Jan Tharp began her career in consumer packaged goods nearly 30 years ago as a packaging engineer. She joined the San Diego-based Bumble Bee Seafood Co. as SVP of operations a decade ago and was named COO in October 2012. Tharp was subsequently elevated to the role of CEO in May 2018 amid a series of legal issues that led to a bankruptcy filing last fall, followed by an acquisition of the company earlier this year by longtime supplier partner FCF.
With a tumultuous period behind Bumble Bee and a new, supportive owner, Tharp has successfully navigated choppy waters to rally her team to focus on product innovation, sustainability and creating a new generation of seafood lovers.
Progressive Grocer: Bumble Bee was just putting past difficulties behind it when COVID-19 emerged to spark a new set of challenges. How was Bumble Bee affected by the outbreak, and where do things stand today?
Jan Tharp: There is so much uncertainty in the world right now, and we know people are counting on the food industry to come through. Because of the industry we are in, we’ve had to become a very agile and adaptable organization over the years, and we’ve been able to apply those learnings and best practices to navigate our company through the pandemic.
No matter what, we’re taking our role and responsibility very seriously, and the health and safety of our employees and community will always be our top priority. From moving to a work-from-home environment in 48 hours to immediately protecting our factory team members with proper PPE [personal protective equipment] and protectionary health and safety policies like bonus pay, vacation benefits and periodic meals, to a product donation valued at over $1 million dollars to communities where we operate, I am so proud of our team and their commitment to putting people first in everything we do.
Because of that commitment to the health and wellness of our team members, we can and will keep our operations up and running to meet demand, and ensure consumers have safe, versatile, great-tasting sources of protein available to them.
PG: How did the Bumble Bee supply chain hold up to the unprecedented surge in demand retailers saw during March and April? Were you able to keep the pipeline filled?
JT: We absolutely have seen a spike in demand — some of our product lines saw an increase of 100% or more in March alone. We had to temporarily pause production of many of our SKUs to ensure that we could keep our most popular products on store shelves, but despite the surges in demand, we’ve been in business for more than a century and have deep experience and expertise in supply chain management. We’ve been in constant and consistent communication with both our suppliers and customers, and we’re making good progress in returning towards a more normal demand/supply balance.
PG: Before we get into Bumble Bee’s strategy and new sustainability commitments, are you able to spend time on fishing vessels, and have you ever caught a tuna?
JT: I have been aboard several purse seiners and a few long liners while in port for offloading in American Samoa, Blacks Harbour, Fiji and Mauritius. The captains and crew aboard these vessels are amazing people who love the ocean and dedicate their time and energy to responsibly harvest fish around the globe. It is an extremely difficult occupation to be in search of highly migratory fish while fighting against many forces of nature. I have caught a tuna off the coast of Levuka, Fiji, in a small motor craft. I don’t have any of the amazing skills required to be a commercial fisher. I must also confess that I was not able to remove the fish from the line without assistance. I would love to say I caught a 25-kilogram fish, but that would be a true fish tale.
PG: Bumble Bee’s mission is to create a new generation of seafood lovers. How is that strategy coming to life?
JT: We’re excited about the bold moves that Bumble Bee is making as our company moves into 2020 and beyond. Our company has developed a transformational strategy with a focus on growth and innovation. With a re-established “North Star” purpose and vision, and redefined values and guiding principles, we’re focused wholeheartedly on people, product and planet.
PG: How does a company like Bumble Bee balance the business objectives of increasing consumption with the need to maintain fishery health?
JT: Our company is committed to protecting the planet, which starts by nurturing and fighting for the health of our oceans. With that said, ocean health directly relates to our business, which is extracting from the sea. For over 120 years, Bumble Bee has offered consumers healthy, lean, protein-packed products from wild-caught fisheries — fisheries that we continue to actively manage and protect, since they are the foundation of our product lines, and will be for generations to come.
However, we recognize that wild-capture fisheries alone won’t be able to deliver enough seafood protein to meet growing demand and to feed a global population of 10 billion by 2050, so we need to find alternative ways to nurture the oceans and their ecosystems. For us, that means redefining how people think about, source, produce and consume seafood, with the goal of minimizing impact on fish and the planet, while influencing others to do the same.
PG: What prompted you to become so passionate about ocean health?
JT: The ocean is our livelihood. It regulates our climate, produces over half of the world’s oxygen and provides an abundance of protein to feed families around the globe. Most importantly, there is only one ocean. Protecting this beautiful resource is critical in protecting our existence here on this planet. From a business perspective, the ocean is inextricably linked to our supply chain, and fighting for ocean health is a vital part of our business strategy, both today and for generations to come. We know that as the global population grows, the demands on our limited natural resources will increase. Initiatives to protect the ocean from overfishing, foreign contaminants and other environmental impacts benefit all humanity. We have a moral obligation to do everything in our power to ensure this precious resource is healthy and the net effect of our business on the ocean is positive.
PG: Please elaborate on the major new sustainability commitments Bumble Bee announced in June.
JT: Our sustainability journey at Bumble Bee started many years ago as a founding member of the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation, a partnership of scientists, seafood industry players and environmental groups that researches, shares and advocates for best practices and policies in sustainable fishing. Today, we’re accelerating our actions for the planet and the billions of people who rely on seafood for sustenance.
From our partnerships with FCF and Ocean Outcomes to invest in a first-of-its-kind fishery improvement project in the Indian Ocean, to extending our collaboration with the Ghost Gear Initiative to find and collect abandoned fishing equipment, to enabling blockchain technology to track our fish from ocean to plate, to eliminating plastic shrink on our multipacks so our packaging will be close to 96% recyclable, we’re focused on advocating for sustainable fishing while fighting for the health of our oceans.
