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Stewart Lamont: ‘We’re in the relationship business – we sell lobster on the side’

Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

Stewart Lamont, 62, managing director of Tangier Lobster Co. and founder of the Lobster Council of Canada, represents the lobster sector in the Nova Scotia Seafood Alliance.

I was born in Halifax to two school teachers, so education was sacrosanct. I did a bachelor's degree at Dalhousie University, went to law school, then did a masters in public administration – but my goal was journalism. I'd been accepted at Columbia School of Journalism. An editor friend said, "If you can write, you can write effectively now; if you can't, 17 degrees aren't going to help."

Law wasn't like I thought. I'm more interested in philosophical issues, love public policy, love the big picture – law school was minute detail. I enjoyed it and the background it gave me but the practice of law wasn't for me. I then, briefly, was a legislative assistant for a federal minister, hired because I was allegedly bilingual. There's very little occasion to speak French now, so I only dare after a couple of glasses of wine.

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My cousin, a friend and my mentor, had a lobster export business. He recruited me in 1981 saying we'd work six months with six months off; I could do the two things I wanted – travel and write. It sounded superb. I didn't want to go into the real world anyway. We'd operate six months, shut down, come back six months later. Increasingly, clients would give us a blast – "where were you in February when we needed a good lobster?" We decided we had to run year-round.

We're in the relationship business – we sell lobster on the side. That's my value system.

I used to be a loner. When I started, I thought we could do this on our own if we worked hard enough. I quickly learned that wasn't a mature approach, so we develop relationships where it's not about the sale, but a long-term relationship – how we can add value to clients and our business model.

It's absolutely critical for us that a sustainable market has the right relationship. If we don't, everything else will probably fall apart. We see more visitors in my village of 167 people, on our turf. We can show exactly what we offer. We have a gazebo by the ocean; we've done more good business in that gazebo than anywhere.

I went from running our company to being a sector spokesperson because nobody else wants to be. The council brings all stakeholders to the table. Lobster is Canada's most valuable seafood export: 75 countries for close to $1-billion in 2016. The assumption is the vast bulk goes to America. It's still a huge market. The growth is Asia, all over the Pacific Rim. Now the Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement has zero tariffs on live lobster, so it should be a platform for more sales.

Lobster prices are transparent. I can't find out what (a store) paid for a washer they're selling me, but anyone can find out what's paid for lobster. Harvesters are anxious to know what we're getting. From McDonald's McLobster – $6.49, no longer on the menu – to Bellagio Hotel (Las Vegas) advertising lobsters for $122 (U.S.), somewhere in between is what lobster sells for in Thunder Bay on Saturday night.

My fear is we're kicking customers to the side assuming Asia will pay us more. I don't want to see governments simply fall in love with China. Our seafood is for sale, but our resource isn't; it's the glue in this entire (Atlantic Canada) region.

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Seasonality is based on geography, fixed times of the year, in 30 or so lobster fishing areas in Atlantic Canada. The genius of that system is, to the Department of Fisheries & Oceans' credit, lobsters are harvested essentially throughout the year, facilities store lobster beyond normal production periods to offer them when hard-shell lobsters aren't caught.

Advice I give is, we all need a mentor, we all need a friend.

Technology is wonderful when it works. I keep twentysomethings around me for the troubles I'm going to get into. I would get a Most Improved Award over the last 10 years, only because I was dismal before – I'm still dismal.

Canadian hard-shell lobster is a superior product biologically to American hard-shells. We get $2 to $5 a pound more for Canadian lobster 90 per cent of the time; the market isn't silly and it's not that Canadians are slick talkers and convince people to pay more.

As told to Cynthia Martin. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Karl Moore sits down with Michele Rigolizzo from the Harvard Business School Special to Globe and Mail Update
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