Daryl Gormley

CEO of Aquamar

Since 2020, Daryl Gormley has served as Chief Executive Officer for Aquamar – the leading manufacturer and producer of the highest quality and sustainable surimi products in styles that meet the needs of foodservice, retailers, value-added processors, and consumers. In his role, Gormley oversees the strategic direction for the premium Surimi business delivering on commitments to the shareholders and investors. Gormley has also played a significant role in developing Aquamar’s brand heritage and building a company rooted in exceptional customer service, collaboration and producing results.

Gormley brings four decades of extensive food manufacturing experience to Aquamar including general management, marketing, sales, manufacturing, distribution, and engineering functions. He has worked for several notable brands including Sara Lee, Kraft, Frito-Lay and more. Under his leadership, Gormley has grown these companies to 5% or more thanks to his passion for results, inspired leadership, strategic thinking, and team orientation.

Earning an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management and Bachelor’s in Operations Engineering from the University of Michigan, Gormley has developed a unique ability to not only grow companies from a marketing standpoint, but also optimizing operations.

Gormley currently resides in New York city with his wife and four children. Having grown up in Detroit for most of his young adult life, Gormley is excited to see the revitalization work to improve the city. Outside of work, Gormley enjoys traveling with his family.

Where did the idea for Aquamar come from?

Aquamar began as a surimi manufacturer. The founder served on the team who brought surimi to North America, mastering the craft in Japan before immigrating to the US. He came to the country looking to bring surimi to North America, marketing it as imitation crab meat to help Westerners understand the product. We consider it an honor to work in work with surimi, recognizing its wonderful heritage and tradition. We now have an opportunity to look at surimi in a broader way – as a low-cost, sustainable, high quality and flexible protein. In today’s world where protein is such a premium, we have an extraordinary opportunity. We view the opportunity in that context because we look at protein and we recognize that there is a lot of food insecurity in the USA, with 17 million children unsure of the source of their next meal every day. The outcome of that is disastrous in its impacts on those kids’ ability to do well in school, socialize effectively and maintain a healthy life. We have an opportunity as a food processor to participate in creating change. Children and adults are protein deficient in this country despite our affluence. Even though most adults technically get their recommended daily protein requirements, they get it all at the dinner mealtime where the body can not properly process the protein. This means that even though people are “checking the box” for protein, they are not eating protein in a way where their body can use it. Kids are more flexible and can deal with protein all in one shot; they just don’t get enough. There is a huge impact from an overall hunger perspective, protein intake and absorption are crucial for brain development, satiety and maintaining muscle mass.

At Aquamar, we have an opportunity to work to address both the hunger and protein crises. So, we started as a surimi company. and we’ve pivoted into a food processor. Aquamar is not vertically integrated and uniquely positioned in the marketplace focusing on the consumer rather than catching fish for a living. That gives us an opportunity to chart a course that is different from our competitors. Our strategy is to leverage that difference to diversify our raw material supply because we don’t have to pack what we catch, and when we diversify that supply, it allows us to maintain more consistent quality, more secure supply, and ensure sustainability. We only buy what we want to use in terms of raw materials, which helps us with quality control and our sustainability efforts because we can be selective rather than “packing what we catch”. It also ensures we can get the most efficient buy and not be beholden to what’s happening during seasons in any given place in the world. From a customer’s perspective, it translates into more reliable supply, because if we have an issue in one part of the world, we have options that we can leverage. The second part of our strategy, and what is different, is that we are not in the business of fishing for filet and then producing surimi as a byproduct. We laugh about going to bed every night thinking about surimi and getting up every morning thinking about surimi. That focus, however, allows us to think about the business differently, seeking to understand unmet consumer needs around surimi, and more broadly, seafood. That consumer focus is the foundation for our innovation effort, and we are launching through food channels right now with the promise to expand the surimi and the overall seafood category. We uniquely have the chance to do that work because we look at the business differently. Many of our competitors fish for a living and that is a very hard career. A lot of their time and energy is focused on managing the variables of fishing (i.e., fishing vessels, fleets, and quotas). We don’t have that complication in our business, so we are free to focus on the consumer and understand their unmet needs. This is where we have spent both our time and our dollars. If we were to go out and talk to people on the street, they would say that they should probably eat more seafood because it is a healthy protein. And, when we ask consumers why, they reveal that they don’t know how to prepare seafood, or it makes their home smell bad. They also wonder about the risk of bones or mercury poisoning. We cook seafood for a living, so we can help them with that challenge. We believe people would eat more seafood if someone else would prepare it for them. By doing just this, we are competing as a seafood processor and providing convenient forms of seafood. In the end, it is not a huge pivot from a surimi company, and it is consistent with our heritage of innovation. The company first started when many people in North America didn’t understand what surimi was, and now I think we are in another chapter where we are going to take seafood to a different place.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

