Howard Shadbolt was a small child when his parents emigrated from London to New Zealand. Money was tight - his father, Leslie, had been gassed while serving in World War I and was on a war pension, and his mother, Edith, worked as a cook.

They could never have imagined that, from such humble beginnings, their son would go on to establish a company that would grow to become one of New Zealand’s major fishing businesses, Independent Fisheries Limited (IFL).

It’s a legacy those who’ve followed in Howard’s enterprising and hard-working footsteps haven’t taken for granted. His son, Charles, took over after Howard’s passing in 1999, and more recently Charles’ son-in-law, Mark Allison, was at the tiller as managing director. Throughout the three generations, all have been immensely proud to be part of an organisation that looked after its people the many hundreds of valued staff they thank for helping make the business a success.

When the family decided to hand over the reins to another organisation earlier this year it was a decision they hadn’t take lightly. In January it was announced IFL had become part of the Sealord whānau.

“It would be fair to say it was a day of mixed emotions but the decision was made in the best interests,” says former managing director Mark.

“We’re very proud and certainly not disappointed with the result. I think Howard and Charles would have been very comfortable with Sealord’s initiative and the directive from the Board to keep the ethos of the company so that it’s run effectively independent from Sealord operations to maintain those values that have been established over the last 60-odd years."

“We also saw the opportunity Sealord had to establish itself as the leading company in New Zealand’s seafood industry and there are opportunities around rationalisation of fishing operations and cold storage.”

The family had put out an expression of interest to companies within New Zealand and overseas regarding acquisition of IFL.

“We received multiple offers,” says Mark. “However, we decided on the Sealord arrangements because they had an affinity with the class of vessel we use, so understood the intricacies around big self-contained freezer trawlers (BATMs), and in addition they alsoguaranteed full employment for staff that were remaining and to maintaining the family ethos. Not only that, we have had a very strong working relationship with them over many decades, so it seemed a really good fit.”

It’s astonishing to think that what grew into IFL started out as a fish and chip shop Howard opened in Worcester Street in Christchurch back in 1954.

“He was an incredible entrepreneur,” says Mark. “From humble beginnings he had the foresight to reinvest a lot of the returns back into the business to grow it. As time went on, he looked to diversify into other areas by smoking fish out the back of the shop and opening Bluff Oysters, which he sold around New Zealand.”

As the business grew, he employed more staff, becoming Independent Fisheries incorporated in 1959, moving to larger premises in Waltham with improved facilities for fish processing, freezing, packing, storage and oyster opening.

“Then, in 1966, they bought a parcel of land in Woolston, where they established the factory, employing more staff to process fish from boats that came into Lyttelton and around New Zealand,” says Mark. A preschool was added for the children of the firm’s people, with Howard saying, “People are the biggest asset in any business”.

In 1978, the company bought trawlers Howard L Shadbolt and Independence I, two purpose-built 75- foot inshore vessels, to give consistent supply. With the implementation of the Quota Management System in 1986, IFL acquired 25,000 tonnes of hoki quota and, in another development, joint venture arrangements were also introduced with foreign charter factory vessels.

“Like any business, having vessels had its own set of challenges,” says Mark. “Mistakes were made along the way but you learn from them – just don’t make the same mistake twice.”

Charles had followed in his father’s footsteps, leaving school in 1964 at the age of 15 to work in the  factory, filleting fish, opening oysters and sweeping the floor. Not long afterwards the organisation diversified into coating operations, battering and crumbing. A fishmeal plant was established in 1980 and cold store facilities also added to the company’s portfolio.

“As a young child Charles would go to work with his dad all the time so he’d grown up with the business,” says Mark. “His and Howard’s specialty was the landbased operations – making that efficient. They were always very good to their staff and as a result gained a loyal workforce. They certainly weren’t shy of putting on a pair of gumboots and overalls and lending a hand in the factory and every morning would walk through. At one stage we had over 400 staff on land-based operations and they knew everybody by their first name.”

