An Alaskan mother; an Alaskan entrepreneur

Yesterday was Mother’s Day.  I always think about my mom who passed away 15 years ago; and I often remember my mother-in-law, who also is long gone from this life. I learned many things from my mother-in-law business owner.

Doris was the founding owner of a seafood company in Kenai, Alaska.  I worked for her for several summers processing fish from the cold pristine waters of Cook Inlet, Alaska.  It was my first real management job.  Things were not always rosy in the land of the midnight sun, but I learned a lot.

Doris was an entrepreneur.  She could see around corners and was in the forefront of innovation in the Alaskan fish industry in the 1960s and 70s.  She thought differently from everyone else.  She thought the freezing of fish was a superior method of preserving the quality of salmon at a time when canning was the normal means of processing. And so she became a pioneer in the frozen fish industry of the state – something which is totally the practice today.

She also was a pioneer for the flying of fresh fish from one part of Alaska to another in an effort to balance the work of the processing plants.  For example when Bristol Bay had lots of freshly caught fish and the plants could not handle them all, she would hire former Vietnam pilots to fly old DC-3s, 4s, and 6s from the Arizona desert to Alaska. She then designed a system to fly the fresh fish to places like Cook Inlet where there was no glut of fish.  A few weeks later, the process might be reversed.  It was a winner of an idea and is still done today.What did I learn from her?

  • She had a strong work ethic, working hard for the success of the business; if it needed to be done and no one else was available, she rolled up her sleeves, came down from the office and dug right in to the task no matter if it was on the slime line, in the massive freezers, offloading fish, or driving a truck to town.
  • She was creative. As plant manager I oftentimes was stymied for a solution to a problem but she seemed to always have an answer.  We once filled a massive truck with frozen king salmon and drove through the night to get them to a market before the price dropped.
  • She had passion for what she did and enjoyed life to the fullest –whether in the business, church work, raising nine kids, or helping a neighbor.  She did everything with her whole heart.
  • She had a generous heart and would always go the extra mile for our customers.  I remember hopping a helicopter in the middle of the Alaska summer night to deliver a generator to a stranded boat adrift in the inlet.  Service was #1 for Doris.
  • She was a persistent risk taker.  Her innovative ideas were not always popular but she took the risk anyway.  One day she decided to fly quality control fish roe experts over from Japan while we in management tried to figure out how to speak to them and feed them what they needed.
  • She was a networker.  She seemed to know everyone and everyone knew her. One time I wondered where she was going and discovered she was on a plane heading for the capital, to speak to the governor about some fish related legislation.
  • She brought good people into the leadership team – who would work tirelessly for her.  She knew how to evaluate talent and rewarded them accordingly.
  • She treated her employees fairly, providing cabin, trailer and tent residences for short-term summer workers; she paid above market wages for both regular and overtime hours.  People loved working for Doris.
  • She was always accessible – she had an open door policy.  It was partly her personality to do so, but she always wanted to know what people thought, listened to their ideas and made them feel a part of the business.
  • She was open-minded and was always working toward a new idea.  She once hired a new tender to work the waters of Kachemak Bay thinking that new markets were to be had.  I knew because I worked that tender as a buyer, working 24/7 to be successful.
  • She was comfortable with chaos.  Because she was always thinking outside the box of tradition, life would be chaotic many times. Fishermen can be a strange lot, fish biologists unpredictable, and markets fluctuate wildly.  Raising children added to the mix.  She seemed comfortable with it all.

My mother-in-law was not perfect by any means; in fact I learned some things from her failures in life and business.  But for this day of celebrating Mother’s Day, I celebrate my mother-in-law and what I learned about business from her.

Larry W. Sharp, Director of Training, IBEC Ventures

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