We have a clear strategy, so I get to spend my time really focused on execution. We are always innovating and making changes, so it’s dynamic. One of the fun parts of my job is I get to work in all the different parts of our business. I can be working with a partner in Vietnam, a supplier of raw material, and in the next moment, I will be sitting with a retailer working with them on how they might innovate to sell more seafood to consumers. I also am involved with everything in between like manufacturing issues and supply problems. COVID and the global supply chain interruption have certainly changed my typical day, but it still involves execution and focusing on working across different variables, which fluctuate as we work in a very dynamic market.

How do you bring ideas to life?

Once we have an idea, part of it is setting a vision and understanding of what that idea looks like, enlisting people to participate in crafting the vision. One of the first things we do is ask what is it going to look like, and how is that different from where we are today. Then, we identify the steps that take us from where we are today to realize the vision? Once we do that work, then we understand what actions we need to take. Then, it’s just about executing those actions.

What’s one trend that excites you?

There are so many trends that excite me! One of them that I think is cool is consumers’ ability to look at provenance. Uniquely now, people can understand where their food comes from in the industry. That is beneficial for the industry and helps Aquamar uniquely because we have a great story. When we look at similar suppliers, our points of difference are how we really care about from where the food comes, the impact on the environment and, of course, the overall quality. We are excited to see consumers recognize and appreciate our efforts.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

It is funny thinking about this. I am very committed and have a dogged perseverance. When working on a problem, I give myself a lot of tries, and if I do not have a right, I keep working on it until we figure it out. Innovation stems from an idea that we might have as an organization, which we then figure out how to address it to turn into an opportunity. We end up making a ton of mistakes along the way, but we iterate and stay with it to get it right. If I reflect on my success in my career and in this business, it’s because we stick with it and figure out the rest of what we need to make the adjustments along the way.

What advice would you give your younger self?

It would be to pursue ideas further. There have been ideas I have had as an individual or as part of a team when there was a jewel of an idea, and we gave up too early. We didn’t give it a chance to let it be successful. When we don’t follow it through enough or create an environment where we can win, I think I walked away from some cool ideas prematurely, which could’ve been developed if we stayed with it longer.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

People do not believe that hunger is a solvable problem and people do not believe that people do not get enough protein. Hunger as a solvable problem is so interesting to me because on the one hand, if I said there was enough food in the world to feed everyone every day, I think most people would agree. In the next breath, people would use solving world hunger as a euphemism for the world’s unsolvable problems. It fascinates me because solving hunger is a question of will, not a question of means, and that is an important understanding and distinction. Once you say the hunger is a solvable problem, everything changes because now if I accept hunger not being solved, then I am complacent in allowing hunger to continue. Once you acknowledge there is enough food in the world, it just comes down to access.

