Setting Mediterranean Aquaculture on a Development Journey

Born in early 2021 as a result of the acquisition and consolidation of four Greek aquaculture companies by the UAE’s Mubadala Investment and U.S. private equity fund Amerra Capital, Avramar is betting big on the adoption of the popular Mediterranean diet across the globe, says the company’s CEO Alex Myers. An ambitious €25 billion investment plan, targeting activities in both Greece and Spain, aims to modernise production and create a fully verticalised value chain, capitalising upon an industry that boasts the passion, know-know, and capacity to be in a pole position. “Avramar is built on a clear vision (…) and the belief that this industry can excel internationally.”

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GIG: Avramar is the leading aquaculture company in Greece while also being the largest fish producer in the Mediterranean. Can you tell us a little bit about the company, and its current priorities?

Myers: Avramar is actually quite a new company, but it’s built on 40 years of tradition and experience. It resulted from a merger that took place in 2020 of four different Greek companies: Andromeda, Nireus, and Selonda that grew, raised, and sold fish, and Perseus, which is a fish feed company. Despite the challenges of the pandemic, we decided to move forward as planned and were able to introduce Avramar as the result of the four-way merger at the beginning of 2021. All four companies have been very passionate, and they boast a wealth of knowledge and capabilities.

Today, Avramar represents 2,300 employees – mainly – in two countries, with approximately 2,000 people in Greece and around 300 in Spain, in addition to sales offices in Italy, France and the U.S. This makes us well positioned to supply Europe with fresh fish. We’re an extroverted company in the sense that we export 80% of the fish we produce in Greece to 30 different markets around the world, primarily across the Mediterranean, as well as to the U.S. – markets where bass and bream consumption has been growing in recent years. Our aspiration is to go beyond the Mediterranean in the near future.

As a Group, in 2020 we developed a five-year business plan involving high investments leveraging an end-to-end, fully vertical and integrated value chain, following a ‘from egg to plate’ concept. This enables us to have full traceability of Avramar’s products both for customers and end consumers, while capitalising on the positive long-term trend of fish as part of a healthy and balanced diet plan.

We are setting a turning point in Mediterranean aquaculture that aims to bring the company and the wider industry into a development journey.

While Greece’s aquaculture industry has historically been associated with good quality and a great deal of knowledge, it has also suffered a lot of financial constraints, particularly during the last decade. As a result, the industry has been in survival mode rather than focused on growth and development.

It is from this aspect that we have developed our mission to inspire millions every year to embrace the best Mediterranean fish, grown with all our skills and passion, and embrace the Mediterranean diet, while we also built the company around three core values which lead the way we think and act.

Our first value is “Partner to Win” and it’s all about seeking long-term partnerships with both our suppliers and our customers, and going from a day-to-day business to long-term sustainable business partnerships. Our second value is “Inspire to Improve” and relates to bringing in innovation by getting inspired with what’s happening in other parts of the world and other industries, but also listening and understanding to the needs of modern customers and consumers. Our third value is “Lead with Care” and that’s about taking on a leadership role in terms of sustainability and saying, “we’re here to stay”. We have to take care of the planet and the communities we’re in, and we have to do this in a consistent and long-term way.

GIG: You recently stated that a €25 billion investment plan was underway geared towards the full verticalisation of the company. What are the milestones of this plan? How is this being allocated between Greece and Spain?

Myers: We based our investment strategy on what was needed in each market, and Spain and Greece need two different things. In the case of Greece, we approached this from the perspective that we were entering a relatively new industry in terms of industrial trends that had only existed for the last 40 years – compared to other industries like olive oil that have a long-lasting tradition.

We found that the Greek aquaculture industry had been quite fragmented, comprised of a large number of family-owned business – with their fair share of financial challenges.

As a result, we realised there was a need to invest in the upgrading of farm infrastructure, bring in new vessels, and incorporate new technology in the form of cameras and automated feeding systems.

We have also brought in best practices in terms of the hatcheries and the process involved in moving the fish from the hatcheries into the waters and raising the fish into adulthood.

Spain, on the other hand, is more about driving growth and investing in new fish farms. In fact, during early 2020 Spain was heavily affected by Storm Gloria, which ended up affecting an estimated 40% of Spanish aquaculture production. So, our plan in Spain is focused on expanding production in a modern way and transferring our fish farms to more secure areas, which will take place between 2021 and 2023. Greece is about upgrading existing infrastructure with a horizon between 2021 to 2025.

