The Dana F. Besecker Story
Dana Besecker is founder and CEO of Dana F. Besecker Company, Inc., a leading commercial seafood processor/wholesaler based in Washington State. He started the company as a one-person shop in 1989, incorporated in 1994, and since then, has added offices in three locations.
The Dana F. Besecker Story
Sometimes the plans you make don’t always work out the way you thought they would. And sometimes, that ends up being the absolute best outcome.
Dana Besecker always made plans in his life, and when they’ve changed, he’s adapted and forged new paths. A Washington State native, Dana Besecker grew up in Issaquah, east of Seattle – surrounded by mountains, forests, and water. One of five children, Dana learned about the value of hard work and resilience at an early age.
At age seven, Dana rode the bus with other kids to pick local strawberries, raspberries and beans in the summer. “I remember it being hot all day, every day,” he says. He also did yard work around the neighborhood, earning enough to help pay for school clothes. In high school, Dana pumped gas for $1.25 an hour, boosting his nest egg for college. “I was paying my own way,” he adds. “I had big plans.”
Dana’s plans included playing basketball, football and flying jets, so he attended the Air Force Academy Prep School. It was the late ‘60s, and the Viet Nam conflict was heating up. The idea of flying military jets appealed to him. Dana enjoyed playing basketball at the prep school, and all his freshman-aged teammates were very good players.
But two things happened: he tore the MCL in his knee playing ball, and after seven physicals, was told he was too tall to fly jets. “There are specific cockpit measurements, and I was an inch and a half too tall,” he says. He left prep school, declined his appointment to the Air Force Academy, and returned to his hometown.
Undaunted, Dana’s next plan was to try and walk-on for the University of Washington (UW) basketball team. He was a starter on the freshman team, and coach Tex Winter promised a scholarship if he made the varsity team. That was important, because his dad’s specialized job at Boeing was eliminated, and Dana needed to help the family.
For a couple of years he played at the UW, but Dana says, “I wasn’t quite like Kareem Abdul Jabbar.” He couldn’t afford school without a scholarship, so when the promised scholarship didn’t materialize, he was forced to leave the university and the Husky basketball program to earn money. Dana didn’t leave empty-handed, though. He met a special girl – Jill – who would eventually become his wife, business partner, and underpaid assistant.
To make ends meet, Dana took out loans and held several jobs – running a 90-pound jackhammer under buildings, selling life insurance, and working at a shopping mall from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. “He kept falling asleep in class from working long hours,” Jill Besecker recalls, “so I told Dana that he needed to quit working as much and pay attention to his education.”
One day, the phone rang.
It was Chuck Randall, coach of the basketball team at Western Washington College (now University) in Bellingham. He’d heard that Dana had been forced to leave the UW team for a paying job. For Dana, this was another chance. “We met and talked about school and basketball.” Then I told him I would need a good summer job,” explains Dana. Randall said, “As luck would have it, I just bought a reef net fishing site in the Bellingham area.”
That’s how Dana Besecker got hooked on the fishing industry.
Fishing 101 Turns into a Career
Dana transferred to Western for Spring quarter 1970, and started fishing that summer. He was introduced to reef net fishing, which counts on natural and manmade structures to lead the salmon into a shallow-laid net. Dana fished for three summers on the west side of Lummi Island. The catch was sold to Bumble Bee Seafoods. “I got to know a bunch of the tendermen, who would come twice-a-day and pick up the fish we’d caught. That was my first taste of fishing as a commercial venture,” says Dana.
Dana graduated from Western in 1972 with an accounting degree. He returned to the UW, earned his MBA and married Jill in 1974.
His plan was to work as a financial analyst, and he had offers from Philco Ford in Palo Alto, and the FBI, wherever he was needed in their white collar crime division. Just before he accepted the Philco Ford job, he saw a posting: ‘Bumble Bee Seafoods, a division of Castle and Cooke, is looking for financial analysts in San Francisco.’ “I remembered the guys who bought my fish at Bumble Bee were really cool, and I was kind of fascinated by the fish business,” says Dana.
Bumble Bee owned a canning facility in Astoria, Oregon, but the human resource people conducted interviews at the UW in Seattle. Dana decided to interview for the San Francisco position. “I was his last interview of the day, and he asked how tall I was and if I played basketball,” explains Dana. “Next thing he said was, ‘you don’t want to move to San Francisco, you want to come to Astoria and play on our company basketball team!’ Then he said he’d teach me how to catch steelhead in a tributary just off the Columbia River. That sealed the deal.”
What they wanted was a basketball player but what they needed was a fish buyer, so Dana joined Bumble Bee’s fish procurement department. “After all those years getting an accounting degree and an MBA, I graduated into blue jeans, and rubber boots!” His job entailed walking the docks and getting fishermen to sell him their salmon, tuna, rock fish and shrimp.
It felt right. “I liked fishermen and fishing and the idea of being outside, and not just at a desk.” Dana and Jill fell in love with the people of Astoria. Living in nearby Gearhart, they enjoyed small town living, the ocean, and working with great neighbors.
