that’s now changed.
Perhaps surprisingly, for a man who spends all day dealing with and in fish, Rzepkowski orders sushi from the extensive restaurant menu.
He might have the stylish look of an eastern European gangster about him, but in the flesh he’s friendly, jovial and unapologetically enthusiastic.
“We spent about a year working on the brand concept – ‘No Catch Just Cod...’,” he says. “We had so many ideas thrown at us, but we had a clear vision of what we wanted to do. We wanted to make fish sexy. Look at fish counters – they’re boring. What’s happened in fish in the last 20 years? Nothing. Farmed salmon made salmon cheaper, perhaps. That’s it.
“We were very clear in our remit. This is a very exciting product. It’s the world’s first 100 per cent sustainable cod. It’s organic and the whole ethos behind the company – the way we are operating, the way we are tackling and bringing on board criticisms, rather than hiding from them – reflects that.”
Cod fishing has been a high-profile inclusion in the news recently, due to over-fishing concerns and a depletion in cod numbers in the North Sea. Meanwhile, salmon farming has similarly been in the news due to the problems that it’s encountered with disease associated with farming.
Then came Rzepkowski and No Catch cod. The brand attracted attention from both the media and the food industry quickly. From Gordon Ramsay’s F-Word (”Kate Humble was scuba diving with us – she was lovely,” he smiles, almost bashfully) to The Money Show. From London’s hottest eateries to listings in Hollywood’s top restaurant, The French Laundry. Not to mention earning a place on the shelves of the main multiples, including Tesco and Sainsburys too.
“It is unbelievable the interest that has been generated from the white table-cloth market. Top chefs are tasting the fish and saying that it is better than wild cod.”
Rzepkowski believes the company’s timing was key. “This was the right product at the right time,” he says. “We wanted to use the high profile that we had been receiving to drive the industry forward, to clean up the industry, if you like. But how do you reflect that in a brand?
“We knew at that stage that there was going to be a lot of interest. So, we decided to try and exploit that interest. Not just for the brand, though. We wanted to prove to the consumer that industry can do things right. It just takes a bit of lateral thinking and a lot of passion.
“I’ve been a passionate environmentalist all my life. I’ve only been in aqua-culture for five years, but all I’ve done, until now, is talk. As a generation, we are great at complaining. We need to start creating solutions.
“From the start we worked closely with environmental and green bodies to create solutions. And, next year, we plan to launch a series of forums too, to strengthen this association. But this is not something that we will use to publicise the company. If you go down that route, you can be seen as cynically manipulating public opinion as well as the organisations that are buying into what you have to say.”
Karol takes a sip from his mineral water and skillfully captures a slither of sushi, allowing the conversation to steer back to the original topic of branding.
“What we needed to do was figure out how to deliver the messages that we wanted to deliver, as there were an awful lot of messages. I could talk for two hours, non-stop (something The Drum doesn’t doubt) about all of the different things that we do. From toys for the fish to projects with Scottish Natural Heritage, there is whole raft of things... You name it, we do it.”
Rzepkowski talks with such verve that it can be hard to get a word in edgeways, yet, on the mention of toys for the fish, an interjection is necessary.
“...Absolutely. A happy fish is a tasty fish. We looked at the welfare of the fish with the SSPCA from day one, to ensure that they had the very best possible welfare. They were amazed by this. I’d been a scuba diver in the Caribbean for the last five years, I was not into salmon farming. So, when I got into this, I saw the opportunity for change.
“What about the quality of life of the fish? We started looking at creating an environment. Why not stick a big pipe in the tank that they can swim through? We needed to create a real habitat.
“As soon as we started looking at the projects, the SSPCA were like, ‘wait for us.’ But that’s what should be happening. We, as an industry, should be driving change, because we know it better than anyone else. We should be going to them with another ten ideas – no matter how daft they may seem.
“The Norwegians [the only others to have dabbled in cod farming] have struggled for years in their farming because cod love to chew. And they were chewing right through the nets. But how do we stop this?
