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One On One: Ewell Smith

Executive director, LSPMB

Ewell Smith
Fiona Robinson
February 01, 2005

The decision to switch from timber to seafood was an easy one for Ewell Smith. He left a marketing position with the Southern Forest Products Association and joined the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board in 2001 as its executive director.

A native of New Orleans, Smith has a passion for seafood and was instinctively drawn to the marketing board when the position opened up.

Since accepting the job, he and his staff of four full-time employees in New Orleans have put the state’s seafood bounty in the national spotlight. The LSPMB recently won an Emmy for its Sugar Bowl Countdown pre-game show, which aired live on Jan. 2, 2004.

A notice about the Emmy was one of the first news items in the seafood board’s online newsletter that debuted in January. The first e-mail went to 540 industry, press and political representatives locally and nationwide, and Smith plans to build on that number.

Smith and the rest of the board have garnered media attention for the state’s seafood industry over the past few years through press coverage of the annual Acme World Oyster Eating Championship, which the marketing board co-sponsors. Sonya Thomas, the 2004 World Oyster Eating champion, was a guest on Jay Leno’s late-night talk show on Dec. 14, 2004. The 2003 oyster champion, Crazy Legs Conti, was a guest on daytime television talk show “The View” on Dec. 29.

The group’s most recent campaign addresses common misconceptions about the health risks associated with eating raw, untreated oysters (see December 2004 Newsline, page 10). The campaign features a collection of musical parodies, including “Fifty Ways to Eat Your Oysters.”

The music connection was easy for Smith, a singer/songwriter whose first CD is titled “AMDG: Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam,” the Latin translation of “to the greater glory of God.”

I spoke with Smith in mid-December while he was preparing to leave the office for a much-needed holiday vacation.

Robinson: What was it like going from the timber to the seafood industry?
Smith:
I didn’t have political experience coming in, so I got a crash course in politics. My second week on the job, I was in Washington with the oyster guys.

I came from an industry that was slow to change. This board is very forward thinking and has embraced almost every idea we’ve presented to them. [The board] is very open-minded and fantastic to work with, which [has made possible] some of the successes we’ve had.

Who is on the seafood promotions board?

We have 14 to 15 board members, including fishermen, processors from the crab, shrimp and crawfish industries, a home economist, people in the restaurant industry and someone from wildlife and fisheries. We have a cross-segment of the industry.

Different industries suggest names to me, and the [Louisiana] governor makes final selection.

What does a typical day on the job entail for you?
There is no typical day. When I walk in the door I usually know what I’m going to do, but then it changes in the first hour. It could be dealing with a crab or shrimp issue. Lately it’s been oyster issues. Every day is truly dynamic and a learning experience.

We represent an industry and the livelihoods of thousands of people. Until you start meeting the people, you don’t really know how important it is.

One thing that makes our state so great is our [seafood] industry. [The people who supply our seafood] grew up wanting to be fishermen. It’s not hard to get passionate about that — it drives you.

There’s something special when you wake up at 3 a.m. with a marketing idea. I never dread a day at work here.

What promotion is the board working on now?

The first is Wild American Shrimp. There are a few brands and food manufacturers that are looking at using the logo. We have a $200,000 budget for that marketing, and another $200,00 for the domestic shrimp-quality-certification program.

Those will be good opportunities. There is a lot of interest from the restaurants [who want to use the WAS logo]. Once we get it off the ground in a few months it will be well accepted.

Bon Crevette is another campaign that will start again in May for the brown shrimp season. If you’re here in Louisiana and it’s shrimp season, people celebrate Bon Crevette all season long. People do shrimp boils; restaurants do, too.

Shrimp is so popular, it’s almost lost some uniqueness. It’s more of a cultural campaign, and [a celebration of the] heritage of Louisiana.

The Department of Tourism will use it as a marketing hook to get tourists to Louisiana. Our shrimp season is strong from May through August, which is when tourism dips. All of sudden we’ve given the tourism industry a reason to embrace the program.

What is the biggest challenge the board faces?
Change. There have been big, massive changes because of the global marketplace. We have to be willing to change to be successful. When you have a culture that has done the same thing for 100 years, it’s not easy. Making different sectors of the industry understand that we need to change to do business is hard.

We also need to preserve our heritage but change and adapt to the global marketplace.

Fishermen are used to competing just with other states. The shrimp issue has brought that to a head. It’s too much change too fast for them.

I feel like traction has been gained on that in the past six months, and things are moving forward. The shrimpers realize the value of marketing. They are starting to understand that they can’t compete on price against imports. The only way to compete is to leverage our domestic advantages of taste and quality and truly niche market the product in ways we haven’t tried before, such as tying into the Wild American Shrimp program.

What do you like best about working at the LSPMB?
I’m a marketing person, and I love the marketing and creativity this industry allows. It’s so dynamic. It’s never boring.

I can get very passionate about it. I’ve made some great friends, and the people are the greatest you’ll ever meet. It’s not just a
job.

If the marketing board had an unlimited budget, what would be on your wish list?

I’d put POS materials in every seafood outlet. I’d be obnoxious with it and have one heck of an ad campaign.

I’d love to do some national programs with advertising. That’s something we could tap into with the tourism industry. If you really have time, I can come up with some crazy ideas.

Your escape from reality is music. Do any of the songs on your first CD have references to seafood?
Not on this CD. Maybe my next CD will. I am working on a song for our domestic industry right now.

What was the best piece of advice you’ve ever received about cooking seafood?

Unfortunately, I am not a cook.  I just grilled oysters for the first time, and that was easy to do. They came out great. That I can tell you about. I actually served them up in a restaurant in South Carolina while I was on vacation. I need to take some cooking lessons.

February 2005 - SeaFood Business


 

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