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One on One: Ray Riutta

Executive director, Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute

Ray Riutta
Joanne Friedrick
August 01, 2005

For Ray Riutta, being at the helm of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute is not that different from being a top officer in the U.S. Coast Guard, his prior career for 34 years.

“We never have enough money to do what people want us to do, and we have a significant amount of oversight by our board,” observes Riutta, ASMI’s executive director for the past three years.

He retired from the military in June 2002 and that August took over from Barbara Belknap, who had held the position for five years.

ASMI, with a budget of approximately $12.5 million, is charged with promoting the superior quality of Alaska seafood as well as building increased consumption of Alaska seafood products at retail and foodservice outlets worldwide.

While Riutta comes from a family of Oregon salmon fishermen, he spent most of his working life in the Coast Guard. He served as one of the top four officers in the U.S. Coast Guard and, before moving to Alaska in June 2002, was based in Alameda, Calif. He served with the Coast Guard in Vietnam, lived in London, and during his Coast Guard career, commanded four ships, including the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Ironwood in Kodiak, Alaska, and served on two others.

Before joining ASMI, Riutta was familiar with Alaska through his stint in the 17th Coast Guard District from 1995 to 1997. He was also no stranger to seafood, having served two terms on the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council.

Riutta recently spoke about what he has brought to ASMI and how the organization continues to evolve while addressing its mission of promoting Alaska seafood.

Friedrick: You spent more than three decades in the Coast Guard: How has that experience benefited your position at ASMI?

Riutta: There are a lot of things that translate. Spending 34 years in the Coast Guard, I learned to be patient, to listen and to react quickly when problems arise. You also have to answer to a series of constituencies. It’s not much different.

What were your initial goals when you took on the executive director post?

I didn’t come to Alaska for this job, I came to Alaska because I wanted to live in Alaska, so I didn’t know a lot about ASMI and had to do some quick study to find out what was going on.

My goals were to secure support from major industry members, speaking to each one, finding out what they liked and didn’t like. [I wanted to] manage change without totally disrupting the function of the organization. I was also learning about the seafood industry itself and marketing seafood. I knew about it from a regulatory standpoint, but not the inner workings from a marketing standpoint.

Has the reduction in the size of the board of directors had the impact that you expected?

We went from 25 members to seven. It impacted in several ways — it streamlined the decision-making process and brought decision makers back to the board. We didn’t have CEOs on the previous board. Now we have decision makers at the table. We can make some quick and significant changes in the way we do business and respond to challenges that come our way.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

I enjoy the industry and people I get to work with here. I enjoy the industry leaders and the fishermen on the dock. It makes coming to work every day fun, because you work with people you respect and like.

Is there anything you would change if you could?

There is a lot more politics than I expected. You have to respond to so many political constituencies. But it comes with the job, and it’s nothing I haven’t done before. I was just a little surprised by the political interest, although in hindsight I should have appreciated it a little more, because seafood is the second-largest employer in the state. So people are interested in what we are doing with the marketing dollars. [The politics] was a surprise, I guess, but not a shock.

How has the opening of additional rivers to salmon fishing, such as the Taku and the Stikine, impacted the marketing of Alaska salmon?

A lot of the new ones coming onboard [salmon from specific rivers] are relatively new and haven’t been marketed heavily, but they provide an opportunity for a fish with a story. Copper River has its cachet. The [salmon from] Taku, Stikine and Yukon all have their own stories. They are all great fish. Will the newer river runs hit the same cachet? I doubt it. The first one gets the lion’s share of the business. But that will play out with the new runs. It took well over a decade for Copper River to get established. It takes time to build a brand name. While we aren’t allowed to market by region at ASMI, it does give you some sort of unique cachet to have fish from this or that river. But it is all marketed as wild Alaskan salmon.

How do you balance marketing efforts aimed at the U.S. market, Europe and elsewhere?

We go through that very carefully and thoroughly with our board. We have different species committees, retail, foodservice and exports. We try to reach a balance with how much we spend overseas, in America and on different species. Those are constant questions we pose to our board. It’s a balance, it’s a tough balance and one that comes to us continually. It’s just like how much do you spend on foodservice versus retail? It’s a constant discussion. We review that each year, and I think most people are satisfied that we have our funds distributed as fairly as we can.

What specific programs aimed at U.S. foodservice and retail industries have been most successful?

In the domestic programs, our biggest success at retail is our “Cook It Frozen” program. The goal is to reduce the stigma that frozen isn’t as good as fresh. We’ve been very successful. Companies that have worked with the program have seen significant sales. At foodservice, a survey of the top 500 restaurant chains showed Alaska seafood is the No. 2 brand. That is a big one for us. A recent example is PF Chang’s; they are menuing Alaska salmon and black cod on a regular basis. Those are permanent menu items.

How has the state government’s creation of regional seafood-development associations impacted ASMI?

There are only two (RSDAs) so far and a third getting ready to incorporate. They are just getting started. They make things a little more complex in terms of marketing, but we are working with them. We have a regional coordinator who is dedicated to working with them. I look at them as members of our Alaska-seafood family of brands. And they aren’t being funded by the same funds we’re getting, so I don’t see them as competition.

What is ASMI’s funding outlook these days, both from participating companies and government resources?

Funding is always an issue. Right now it is looking solid. We have a good budget and have good funding from the industry and from the grant side. Going forward, funding from the industry is solid. If the value of seafood goes up, we’ll get more. Everyone knows the problems with federal budgets, and anyone who relies on grants is concerned.

What is your long-range vision for ASMI and what steps do you or the organization need to take to achieve this vision?

First of all, we want to make sure the Alaska seafood brand is the best known and most respected in the world. For us to do that we need to be seen as a profit center by our industry. We need to strengthen our alignment with industry marketing efforts. We want a good return on value on their spending. We can be a source of consolidated services for the industry. We also want to continue quality improvement. We are doing well now, and will do better all the time to ensure our industry understands the place of the Alaska seafood family of brands.

August 2005 - SeaFood Business 

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