GIG: Am I correct to assume that the bulk of the investment is going to target the Greek market?

Myers: Absolutely. 80% of our fish are Greek and 20% are Spanish, so our investments reflect this – maybe not exactly – but the majority will always be a Greek investment.

Aerial view of a fish farm in Greece. Copyright: Sven Hansche / shutterstock.com

GIG: Growing international investments in the Hellenic agri-food industry seem to indicate that the sector presents a highly attractive prospect. Avramar is the result of the acquisition and consolidation of four Greek companies by the UAE’s Mubadala Investment and the USA’s Amerra Capital. What drove this entry into the Greek market?

Myers: The originators were Amerra Capital, a New York based private equity fund. They’re very engaged in aquaculture and agriculture and have been for a long time. In 2016, they invested in Andromeda, which was actually the smallest of the three companies, and is a fantastic story of growth. Andromeda went from being a €30 million turnover company to becoming a more than €100 million turnover company.

So Amerra had this consolidation experience, and they see aquaculture as a good, sustainable alternative to other land-based protein. In terms of CO2 emissions per kilo, fish generates the lowest emissions of any animal protein. So I think they also see this as a more sustainable direction for their portfolio. And then there was a plan named Project Nemo, which was focused on the consolidation of the Greek aquaculture market – the project required several years of planning before it came to fruition in 2019. Amerra had the industry and country specific knowledge.

Mubadala, our other shareholder, has a broader industrial viewpoint, and huge expertise in how to run larger companies. The two got together a few years ago and agreed to join forces to undertake the Greek consolidation. So there was a geographic vision and the professionalisation of running big companies, and then there was the industry knowhow – which jointly constituted complementing capabilities that worked well together to support our company.

GIG: You took the helm as CEO of Avramar in November 2019. Almost two years on, what is your assessment of Greece’s aquaculture industry?

Myers: I entered during a very volatile time as the industry was hit by a storm in Spain and followed by the global pandemic, and we were working as four companies. So my first year was focused on ensuring we had a stable business, that the merger actually happened, while managing day-to-day activities. So year number one was mostly bringing the companies together and also developing, along with my team, the five-year strategy.

My first impressions are that the fundamentals are fantastic because there’s a good quality product in the fish. There’s a lot of passion and knowhow, both in the company and in the industry. And there’s a 40-year long history. So the basics are definitely there. And if I shift more to the extroversion angle,

Greece has a big export industry capability. We’re very well positioned and it’s one of the few industries where Greece can actually lead and excel regionally, in Europe, and at a global level.

What I am missing is the modernisation of the way we work, and the incorporation of more technology. The other aspect relates to extroversion, which is a bit more of a personal view because I come from the consumer industry. Coming from Carlsberg and Unilever, which are very consumer oriented, I have found that Greece’s aquaculture industry is exporting what it already has rather than exploring to understand what customers really want – and then giving them what they want.

Just as an example, we’re still heavily selling whole fish where I believe there’s a big opportunity to sell more convenient cuts and focus on the recipes around fish. This would allow consumers to buy and cook fish in an easy way, which is particularly crucial as we move beyond the Mediterranean.

GIG: Aquaculture has historically been one of the most extroverted sectors of the Greek economy. What more needs to be done to support export activities? What are the biggest challenges?

Myers: We have to go from an export mindset to more of a multi-market mindset. And for me, this has to do with making sure you’re closer to your customers, and that you have organisations that are closer to customers in these markets. For example, we’re starting to get market insights through a marketing team on how people prepare fish in different countries, what species could be interesting for different countries, in addition to matters relating to convenience.

So I think there’s a structured approach to consumer and customer insights that needs to be adopted. And then we need to adapt to these findings – so basically listen to what an American or German consumer wants from Mediterranean fish in order for that to be cooked more often at homes or restaurants.

GIG: Which international markets do you believe need to be prioritised for the future growth of Avramar?

Myers: We have a core, which is Greece, Italy and Spain. That’s the centre of the onion and then you can start peeling outwards. Then we have the next level of markets where we are in, but we want to expand. That would be France and Germany, going beyond the Mediterranean.

Then we have North America. The U.S. market is particularly interesting for us because they’ve embraced the Mediterranean diet quite diligently, beyond the Italian and Greek communities. So I think the Mediterranean diet is a very interesting platform that’s highly appealing, and we believe North America – the U.S. and Canada – have great potential.

