As a wholesaler, importer and exporter of fresh fish, including some of the most expensive offerings on restaurant menus, Alex-Hung Tran is obsessed with anything that can slow the trip from ocean to consumer. Everything from storms and global fuel price fluctuations to the number of roses being shipped from South America for Valentine’s Day can affect how his company, Seattle-based Western United Fish, transports tons of fresh fish to markets across the globe.
That sharp focus, along with a keen eye for big-picture social and environmental needs, has helped Tran’s career and his seafood import and processing company take off over the last 15 years.
The Gift of a Fishing Pole
At age 11 in 1979, Tran fled Vietnam by boat and eventually settled in North Dakota. After earning a degree in international business from the University of Minnesota, Moorhead, he took a job as a sales representative for 3M Co. In the mid-1990s he visited his hometown, Tuy Hoa, which lies on Vietnam’s coastline along the South China Sea. The house his parents and siblings still lived in had no running water or toilets. During the visit, Tran talked with local fishermen and had an epiphany. “I had been sending money to my family,” he recalls. “But I thought: Instead of giving them fish, why not give them a fishing pole?”
The surrounding waters had an untapped resource of yellowfin tuna and other fish prized for sushi in Japan. One problem: Tran knew nothing about the fishing industry. But he employed his family, enlisted a knowledgeable friend from Japan and found logistics resources to transport fish to the nearest airport (a 12-hour truck ride away). Before long, his new company, Western United Annasea, was shipping yellowfin tuna and other exotic species to Japan. Within two years, the company was grossing $1 million a year. The next step: “We had to diversify and focus on the U.S. market,” says Tran.
In 2000, Tran founded Western United Fish, which now has 100 employees in its Seattle processing plant, 25 more in Hawaii and between 400 and 600 throughout Asia, depending on the time of year. The company also sources tuna from all around the world, and gets salmon and exotic fish from waters off of Alaska, Australia and Scotland. “We’re shipping fresh fish all over the world,” says Tran. “We have our sales people trained to have the fish sold before it lands.”
Tran has also made sustainability a priority for Western United Fish. The company follows the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries and has devoted considerable resources to training fishermen who sell to Western United. “We have reporting systems in place,” Tran says, adding that buyers and consumers increasingly want to be able to trace where a fish came from and how it was caught. “We will not buy from fleets that do not follow our sustainability processes.”
Tran’s next target is to expand sales to $300 million per year within the next five years. He plans to unlock that growth by finding value-added products Western United Fish can process and sell in a more finished fashion and at a higher price. One example is poke, a Hawaiian favorite made of cubed, seasoned yellowfin tuna, usually served with a bowl of rice. Western United now sells five versions of the dish. To ensure it gets to customers on time, the company relies on FedEx Priority Overnight®, which offers next-business-day delivery by the following morning. It also uses Periship, a perishable food industry logistics provider that works exclusively with FedEx. “Our Poke program would not be where it is today without the support of the FedEx and Periship teams,” says Tran, adding that fresh, sustainably sourced products are vital to Western United Fish. “They are what will help us continue to expand.”
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