Big Anchorage seafood plant thinks small

Posted: Sunday, March 23, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Managers at a big seafood plant built here with state money are recasting the company as a smaller, less ambitious operation.

But executives at Alaska Seafood International concede they don't yet have either the money or the sales to sustain operations for more than a year.

ASI occupies a gigantic state-owned building near the Anchorage airport erected for the seafood company in the late 1990s. It was billed as a big job producer.

But from the outset, the company stumbled with financing, management troubles and few customers, and today the $50 million building is mostly empty.

Earlier this week, about two dozen workers wearing white coats and hair nets packed salmon into vacuum packs to be sold under the trade name Great Alaskan Seafood Co.

The company's main buyer is BJ's Wholesale Club, an East Coast wholesale club chain.

The BJ's purchases are the first steady sales in ASI's history, said Doug Bell, ASI's chief operating officer.

''We're just so happy because it's stable business,'' Bell said. ''Is it enough by itself to keep us going? No.''

Aside from trying to boost sales, Bell said he hopes ASI's majority owner, Sunrise Capital Partners of New York, can find a new partner to bring in more money.

Food distribution giant Sysco Corp. has agreed to carry several ASI items, including salmon burgers and glazed cod and halibut, Bell said. He said some big new customers could be announced soon, including two fast-food companies.

But optimism has been heard before from ASI, where top management has been replaced several times since 1999.

The original ASI model of starting huge and immediately taking a big bite of the processed seafood business was a mistake, Bell said.

''The traditional business starts in somebody's garage, figuratively, and then it has some success,'' Bell said.

ASI's start was way more ambitious. Today, huge manufacturing floors stand mostly empty. ASI's operations take up only about 20 percent of the 202,000-square-foot building.

It was designed originally to employ 450 people. Currently, the ASI payroll is fewer than 50.

The company makes several varieties of glazed and breaded fish.

Billy Green, seafood manager at the New Sagaya Midtown Market, says his grocery store carries several ASI items.

''The customers like it. It's moving really well,'' he said.

But ASI isn't selling enough, and the company will run out of money in a year or less, Bell said, even though the state is collecting no rent.

The city wants more than $800,000 in property taxes, Bell notes.

He would not say how much operating cash ASI has left, but it potentially could get $300,000 more from the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, the state agency that owns the building and part of ASI itself.

In a company restructuring last year, the authority agreed to pay the seafood company five monthly installments of $100,000 each through June so long as the company sticks to its business plan. Only two of those payments have been made so far, said Ron Miller, the authority's executive director.

''We're working with them, hoping they can make a go of it,'' he said.

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