Mr. Besecker Goes to Salem
Ted Bugas, one of Bumble Bee’s vice presidents, did political work for the industry. He traveled to the state capitals of Olympia, Washington and Salem, Oregon, lobbying in favor of commercial fishing interests in the Columbia River. Ted needed help; there was so much to do. Dana’s name came up, and because fishing was slower during winter, Dana had the time.
“I remember leaving at 5 a.m. to get to Salem by 9 a.m. for meetings, so we spent many hours in the car, discussing interesting things, and it was the start of a great family friendship, and eventually a great business partnership,” says Dana. Politics wasn’t exactly what Dana wanted to do. “The lobbying work needed to be done, but the process could be frustrating. I was really more comfortable talking to fishermen.”
Bumble Bee started the process of shutting down the cannery in Astoria, reducing the amount of fish they were processing. After 18 months of procuring salmon, crab, tuna, and other seafood, execs asked Dana if he’d consider moving to San Diego to work in tuna procurement. It sounded like the right opportunity, so he and Jill headed south in 1976.
Bumble Bee’s parent company had purchased a 12-boat tuna fleet from Ed Gann, a major force in the San Diego fishing industry. As a financial analyst for the tuna fleet – Dana did accounting work, helped decide which ports the boats should go to for food, supplies and unloading, and where it was most cost-effective to get fuel. With each new project, his knowledge about the industry grew.
It seemed like the Beseckers were putting down roots, especially buying their first house on the G.I. Bill. “I thought we broke the bank with that house,” says Dana. When Jill wasn’t teaching school and Dana wasn’t working on tuna business, they explored the area. “We’d play tennis at the high school for free, go to the beach, and even played free golf at Torrey Pines after 3 o’clock,” adds Jill. Yet, something was missing: their families. They were homesick for the northwest.
In order to advance in the company, Dana faced a transfer – to South America or Southeast Asia, where Castle and Cooke had other business interests. “We wanted a family, and being out of the country wouldn’t work for that, so I quit,” explains Dana. Without having another job lined up, he headed back to Seattle in fall 1976.
Venturing into Partnerships
A headhunter found Dana a job with Peter Pan Seafoods, working in downtown Seattle. Peter Pan began a joint venture on pink shrimp with Barbey Packing Co., a processing company in Astoria. They needed someone who could manage the business -- sales, accounting, and procurement – and Dana fit the bill as Peter Pan’s representative on the joint venture.
This was somewhat of a homecoming for Dana, because Ted Bugas, his former lobbying buddy, was a partner in Barbey Packing. Ted’s original partners were Joe Backinson and former U.S. Representative Wendell Wyatt. “Joe and Wendell sold their interests, Peter Pan came on as a partner, so Ted asked me to be a partner,” Dana explains. “It was a great opportunity to work with Ted again, and have a stake in the business.” Dana resigned from Peter Pan – and was now their partner.
In the height of the busy season for pink shrimp, Barbey Packing employed about 300 people. For the next two years, Peter Pan was, in essence, the ‘bank’ partner, acting as financier and marketer. “Then things started changing, as it does in this industry,” Dana says. “We had interest rates of 23.5%, McDonald’s stopped selling pink shrimp salads, and the shrimp market just crashed. The whole company came apart by 1980.” Peter Pan dissolved the operation and closed the doors.
On His Own with Rainier Seafoods
By this time, Dana and Jill were parents to two sons, Jeff and Tyler. So there was a sense of urgency for Dana to move on from the Barbey Packing disappointment. It was time to use the experience he gained and his connections in the industry to launch his own company.
“I started Rainier Seafoods, working on my own out of an office in Bellevue. I didn’t have a line of credit or anything,” he explains. “I just started calling people to ask if they had salmon for sale, and started buying and trading fish.” Dana got involved in the hatchery salmon business, negotiating with the state for the right to pick up salmon from hatcheries. Most of the fish was sold in Europe.
Dana soon realized he needed financing to grow the business. “I found a couple of partners, Jay Bornstein and Carl Jensen, both of whom are well-known in the seafood business,” Dana says. “They both got a third of my company – but the deal was they had to provide financing, which I needed to keep the business thriving. Even though they were great partners, I ended up buying them both out a couple years later – for much more than they invested.”
But the industry was going through volatile times. “This is a tough business,” explains Dana. “It’s driven by supply and demand, and nobody ever knows what the supply is going to be. And markets will change. So many things are out of your control. You need to stay level.”
Royal Alaskan Partners Try for a Buyout
Dana helped form Royal Alaskan Seafoods to do a leveraged buyout of Pan Alaska Bumble Bee from Castle and Cooke. Partners included Jim Henderson, who had been head accountant for Pan Alaska, Dave Keene, and Tom Steinbach.
Castle and Cooke was losing money on its seafood business. “They wanted to get out, but if they sold it for what it was worth, they would have gone upside down,” Dana says. The solution was for Castle and Cooke to turn over management of its seafood business to Royal Alaskan, but show it as a sale, even though they would keep financial control. By showing the deal as a sale, Castle and Cooke could prevent their balance sheet from being destroyed.