“We thought, why not take a more left-field approach? If they like chewing, why not give them something else to chew on? We created fibre ropes with seaweed in them. Cod love chewing these and it means we are not halting natural behaviour. We are encouraging it, yet eliminating a problem.”
Projects like these are just a scratch on the iceberg of some of the more “left-field” projects that Johnson now undertakes. However, with all the excitement being generated, a problem arose: information overload. There were literally hundreds of messages that the company wanted to communicate. But how could they reflect that in the brand?
“BOB [No Catch’s Edinburgh-based marketing agency] are indispensable to us. People were thinking that I was either really mad, or I was onto something quite good. We spoke to many agencies in London, but we struggled. No one seemed to get what we were about. We were eventually introduced to BOB Marketing. But they were based in Edinburgh. How would anyone in Edinburgh be any better placed to solve our problems than those in London? But literally, within 24 hours – 24 hours of us bombarding them with information – BOB captured the very essence of what we were trying to do.
“And I had also not smiled that much for a long time.
“What we have to be careful about, though,” he continues “is preaching to the consumer and to the public. You have to be careful. If you preach, you are going to put everyone off. We have so many really good messages to put across, but we don’t want to be seen to be taking ourselves too seriously. We take what we do seriously. But we can’t take what we do too seriously. In fact, our marketing campaign will be taking the piss out of ourselves. We want to reflect what the consumer wants, but have some fun with that as well. After all, you have to enjoy what you do.”
As Rzepkowski alluded to earlier, he is most certainly not an aqua-farmer by trade.
Having a varied, yet successful, past life in business (including working for his father in the family deli, launching his own premium food distribution business, some time marketing at a major telecoms company and utilising his fluent Russian and Polish to enter the Eastern Europe frontier when it opened up), at the age of 34 he “kind of” retired to the Caribbean to raise his young son with his wife.
“We had been living in the Caribbean for the last five years. I had had a lot of luck with other businesses and had semi-retired – I ran a few dive ships as a hobby.
“We went to the Caribbean because we had a little boy who was three at the time. I wanted him to experience the bigger world out there. I lived in Edinburgh until I was 30. I didn’t want him doing that.
“At the age of three, education wasn’t quite as important, so I wanted him to see the world. Growing up he had the opportunity to swim in the Caribbean every day and eat fruit straight from trees. By eight years old he could open a coconut and scuba dive. But there comes a stage where you have to educate.”
It was Rzepkowski’s father-in-law that recommended Shetland to Karol – citing its wonderful quality of life and the best standard of education in the UK. It didn’t disappoint.
“We were blown away by the place. However, the other thing, which at the time I didn’t know, is that the island has one of the highest qualities of living in the UK. It has the second richest council after London. London has 10 million people – that’s understandable. Shetland has only 22,000, and they use the money for the betterment of the people of Shetland; the best roads, hospital facilities, care – the best schooling.”
When Rzepkowski moved to Shetland, Johnson was a family run business that was set to go “spectacularly bankrupt”, like many salmon farms at the time. He noticed that the company had a cage with some 3000 cod in it – it belonged to the North Atlantic Fisheries College in Shetland, who had been pioneering the production of cod juveniles. They had cracked it, but didn’t know what to do with the fish. Rzepkowski put together a project based on the cod, and went to the city with the view of undertaking an MBO.
“We raised the funds, completed the buyout, secured the entire operation and switched the production to cod.
“We secured £35m in funding to develop this project. It’s not a cheap industry to operate. We produce two million fish a year. And it’s a three-year growth cycle. So at any one time, we have to have six million fish at sea – and we give these fish a lot of space (only two and a half percent of the cage is taken up by the fish)... It’s a large operation. No one’s ever tried to create a big brand in Shetland before.
“Working in a geographically remote place, though, you have an extremely adaptable workforce. There is a can do attitude in Shetland. It’s one of our major strengths. The direction that the company has taken has been built on the back of the workforce we have. We don’t get a negativity about change, because they constantly have to adapt.”