Baked sea bass with Greek salad Copyright: Timotina / Shutterstock

GIG: How do you think that the consolidation of the four companies has contributed to upscale Greece’s agriculture industry?

Myers: The shareholders are bringing in a longer-term approach to planning and strategy, a different level of corporate professionalisation, while also building upon the knowledge and the functional professionalism that exists in the companies and the wider sector.

We’re discussing things like our sustainability strategy going forward. We have implemented clear ethics and compliance programmes and are talking about health and safety in a different way, putting actual investments behind these priority areas rather than just talking about them. And then there’s how the shareholders are bringing in the need to understand markets in a different way. We’ve been very good at raising and selling fish – so that’s always been there – but this is a longer-term perspective from a corporate point of view.

GIG. Do you think the success of this consolidation is something that could be replicated in other segments of Greece’s agri-food industry?

Myers: I think so. While I returned to Greece two years ago – and I don’t know about all the industries and their potential – Avramar is built on a clear vision of what can be done in the next five years, in addition to the belief that this industry can excel internationally.

Greece has a pole position in this industry, and I think it’s important to identify industries that have a potential valuable position of leadership. I think agriculture is one of them, and agriculture is a Greek strength.

Greece historically has been based on family owned small-to-medium-sized industries, resulting in a fragmentation in terms of branding and knowledge across sectors. And what we did on top of consolidating and upscaling the companies was create a common brand. So taking those steps towards uniting and strengthening the industry is something that can be duplicated. The challenge is identifying the right time and the right players to make this happen. It’s not easy, and we’re still at the beginning of this journey. We’ve done many things, but I think we still have a long way to go before we can prove our success story.

GIG: The Greek government is preparing the rollout of Organized Aquaculture Development Zones. Why is this necessary? What impact will this have for Avramar?

Myers: The Organized Aquaculture Development Zones are a framework that will provide us with the certainty that we need to continue investing in the long-term. We’re building our house at sea, and we need to know that the ground we’re building it on will be permanent. Because if you’re building your home for the next 30 to 50 years, you don’t want that ground to be redistributed or debated.

What we would like to do is concentrate our footprint instead of having many sparsely distributed fish farms across the Greek geography. Having fewer but bigger farms contributes positively to our sustainability footprint, and it also boosts competitiveness.

If we can develop bigger, more efficient farms, then we can compete internationally with, for example, countries like Turkey that traditionally have had more efficient farms due precisely to their bigger size. In Spain, we have that. In Greece, we don’t have that yet.

We’ve received support from the central government, and that support now needs to trickle down at a regional level to the local communities where the actual structure will be finalised in the development zones. This is taking a little bit longer, and we’d like for this to be completed within the pre-agreed timeframes in order for us to carry out our investments.

GIG: How is Avramar working towards mitigating its environmental impact and ensuring the sustainability of its activities within the context of climate change and the need to protect Mediterranean ecosystems?

Myers: We have a higher purpose as an industry, which is basically feeding an ever-growing population with healthy food. And I believe aquaculture versus other sources of animal protein is actually a very good choice from a sustainability perspective. We’ve worked a lot to certify all our farms in accordance with the GLOBAL G.A.P. certification. We’re compliant, healthy, and a good provider with a relatively lower impact in terms of CO2 emissions.

Moving forward, what we’re trying to do is shift from compliance to more of a purpose-driven strategy. We’re developing something we call “providing more but using less” as a platform. This is based on establishing our starting point and asking ourselves how we can improve. For example, how can we further reduce our CO2 emissions? How can we reuse a lot of our materials? – like nets, for instance. How can we recycle more? How can we reduce our impact in the waters where we’re present? And how can we improve the feed that we give our fish? These are just a few of the areas we’re looking into and we’re developing targets beyond where we are today.

GIG: Do you have any final message you would like to send?

Myers: I think Greece can succeed by joining forces. I think there is strength in many Greek industries and if you can find the right partners, creating a position of strength, then you can develop the business of the future.

As for Avramar, our tagline is “Better Fish, Better Lives,” as we do believe in both. And actually, we have a lot of activities behind those very simple statements. So we do believe that good quality fish with full traceability and a respect for the environment can feed the world in a very healthy way. And we believe the Mediterranean diet is a great platform to achieve this.

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