“We ran Pan Alaska Bumble Bee in 1983-84, and turned it around,” says Dana. The company was now doing significantly better than it had been under Castle and Cooke’s management, and was now profitable. “Once that happened, Castle and Cooke decided not to sell to us – and backed out of the deal.”
In 1984, Dana and his Royal Alaskan partners ended up in court. “The judge didn’t understand what we were doing, and we lost the case,” he says. “So we were out on the street again…trying to figure out how to survive.”
Dana went back to Rainier Seafoods in 1985, and devoted all his attention to buying. There was a bad market reversal on pink salmon and halibut. He had hired tenders at $3,500 a day to buy pink salmon, based on what the state said the return would be. “The state said it was supposed to be 42 million pink salmon—but there was just 10 million. So I lost a lot of money,” he says. Then the halibut market crashed, and he lost money on that too. “When the pink salmon fishery basically failed two years in a row, it broke me, and broke Rainier Seafoods.”
Back to starting small: the Dana F. Besecker Company
Once again, Dana had to change course. He launched another one-person enterprise, the Dana F. Besecker Company in 1989. “After all the ups and downs, I started all over again,” Dana says. In addition to salmon hatchery projects, Dana was trading, buying salmon in the Columbia River, and selling it. Then came halibut.
During his career, Dana had occasionally sold halibut, but it wasn’t until 1992 that the primary focus of his business became halibut, when it was still a derby-style fishery. “You could buy small quantities of fish during the derbies, but only during certain windows of time here and there,” he says. “The big processing plants had a huge advantage because they had large holding capacities.”
That changed in the mid-90s, when the U.S. embraced the IFQ (Individual Fishing Quota), which allowed buyers to procure halibut every day of the season, typically from March through November. The U.S. and Canada share the halibut fishery, managed by the International Pacific Halibut Commission.
IFQ made a new industry in fresh fish. “Instead of opening fishing up for three days, twice a year -- and freezing the catch -- you can buy and sell fish fresh and can spread it out over time. There are always boats out catching their quotas,” explains Dana. “It’s safer now. In derbies, boats were fishing for three days straight, fighting over the best spots, and not sleeping.”
Dana purchased halibut consistently in this quota fishery, which was highly competitive. By the early 2000s he was buying product nine months of the year. “No matter whether it was night or day, there was always a guy fishing, so I got phone calls all the time,” recalls Dana. He also forged a relationship with his counterpart in Canada, Joern Nordmann, who was founder and president of S.M. Products of Ladner, British Columbia, buying and selling halibut.
By 1996, Dana was no longer buying salmon – just halibut – and it was still only a one-person operation. Within a few years, Dana was so busy, he added an accountant to the staff.
All in the Family
As the business continued to grow, Dana needed more help at work. “I was trying to do everything. And that’s okay when you are only selling one item to one customer,” explains Dana. “At a family meeting in 2004, I asked my son if he’d consider helping with the business. Luckily he said yes.”
Tyler Besecker started in 2004, and was soon selling the company’s inventory of black cod (or sablefish). The same boats that are catching halibut also catch black cod. Tyler joined when the market was rebounding and sold a lot of fish quickly. “I thought ‘this is really cool, it’s fun, and I am helping the family,’” adds Tyler. “My whole life, my dad said, ‘don’t get into this business with its highs and lows,’ but I got hooked,” Tyler says.
In addition to buying and processing black cod, the Dana F. Besecker Company now sells king crab, working again with Tom Steinbach, from Dana’s Royal Alaskan days. Tom’s company, Steinbach Seafoods, and Dana’s company work together on the year-round king crab business. They buy and sell Alaskan king crab, plus imported king crab from Norway and Russia (through Busan, Korea). The company also buys and sells Dungeness crab, and processes pet food from the west coast ground fish fisheries.
When Tyler started, the company sold fish to the U.S., Canada, and Japan. “Now we sell to 38 countries, and it’s wonderful but complex – each country has its own labels, certificates and packing requirements, and we’re selling in different currencies,” Dana says. “But basically, we’re still fish buyers.”
Being lean and mean helps Dana compete with big businesses. With Dana at the helm, the company has remained small while also adding additional staff. Says Dana, “You realize that you need people who’ve been in the business for a long time – and yet you also need new people and new ideas. You can’t just surround yourself with a bunch of old guys or you’ll never learn anything new.”
What’s made the company successful is the reputation Dana has made after 20-plus years as a strong buyer in IFQ longline fisheries.
“There is a lot of word-of-mouth in the industry, and every year, we seem to buy fish from people we didn’t buy from before,” explains Tyler. “Dad has always offered honesty, integrity, and good service. When he says he’ll be somewhere, or do something, he does it.”
That’s important in a competitive industry where the increasing demand for seafood – and the shortage of fish -- is felt around the world.
Looking back, Dana doesn’t have any regrets about not being in the FBI. “The fishing industry has been interesting,” says Dana. “I like fishermen. They work hard. They sacrifice a lot, especially time away from family. It’s not always easy. And when you think about it, we really have nothing without the fishermen. They start the whole process rolling.”