Best Companies

How Acadian Seaplants became a global leader in seaweed

From a young age, Jean-Paul Deveau was fascinated by seaweed. That interest has created a multinational manufacturing empire
Marzena Czarnecka
Acadian Seaplants
An employee checks a carboy filled with seaweed at Acadian’s research centre in Nova Scotia. (Aaron McKenzie Fraser)

When Jean-Paul Deveau returned home to Nova Scotia in 1981 on summer break from McGill University, he discovered he had no bedroom.

“I’m about to go put my stuff in my room and my mother stops me and says, ‘So, before you go upstairs . . . your father started a business and he’s running it out of your bedroom,’ ” the president and CEO of Acadian Seaplants Limited remembers. “ ‘So you’re welcome to stay here but you have to find some other place to sleep.’ ”

His bedroom was the incubation laboratory for Acadian Seaplants, which today is the largest independent marine plant processing company in North America, with six processing plants spread across Atlantic Canada, Ireland and Scotland. It makes seaweed-based food, agricultural and chemical products, ranging from dehydrated “sea vegetables” for salad and pasta dishes to pet food to crop fertilizer to additives for brewing. Seaweed is plentiful around the Nova Scotia coastline, where the company is still headquartered. Deveau’s father, the 86-year-old Louis E. Deveau, was perhaps destined for a career in seaweed. As a kid growing up on the shores of Baie Sainte-Marie, Louis noticed his own father put goémon de roche (the Acadian term for the seaweed harvested from the rocky shoreline) on the family’s vegetable garden. The practice yielded excellent results and spurred his realization that the plentiful plants were rich in nutrients.

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His fascination with the sea plant’s potential resulted in Louis joining Marine Colloids, a subsidiary of the world’s largest carrageenan gum manufacturer, in 1967. He later led seaweed-connected businesses in the Philippines and Mexico before moving to New Jersey as a vice-president of Marine Colloids’ U.S. operations. He was soon appointed president of the company’s Canadian wing, where he was also responsible for sourcing seaweed around the globe. “He also spearheaded the development of an entirely new industry—seaweed farming in the Philippines and Indonesia, which today is a major industry in those countries,” notes the Acadian Seaplants website with pride.

In 1981, already a seaweed expert, he decided to become a seaweed entrepreneur. It was a risky—and prescient—move.

“There was no market for most of the products we make now,” Deveau says. “The market emerged afterwards.” And, in many instances, it was created by Louis.

The company that would become Acadian Seaplants was originally a small, seasonal seaweed harvesting operation, based in Nova Scotia and owned by the parent company of Louis’s long-time employer. After Louis bought its Nova Scotian assets in 1981, the firm’s former owners became its first—and for several years only—customer. It wasn’t a bad way to start a business, but Louis quickly recognized the vulnerability and unsustainability of such a business plan.

Meanwhile, Deveau was finishing his M.B.A. at McGill. When he came home in 1985, he still had no bedroom. Instead, his father presented him with the kind of job every freshly minted M.B.A. dreams of: there was no pay and high risk. But it had big potential, for either success or failure.

“He said, ‘Do you want to see what we can build with this thing I’m running out of your bedroom?’ ” Deveau laughs. “ ‘We don’t have enough money to pay you, but let’s see what we can build.’ And off we went, and we never looked back.”

The ability of both Deveaus to take calculated risks continues to define the multinational company’s culture in its fourth decade of operations.

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“What I really like about Acadian is they are not afraid,” says Derrick Dempster, a partner at Deloitte who works with Acadian in the Best Managed Companies program. “They operate in a number of countries, they continue to expand strategically and they’re open to taking risks in new environments. They take on those challenges and they create new markets for themselves as a consequence.”

The Deveaus agree. Louis, from Acadian’s inception, applied a “long-play” business strategy, grounded in heavy investment in scientific research and developing new markets. Deveau believes the company’s current success is driven by four deceptively simple factors. They are all about investment: in research and development, in international market development, in sustainability and in people. These commitments were seeded by Louis on day one, and have been consistently nurtured ever since by father, son and an ever-expanding pool of talent.

“We find the best people in the world and either bring them to Canada to have them work for us in Nova Scotia—we speak more than 10 languages in our facility here—or we base them throughout the world to represent our company in all the countries in which we operate,” says Deveau. The company now exports to more than 80 countries and has staff in 12 locations around the globe.

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Acadian’s talent strategy is guided by the same kind of long-term focus Louis brought to the seaweed business: nothing is about today. It’s not even about tomorrow—it’s about the next three, five or 10 years. Acadian tries to envision the future, and then it actively creates it.

“I go to a lot of conferences and we are, of course, comparing ourselves to our competitors. And when we see that what we presented three years ago, other companies are doing now, we have to ask ourselves, immediately, what do we do next? What’s the potential, the next opportunity, the new market no one else is thinking about?” says Deveau.

Indeed, how the company harvests its products is under constant evaluation and improvement. Hyper-competitive long-term thinking like that will continue to contribute to Acadian’s success.

“They will continue to change and create new products,” says Dempster. “They really think of themselves as a learning organization, and they’ve created infrastructure to support that. They’re a Canadian business based in Nova Scotia, but they understand that their market is global.”