Lowell A. Wakefield.
From modest beginnings in 1945, Wakefield nurtured an Alaskan king crab venture that began as Deep Sea Trawlers and later became Wakefield Seafoods Inc., a leader in the fisheries industry. By 1955, his firm was producing 85 percent of the total king crab catch for the United States. And by the mid-1960s, the company boasted annual sales of $10 million from its top-quality king crab. An article in a 1965 issue of the Pacific Fisherman noted, Lowell Wakefield has contributed more to the growth and development of the United States king crab fishery than any other individual. "
Says Richard Pace, who worked for Wakefield for 10 years and is now president of Unisea Inc. in Seattle, Wakefield's greatest accomplishment was developing king crab as a white-tablecloth gourmet item. The Wakefield label is still known to seafood buyers... The name connotes quality, the tops, the best there is. "
In reality, king crab was not a new commodity. The Japanese had been canning king crab since 1892. Even several Alaskan companies, namely Arctic Packing Co. and Alaska Year Round Cannery in Seldovia, had dabbled with king crab packing in the 1920s.
Wakefield knew the market for king crab was there, too. After all, the United States had imported 7 million pounds of canned king crab from Japan and 2.7 million pounds from the Soviet Union in 1933, before the war halted production. The Wakefield family had canned several hundred cases of king crab during the war years at their herring plant at Port Wakefield on Raspberry Island, northeast of Kodiak.
Lowell was born to Lee - a Texas native well-known in the Pacific Coast salmon and herring industries - and Emma Wakefield in Anacortes, Wash., on Aug. 17, 1909. Though Lowell attended the University of Washington for undergraduate studies, then Columbia University, where he earned a master's degree in anthropology, he nevertheless followed in his father's footsteps. He journeyed to Alaska in 1938 to help at the Raspberry Island herring plant.
Lowell Wakefield saw the potential of the king crab market long before his competitors. A creative entrepreneur, he did not stick to the beaten path. For instance, he discovered that freezing was a much better way to lock in the sweet, succulent flavor of king crab meat than canning. With better, fresher tasting king crab, Wakefield figured he had an edge in the fisheries market.
Says son David, one of three children and a resident of Port Lions on Kodiak Island, "He was the pioneer in marketing frozen king crab.' He notes his father dealt with markets as far away as New York, Atlanta and Minneapolis. This wasn't an easy task, considering existing competitors such as lobster and Dungeness crab.
Ever the innovator, Wakefield also planned to have one ship catch, process and freeze king crab. In October 1945, he incorporated Deep Sea Trawlers in Washington state and began to seek and find financing, chiefly through business and family relations. In the late 1940s, the corporation issued 3,000 shares of common stock, which were quickly purchased (par value of $100 a share).
He launched his initial exploratory processing cruises for king crab aboard a converted dragger named the Bering Sea. Having tested procedures for king crab catching and processing, Wakefield then designed a new ship. For a pricetag of 400,000, Birchfield Boiler of Tacoma built Wakefield's 140-foot Deep Sea, a trawler capable of holding 420,000 pounds of frozen crab.
The early years for Deep Sea Trawlers were lean. By 1948, the firm had accumulated $432,000 in liabilities and its cash on hand amounted to a grand total of $14, according to Mansel Blackford's account of Wakefield Seafoods entitled Pioneering a Modern Small Business.
But strong-willed Wakefield was determined to keep the company afloat, and his colleagues and staff couldn't help but admire his relentlessness. His business acumen, together with his persuasive personality and more than an ounce of luck, helped turn the company around. By 1949, he reported a small profit at last.
Though Wakefield's persistence pushed the company through the hard times, he didn't follow Ivy League school of management techniques. He was known to those he worked with as a boss who wanted to run a "one-man show" and was reluctant to share both power and authority. Blackford writes in his book, "Wakefield was more of a freewheeling empire builder who ran his company by the seat of his pants. - Wakefield Seafood weathered ebbs and flows in the crab population, labor disputes, disagreements between management and the board of directors, strikes, changing technologies with the introduction of loran and radar, and even switching from nets to crab boxes during its 22-year existence. Ernie Glidden, a 17-year staffer who was the assistant general manager based in the company's Seattle office, considered Wakefield's "intestinal fortitude' to be one of his finest qualities.
Wakefield also was known as a "fair boss,' remember Glidden and Pace. "He was easy to deal with and he got along especially well with the fishermen,' says David Wakefield. -He depended upon them to bring the raw product into the cannery."
Among the professionals of Pacific Coast fishing industries, king crab fishing is acknowledged as one of the most dangerous professions. Fishermen contend with the cold, high winds and rough waters off the Aleutians and in the Bering Sea. During the winter of 1961-62, 13 king crab boats were lost at sea (luckily none of Wakefield's), battling winds of up to 137 knots.
Wakefield Seafoods enjoyed its profitable heyday from the 1950s through the early 1960s. Before the eventual sale of the firm, the business recorded sales of a little more than $9.5 million in 1967
Though Wakefield's company tried to increase its output of king crab through the years, it couldn't keep pace with the ever-increasing demand. Even with its navy of ships and on-shore processing plants in Sand Point, Seldovia an Port Wakefield, the company - with sales of more than $5 million only supplied one-third of the industry's total in 1963. Japan and the Soviet Union had joined Wakefield's many domestic rivals in the competitive industry.
At the same time Wakefield Seafoods was recovering from more than $100,000 damage sustained in the 1964 earthquake, the company's market share began to decline. Blackford reports the market rice of king crab fell from $1.42 per pound in mid-1963 to 1.23 in mid-1966. By the mid-1960s, shortly after the industry's competitors had enjoyed record catches of king crab, the king crab populations began to show signs of overfishing.
Though Wakefield, as president and major decisionmaker, seemed to be willing to persevere these setbacks, the board of directors began considering a merger with another company. From 1964 to 1968, Wakefield's company was courted by such notable corporations as H.J. Heinz, Gortons of Gloucester, Quaker Oats, Borden and WR Grace.
But it wasn't until the summer of 1968 that the company showed interest in a lucrative offer from the Norton Simon conglomerate. Hunt-Wesson Inc., a subsidiary of Norton Simon, wanted to enter the frozen foods market. By October of that year, the Wakefield Seafood stockholders had voted overwhelmingly for the merger. Conditions of the merger included a three-year job guarantee for all of Wakefield Seafoods' key people, including Wakefield himself.
After retiring from the seafood business in the early 1970s, Wakefield devoted much of his time to formulating fisheries legislation, fishing regulations for Alaska and the high seas and conservation measures to protect the king crab. A long-time member of the International North Pacific Fisheries Commission, he became an advisor to the State Department on dealings with Japan and the Soviet Union. He also was instrumental in negotiations for the United Nations Law of the Sea Treaty. His many contributions to the fisheries industry were publicly recognized when the National Fisheries Institute named Wakefield Man of the Year' in 1974.
Though illness took him back to Washington before his death in 1977, Wakefield never severed his ties to Alaska. "He was registered to vote in Alaska," says David Wakefield. In fact, he would fly up to Alaska to vote in an election when he could or he'd vote by absentee ballot. " This was the same bond that led Wakefield to move company headquarters from Seattle to Port Wakefield right after Alaska became the 49th state in 1959.
Wakefield will long be remembered for his pioneering spirit and many contributions to the fishing industry. "He was a good thinker," says Pace, who recalls that "good thinking" was a unifying bond among Wakefield's managers. He had about 10 first lieutenants who eventually became presidents or executive presidents in the industry. He left quite a legacy."
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|Publication:||Alaska Business Monthly|
|Date:||Jan 1, 1990|
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