Early riser in the marketing division
Yutaka Albert Akasof, HB Grandi’s sales director with responsibility for the company’s Asian markets, is at his desk at around 4.30, dealing with business contacts in Japan and elsewhere. The reason for his odd working hours is simple enough: there is a nine hour difference between Icelandic and Japanese time zones, and the most practical way for Akasof, as he is known, to stay in touch with buyers in his home country is to arrange his office hours to fit around the working day in Japan. He is awake long before anyone else to make the best use of the early morning hours.
We spoke to Akasof about his work and the market situation in Japan, but began with a few words about his background and his links with Iceland.
Yutaka Albert Akasof is 62 years old, born on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. He tells us he is a country boy, brought up in a mountain region in the north of the island.
‘I was 13 the first time I saw the sea and it never occurred to me that I would spend most of my working life dealing with fisheries and seafoods,’ he said, adding that the atmosphere in Hokkaido is not that far removed from what we see now in Iceland. The winters are colder, but the summer temperatures are very similar to those of Iceland.
Akasof studied Germanic and Anglo-Saxon at universities in Tokyo and found at an early age that he had a strong interest in languages and the customs of other countries, all of which contributed to bringing him to Iceland.
‘I had been in Europe for some time as part of my studies and wanted to know more about the history of the Norsemen. I came first to Iceland in 1973 and got a job at the Ísbjörn factory that was later amalgamated with Bæjarútgerd Reykjavíkur to become Grandi, and later HB Grandi.’
Akasof returned to Japan in 1975 and was quickly taken on by a newly established company that was partly in Icelandic ownership and which was selling fish, mainly capelin, from Iceland. He explained that Japanese consumers began buying large amounts of Icelandic capelin in the 1970s, and added that there is a story behind how this began.
‘What happened was that the Honorary Icelandic Consul in Japan came to Iceland on a visit and by coincidence he tasted some capelin while he was here. In Japan we have a very similar fish called shishamo, which is a popular product, but the Honorary Consul’s lucky tasting of capelin led to a decision to send a tonne of frozen Icelandic capelin to Japan. This was what started off a very successful business partnership in trading seafood between the two countries,’ he said, and commented that Icelandic capelin is often sold in Japan under the shishamo name.
Back to Iceland
1977 found Akasof in Iceland again, this time as a fisheries technical consultant. From 1991 to 1995 he was quality control manager at the Fáfnir fish production plant in Dýrafjördur. Then he worked in Rotterdam and London where he was involved in seafood sales until 2000, after which he also managed a fish sales company in Denmark.
‘I came back to Iceland in 2004 and joined Grandi’s marketing division. A month afterwards, Grandi and Haraldur Bödvarsson merged to form HB Grandi,’ says Akasof, who is now responsible for HB Grandi’s sales to Asia.
‘To begin with, we sold large extent through third parties, but in 2005 we began selling ourselves under our own brand name, and now everything is sold directly under the HB Grandi name.’
Frozen capelin roe is bestseller
Of the products we sell to Asia capelin roe and deep sea redfish are the most important items, and this is sold primarily to Japan. There are also sales of frozen capelin, and Greenland halibut, although sales of these have diminished and this can be attributed directly to smaller quotas.
‘It can take two months to transport products from Iceland to Japan. It’s a sensitive market and the competition is strong. That’s the way it is with deep sea redfish, for example. Icelandic deep sea redfish is competing with Russian, Norwegian and other producers on the Japanese market. Those who intend to be successful must make every effort to maximise quality and freshness – and this is crucial. The Japanese are the world’s biggest fish consumers and also largest importers of seafood, so consumers have high expectations from the seafood they buy. If we are speaking about deep sea redfish, the fish has to be the right shade of red. The fish needs to have been headed properly and any other blemishes have to be minimal. It has been said that the Japanese eat with their eyes as well as their mouths, and there’s an element of truth in that. Products really have to look good as well as meeting every demand for quality and freshness.’
Only deep sea redfish
In the past there have been exports of headed and gutted golden redfish to Japan, but Akasof says that for the last twenty years, the Japanese market has demanded only frozen deep sea redfish from Iceland and other countries.
‘Japan wants deep sea redfish, Sebastes mentella, which includes the deep sea redfish that the Icelandic fleet catches. We at HB Grandi are making efforts to change this, which is something that could take a good deal of time and work. Personally, I find the golden redfish, Sebastes marinus, to be better eating than the deep sea variety. I don’t believe that Japanese consumers would have a problem in buying golden instead of deep sea redfish. Redfish is primarily for home consumption and our marketing is directed principally at purchasers for the main supermarkets, as these are the decision makers.’
He commented that HB Grandi has many customers in Japan, from the largest seafood companies to smaller businesses. But what is the Japanese market situation now?
‘The market has in price terms been fairly steady, but now prices have lowered as it seems that consumer spending power is less than it has often been in the past. Consumers are highly price aware and the market is sensitive to price changes. We could sell more products to Japan than we do at present, but there aren’t any simple solutions here. Quota restrictions here have reduced availability, competition with fish from other countries is strong and much of what could be sold to Japan is in demand from our European customers. It’s the price at the time that decides where we sell our products,’ Akasof said, adding that to demonstrate how things have changed, Japanese imports of redfish in 2003 came to 42,000 tonnes at an average price of 228 yen (cif) per kilo. Of this, 16,000 tonnes were of Icelandic origin and the average price for Icelandic redfish was 215 yen. Last year (2007), 25,000 tonnes were imported by Japan at an average price of 361 yen, of which 7400 tonnes came from Icelandic producers, fetching an average price of 417 yen.
Exports elsewhere in Asia
‘The main products we sell to China are frozen Greenland halibut heads and tails, which fetch a high price. We also sell seafrozen golden redfish and wholefrozen small haddock. Korea buys mainly frozen capelin roe. We also have a good market in Taiwan for the largest grades of Greenland halibut at 3kg and over. We can say that there’s certainly a need for a larger Greenland halibut quota, but the state of the stock will have to dictate this. In the same way, we could definitely make use of more capelin quota,’ Yutaka Albert Akasof commented.