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Networking: Phil Gibson
Senior VP, Encore Associates, San Ramon, Calif.
By James Wright
May 05, 2013
Phil Gibson knows the seafood supply chain from one end to the other. Born in Seattle but raised in Juneau, Alaska, Gibson did a lot of fishing in his youth, working as a deckhand on a power trawler, a longline halibut boat and a sockeye salmon gillnetter. He was also a meat cutter at Super Bear Supermarkets as a teenager, years before embarking on a long career in seafood at supermarket chain Safeway, the third-largest U.S. supermarket chain. Over the course of 22 years, Gibson’s leadership in the seafood category pushed the chain ahead of the pack in terms of environmental awareness: Seafood Choices Alliance named him a Seafood Champion in 2011, an honor he calls “humbling.”
As group director of corporate seafood for Safeway from 2006 to 2013, Gibson was responsible for the financial management, promotional planning and sales strategy for more than 1,000 stores. He oversaw an office of 13 people with liaison to more than 100 field personnel. Now, as senior VP of Encore Associates in San Ramon, Calif., he will put all his knowledge to use as a consultant to ambitious seafood suppliers and retailers hoping to make sense of sustainable seafood sourcing policies and interactions with non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Gibson, 61, whose first name is actually Bryan, is father to five and grandfather to six. The slightly slower pace at his new gig (“juggling two to three balls at a time, instead of six or seven”) allows him to spend more time with them.
What accomplishments during your time at Safeway are you proudest of?
First would be the development of the Waterfront Bistro private-label line that I brainstormed, developed and made into a $100 million business. There’s no national seafood brand, so we took advantage by developing an in-house brand and putting a wide range of products under the label with vendor partners like Trident Seafoods, Lusamerica and Aqua Star. And in the shrimp line, we had a deep relationship with Eastern Fish Co., Red Chamber and Chicken of the Sea.
Also, I’d say the development and implementation of the sustainable seafood policy. It took a number of years; I started down the path in 2007. We thought we could internally develop a good policy, but found out in short order that was not true. In 2010 I formed a partnership with FishWise in Santa Cruz. The reason we chose them was they didn’t have an eco-label and they were really trying to improve the performance of sustainable sourcing. No agenda, per se, except they used the red-yellow-green system of the Seafood Watch program as a guide. Their bent is to improve fisheries broadly and not punish fisheries that aren’t quite there yet. Philosophically, that’s how the supply side of the industry feels.
Do NGOs compete for retailers’ consulting business?
It is very competitive. The problem with that whole business is the various NGOs are not so much competing with each other but for the people who fund them — Pew Charitable Trusts, David Suzuki. Whatever the agenda of the foundation they’re trying to get funding from, that’s what they’re keying off in their message to suppliers. They have to have the same philosophy. World Wildlife Fund, SeaChoice and even FishWise get a majority of their funds from these foundations. It behooves them to be effective at pushing their agenda forward. In full disclosure, I’m working with FishWise as an advisor to help them expand their work.
What does your role at Encore entail?
A lot of what Encore does is brokerage and category management. My role is on the consulting side, working with suppliers to build their own internal sustainability programs, helping them to make sense of it. They have to supply products to a range of companies, and those companies have NGO partners that are pushing them in one direction or another. Consequently, the supplier is trying to please a range of people with conflicting programs. I’ve got a couple of companies I’m working with now that want me to organize, internally, their sourcing program to say confidently, “This is what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and that it’s getting done the right way.”