John and Brendan Ready started Ready Seafood in 2006 in Portland, after the two had completed college and spent a couple of years lobstering full time. John Ready entered a business plan competition at Northeastern University and won $60,000 to put toward the lobster-marketing business, which he had planned to start with his brother.
The competition not only provided seed money, “it gave us a tremendous amount of goodwill and support from others in the business,” Ready said.
The company has 80 employees, more than 150 customers worldwide and buys about 10 percent of the state’s total lobster catch (of about 123 million pounds, worth $331 million in 2012), Ready said. He declined to provide figures on operating income or reveal what he and his brother are paid per year.
The company received approval in July from the city to expand its 11,200-square-foot facility at Portland Ocean Terminal on Maine State Pier to 24,000 square feet.
Q: What’s your background and how did it lead you to your business?
A: We were lobstermen. Our uncle was a commercial lobsterman and as kids we worked for him. It was fun and independent and we got paid in old lobster traps. All winter long, we’d fix them and that’s how we got started lobstering.
We had a 16-year-old skiff that was gold to us and our parents watched us from one end of the beach and our grandparents at the other end (as they tended traps in Alewife Cove in Cape Elizabeth). They looked at us with binoculars the whole time we were out there. We invested everything into lobstering, with bigger boats and better traps, because that’s all we wanted to do. Our parents convinced us to go to college. Lobstering is a lot of hard work, it’s a lot of labor and going away to college gave us the view that there were other things and convinced us that maybe we wanted to be on the other end of the business, doing marketing and selling the lobsters. While we were still lobstermen, we started running a truck to Martha’s Vineyard and that was a real test (of whether they could be successful marketing and selling lobsters) and then we started running a truck to Boston, too.
When we first started on Hobson’s Pier, we had a 40-foot lobster boat and 800 traps and we’d sell lobster and not make a paycheck because we reinvested in the company. Everything we made went back in, and we kept getting a little bigger and a little bigger and then started hiring people until we reached the turning point where we could go from being harvesters to being marketers. That was probably one of the greatest sacrifices I ever made — I gave up something that I really love. It gave me a lot of respect for the fishermen who work up and down the coast. When it’s good, it’s good, but when it’s bad, it’s really bad.
Q: Why did you switch from lobstering to operating the company?
A: One of the reasons we started the seafood company was we were sleeping on a cot in the office. We took turns and we had no lives. We were too cheap to pay rent (on apartments) because we wanted to re-invest in the business. There wasn’t enough time in the day — I’d head out to lobster at 3 in the morning and get back at 10 or 11 at night, so we made the commitment to focus 100 percent on promoting Maine’s brand and creating new markets. We looked at how that whole side of the business worked. We got involved with the Maine International Trade Center and we booked a trip with them to Brussels and went on a trade mission to the world’s largest seafood trade show. About six weeks later, we made our first shipment (to Europe). It wasn’t easy and it seemed for every step we took, we’d get knocked down — from having things break down to workers’ comp claims. It gave us an understanding of the real world and it made us question at times why we were doing this and why we weren’t lobstering. But our phone just kept ringing and ringing and ringing.
Q: What did you learn in switching from being independent to running a company?
A: One of our great lessons is to hire great people, but if you hire average people, train them, give them the tools. We look at our employees as teammates. You recruit an all-star team and you build them up and teach them and treat them the way you would want to be treated. Give them direction and motivation and you’d be amazed what people can do. And also realize you’re going to make mistakes and learn from them. The biggest problem at the start was being a micro-manager and needing to realize that sometimes other people can do things better than you.
Q: You recently signed a lease to rent additional space on the Maine State Pier. Is the business and market growing fast?
A: We buy a tremendous amount of live lobster and we care tremendously about branding Maine lobster and increasing the value. Leasing the new space will allow us to expand and hold more product and do it more efficiently and package it better. It allows us a clean slate to learn where we are. We will add another tank that will allow us to hold another 200,000 pounds of lobster. We are really, really anxious with the value of lobster being so low and the best we can do is continue to promote it. We tell everyone what a great product it is and people really connect with it.
Q: The lobster industry has had a lot of problems in recent years, mostly from over-production and low prices. What do you think needs to be done?
A: There’s got to be more of a connection among all the interest groups — the lobstermen, the processors, the live lobster shippers — you have all these groups with different interests and they’re not working together.
There’s no incentive, or at least no immediate incentive, for harvesters to catch a better product. A lot of the lobsters that were coming in when it was so warm (last month) were a little soft, didn’t have as much meat and there was a high mortality rate. It will happen and when we were lobsterers ourselves, if we had a lobster that was maybe a little soft, we’d put it at the bottom of the crate. It’s terrible to say, but that’s what happened.
Nine months ago, we built a plant in Scarborough. It’s a mini-plant — we do maybe 60,000 pounds of processing a week, which in the scheme of things is pretty small, but any lobsters that are too small or too weak (to survive shipping), now I can process it. The trip to Scarborough is a lot shorter than the trip to New Brunswick, so it’s a way to give us one more option to be less reliant on Canadian processors.
Q: Long-term, how do you increase the market for Maine lobster?
A: A lot of it’s based on trace- ability. I can tell you where our lobster came from, whether it’s Lubec, or Stonington or Harpswell. This may be a way for customers to connect to the lobsterman and the processor. If I can find a place to buy a better lobster — it may just be the way its handled, if you take better care of it or handle it a little slower — it equates to more money and you connect the harvester to the customer and that’s part of where we’re going. It may take time to get there.
I’m doing a test market with the Cranberry Island Lobster Co-op. I took these guys to a seafood expo in Cleveland. It’s very uncommon for lobstermen to say, “I want to go promote my product.” It’s rare for them to take that ticket and get on the flight and these guys did. We sold lobsters in the stores with our lobstering overalls directly to the consumers. The promotion was great — each lobsterman went to a different store and we sold about 5,000 lobsters and these guys saw how we did it and they loved it.
Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: