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Can canned tuna giant Bumble Bee recover from bankruptcy and scandal?

By Brittany Meiling, The San Diego Union-Tribune on

Published in Business News

SAN DIEGO - Bumble Bee Seafoods, the 120-year-old canned tuna giant, is trying to make tinned fish cool again.

With viral YouTube ads, a trendy campaign targeted toward millennials and Gen Z, and a worldwide pandemic that skyrocketed the sale of canned goods, they have a few good things going for them. But the company - shaken by bankruptcy and industry scandal that landed its former CEO in prison - has a long way to go before it can claim a complete turnaround.

Earlier this year, Bumble Bee's longtime CEO Christopher Lischewski was sentenced to three years in prison for his lead role in a lengthy conspiracy to fix the price of canned tuna. As one of three major tuna companies, Bumble Bee's CEO was found guilty of manipulating prices in cahoots with Starkist and Chicken of the Sea. Last November, the company filed bankruptcy due to significant legal challenges and sold its assets to Taiwan-based FCF Co. for $925 million.

Since then, the company has retained its corporate headquarters in San Diego, and worked to revive itself from the depths of the scandal.

When Lischewski was taken from the helm, the company appointed the always-smiling executive Jan Tharp as its new CEO. With 30 years of experience in the industry and a fresh take on where the brand should head, Tharp has attempted a radical transformation at Bumble Bee.

Canned tuna, along with Bumble Bee itself, needed a complete overhaul. With fewer homemade lunches and a critical eye toward the fishing industry at large, consumers were turning away from canned seafood.

 

Now, under Tharp's leadership, Bumble Bee is shedding its grandpappy identity, and embracing the values (and eating preferences) of younger generations. Tharp answered questions from the Union-Tribune about what's changing at Bumble Bee. (Answers have been edited for length and clarity.)

Q: Let's start with some history. Who was eating canned tuna in the recent past, and what's changing now?

A: When I was a child, my mom still made lunch and I took it in a brown bag to school. We had tuna pretty much every week, especially on Fridays. But as you morph into different generations, the world changed. If COVID wasn't happening right now, I could walk out of this building and eat lunch for $5 to $10 at probably 20 different quick-serve restaurants. People aren't taking their lunch to work. Historically, canned tuna has been a lunch occasion. So when the packing of somebody's lunch went away and was replaced with fast food and quick-serve, people stopped buying canned seafood. It becomes more of a pantry filler than anything else.

About two years ago when the company - the whole industry, really - was going through a bit of turbulence, we had an opportunity to reinvent ourselves. And we needed to anyway. If you looked at shelf-stable seafood, it was a tired category. It's been around for a long time and there hadn't been a lot of innovation. You could see that when you walked down the center of a grocery store. There wasn't a whole lot of excitement.

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