PG: What sort of goals have you set?
JT: Looking ahead, we’re setting big goals for the future and are building flexibility and accountability into our plans. By 2022, our goal is for 100% of our light tuna to come from Marine Stewardship Council (MSC)-certified fisheries, and by 2023, to have all our longline albacore come from a credible fishery improvement project. By 2025, we want 98% of our packaging to be recyclable.
And over the next five years, we’re investing $40 million into an accelerator fund to continue closing the gap on some of our biggest sustainability challenges. This is an initiative I’m proud to drive and track closely so our team can pursue new ideas, partners and technologies. We are excited to try new things and establish our commitments to sustainability, adapting as we go for maximum impact.
PG: Was this commitment to sustainability a factor in Bumble Bee’s decision to enter into an agreement with plant-based seafood provider Gathered Foods?
JT: We’re on a quest to do better when it comes to seafood and the oceans that inspire it, and our recent partnership with Gathered Foods, makers of Good Catch, lives that truth. We’re the first and only major seafood company to get into the plant-based business, and we couldn’t be more excited to play a lead role in accelerating the accessibility of plant-based seafood for consumers around the globe. It’s a bold move, both for us as a company and as we continue to prioritize the health of our oceans in our long-term commitment to sustainability.
PG: Are Americans ready for plant-based seafood? How is the taste and texture?
JT: We think so!
Gathered Foods’ Good Catch has an innovative lineup of plant-based tuna that consumers are loving — the taste and texture are spot-on, and it provides another option to enjoy great-tasting, healthy seafood.
Good Catch is also in a unique position to satisfy the growing consumer appetite for plant-based seafood, and now they have a partner to boost their ability to meet the ever-growing demand and increase availability in local grocery aisles. It’s a win for Bumble Bee, Good Catch, consumers and the health of our oceans.
PG: Bumble Bee is an iconic brand in the sense that it has been around a long time, but what does your research tell you about how consumers perceive the brand?
JT: The brand has a very healthy reputation. It’s viewed as a high-quality and trusted brand. The challenges we face are really category challenges. Until recently, the category has stopped reminding consumers of all of the incredible attributes of seafood and shelf-stable seafood. Our job is to not only remind consumers of that, but develop products that are relevant to their taste profiles and how they are preparing and consuming foods to go.
PG: Many retailers have aggressive plans to grow their own brands. What makes Bumble Bee an essential brand important to driving category growth?
JT: Bumble Bee is in a unique position to drive category growth with our collection of ocean-inspired brands. As we lean into consumer insights to accelerate growth and innovation, we’re focused on our mission to create a new generation of seafood lovers by delivering delicious, healthy, sustainable seafood options in fresh new ways that continue to set Bumble Bee apart.
PG: Let’s look ahead. You’ve been in the CPG industry for nearly 30 years and seen a lot of change. You’ve also seen, and helped drive, a lot of change at Bumble Bee for the past 10 years. Talk about the change you see coming in the next five to 10 years regarding consumer behavior, national brands and retail overall.
JT: Consumer behavior over the next five to 10 years will continue to change, and the velocity of change will happen at unprecedented speed. The recent COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the use of e-commerce across the globe, and consumers will now incorporate click-and-collect food purchases into their routines on a much more frequent basis going forward. E-commerce has many implications for CPG, from supply chain considerations, to decisions and changes around packaging structure and graphics, to how products are marketed online versus a brick-and-mortar format. The rise in e-commerce will also have a lasting impact on retail, forcing changes in store size and layout, assortment, and their consumer marketing strategies.
National brands with robust but agile supply chains and solid food safety protocols have an opportunity going forward in this new normal as consumers look to brands they trust with product consistency, quality and food safety. National brands will need to ensure they stay relevant by meeting their consumers’ needs, and that their products are accessible in the channels consumers are now shopping.
PG: What do you consider to be the greatest opportunities for the next generation of future women industry leaders?
JT: There are so many opportunities for women leaders of the future. As the world around us changes at record pace, it creates opportunities to think about business differently. Anyone can be a great leader; it is a skillset we learn by watching, listening, and trial and error. Great companies are formed by great people, and focusing on people will always create significant opportunities. Leaders who can create environments where team members are encouraged to take calculated risks, and failures are used to learn and grow, where diversity in thought and perspective is welcomed and rewarded, will create significant opportunity to not only have better business results, but stronger future leaders. Everyone has unlimited potential; the challenge of leadership is getting people to see that most barriers are self-imposed.
PG: How did you achieve your level of success, considering the gender gap in the CPG sector, especially among leadership?
JT: I have been very fortunate in my career. I have had opportunities to lead through extremely challenging situations in different companies and in various roles. With each challenge, I have grown as a person and a leader. I have also been very fortunate to be surrounded by team members who are exceptionally talented, driven and collaborative. I believe in servant leadership and the listen-and-learn model. Any success I may have is clearly built upon and shared with all the wonderful team members I have been surrounded by throughout the years.
PG: Let’s end on this: When guests visit the Tharp household, what is your go-to seafood recipe?
JT: I make an incredible tuna salad using a combination of our albacore canned tuna and our yellowfin canned tuna in olive oil. The oil holds the recipe together, so mayonnaise isn’t required. I use chopped jalapeños, avocado, red onion, fresh cilantro, dried cranberries, chickpeas, celery and pumpkin seeds. I eat it for breakfast, lunch, a snack or for dinner, and oftentimes do, but not everyone in my household thinks tuna is a breakfast food. That is still a work in process!