By 1991 exports made up two-thirds of all sales and in 2009 IFL celebrated its 50th birthday, 10 years after Howard, QSM, had passed away.

In 2010 and 2011 its foundations were shaken. “We got decimated with the earthquakes, including the coolstore facility at Lyttelton,” says Mark, who’d joined the firm in 1993 initially as a sales rep. “The factory was effectively wrecked, but we got it up and running within nine days. We continued it for two years but it needed to be rebuilt due to the severity of the damage, and that was cost prohibitive. So we made the decision at that stage to shut the factory, which was incredibly tough for Charles because there was a real attachment to the staff.

“However, we made sure everybody who was made redundant got a job in some other place and there was certainly no one unhappy with the result because they were all well looked after.”

That presented an opportunity to diversify and acquire more quota, as well as the company adding to its Woolston cold store facilities, with the head office relocating to Lyttelton where the vessels were based.

“At any one time we had 246 crew at sea but a total crew of 492 gainfully employed on vessel operations meaning our total numbers would be 600-650 including casuals,” says Mark.

“Sealord’s a significantly larger company than ours but we would like to think we can teach some ways of how we operate slightly differently to them, and vice versa. It’s a matter of taking all those positive aspects of two companies and blending them together to make a better operation as a whole."

New IFL Managing Director Tim Mackay, formerly Commercial Manager at Sealord, agrees there will be benefits for both. “There’re some great things to learn from an efficiently run, tight-knit family-based culture,” says Tim. “Equally, IFL may learn something from Sealord. By collaborating both ways we can achieve the best for both businesses.”

From Sealord’s perspective, strategically one of the appeals of incorporating IFL was the 46,000 metric tonne deep-sea quota package, including hoki. “It’s a bolt-on of what Sealord already catches, so that additional economies of scale and the ability to optimise annual catch with Sealord existing quota portfolio was part of the attractiveness,” adds Tim.

“IFL has a history of being run very efficiently and the team takes great pride in their assets, so for example the vessels and coldstore are very well looked after and maintained. The consolidation at an industry level also provides Sealord with access to a wider range of customers.”

Tim adds that Sealord was aware it would be important to the family that the business went into the right hands and that the people would be looked after.

“One of the positive things we’ve committed to and done is to maintain all existing IFL staff so that there’s very little change from an IFL perspective, as we run Independent as a standalone subsidiary of Sealord. Sealord does have a whānau-first approach as well so there’s a nice crossover between the two.”

The acquisition means IFL’s three 104 metre BATM vessels Independent, Irvinga which are both company owned – and the charter arrangement for the Mainstream now join Sealord’s existing fleet of seven.

As for the Sealord whānau based in Nelson, the acquisition won’tresult in any changes either, exceptgiving greater flexibility in termsof the way the business is able to operate, says Tim.

“Historically Sealord has operated out of Nelson, and to a lesser extent Dunedin, but this now brings Lyttelton the fold in terms of ports to call at. With Independent Fisheries’ vessels and the largen cold store in Woolston it gives a lot more flexibility in terms of where we send vessels and where we can export product from.”

With the purchase of IFL, Sealord is now the biggest seafood business in New Zealand, a responsibility CEO Doug Paulin says the organisation will uphold with integrity.

“Opportunities to acquire a business of this scale in seafood in New Zealand do not come along very often, and in the deepwater this was probably the last one available, so it was an unbelievable opportunity,” says Doug.

“We’re proud that Sealord was selected from a number of potential purchasers of the business. That wasn’t just for monetary reasons, but because they thought Sealord represented the company which had values that most aligned to how Howard and Charlie had run the business historically, and Mark himself too.

“We’re also proud that for iwi, this will give a substantial share of the deepwater fisheries in Aotearoa and we would expect that they’ll have increased potential to have discussions with the government in regards to how fisheries are managed, in line with Te Ao Māori values.”