Protein is critical. And people don’t realize how important it is in terms of diet. Many people are protein deficient. Again, it’s about access.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

We go to the source, to the consumer, to understand the unmet need. And I say “go to” because people cannot usually articulate unmet needs. The fancy word for that practice is ethnography, observing consumer behavior. No one has ever said “Oh I want a minivan,” or “I want an MP3 player,” and so you can’t sit down with a focus group and have people identify innovation breakthroughs with you. You must go in and understand what people are doing in their lives and ascertain what their unmet needs are. From an entrepreneur perspective, that is important because that is where you create value, and I do not think there is a replacement for how to do that well.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

I touched on this already, but diversification of supply and innovation are both hugely important to us. Our strategy is to leverage that difference to diversify our raw material supply because we don’t have to pack what we catch. When we diversify that supply, it allows us to do things like getting the quality we want. We only buy what we want to use in terms of raw materials, which helps us with quality control and our sustainability efforts because we can be very selective in terms of what we use. It also ensures we can get the most efficient buy and not be beholden to what’s happening during seasons in any given place in the world. From a customer’s perspective, it translates into more reliable supply, because if we have an issue in one part of the world, we have options that we can leverage.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

I’ve experienced so many failures! But sometimes an initial failure leads to success. I was working on innovation on the Jimmy Dean brand. While the brand was making good money, it wasn’t seeing the growth we wanted. So, we recast it as a breakfast brand and as a protein brand rather than sausage. One of the innovations we worked on was small, and we didn’t give it a ton of focus or attention. It was the idea behind sausage crumbles. It was sausage that you could shake out of a bag if you wanted to add protein to your breakfast but didn’t want the hassle of cooking. We did all these huge tests and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to make sure we had all the tools to be successful in the market. All the tests came back to say this wasn’t a great idea, and we didn’t move as quickly as we could. So, we ended up putting it on the back burner. There was someone in the organization that was a big champion for this idea, so we did a small launch. Jimmy Dean Crumbles comes out and it won the breakfast product of the year. I learned the value of understanding market insights and following instincts rather than putting so much emphasis on research. Don’t rely so much on research because it is often flawed. Some of the coolest ideas aren’t going to perform well in research. If you rely on research at a big company and it doesn’t go well, you probably won’t get fired, but you won’t be doing the best work.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

I am a curious guy. So, if I am walking around and want to know more about something, I would love an app tell me more about an object by just taking a picture of it on my phone. An identifier of unknown things app – that would be a killer opportunity.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

A longboard. I live in New York, and I don’t park where I live; it is around 15 blocks away. Depending on the weather, I am pre-dawn cruising the streets of New York City on my longboard. Twice a day, for twenty minutes, I am riding with the wind in my hair with an opportunity to think about the day with just the sunrise and birds, before the traffic. That serenity is hard to beat.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

One of the most beneficial tools for me is LinkedIn. I have been working for a very long time and have an incredibly rich network that provides so much value. For example, I recently reached out with a business question to someone that I hadn’t spoken to in 15 years. I now have a solution because LinkedIn helped me access a network of connections. When we had the turn of the millennia, there was a content to identify the most influential or impactful individual of the millennia. The winner was Gutenberg – the inventor of the printing press. He allowed for the mass production of books, which resulted in the sharing of information across different people, languages, and socioeconomic classes. Just as we are now able to reference back to books from hundreds of years ago on endless topics, LinkedIn allows us to create valuable connections to further learn, ideate, and communicate.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

I have two. Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman by Yvon Chouinard. It is the story of Patagonia, Inc. I love that story and appreciate how their organization is so consistent with their beliefs. They use purpose as a north star in keeping consistent with their values. I also admire the fact that they didn’t get into business to get into business; rather, they got into business because they had an idea and a problem that was worth solving. Chouinard was a legendary rock climber – one of the first in Yosemite. Patagonia came about because he saw the need for specialty rock climbing equipment, which is different from mountain climbing. For founders, the business first starts with a reason. And while they may decide they are going to make a living out of it, ultimately, they are doing something that has purpose. Sometimes, this initial aspiration and reason is lost over time. This story serves as a reminder of your original purpose.

The second book is The Endurance by Caroline Alexander, which is the story of Ernest Shackleton and the first voyage to the South Pole to try to do the first land crossing. I found this to be an incredibly interesting leadership story, especially as there were three different parties who were attempting this at the time. First were the Norwegians that studied the climate and ended up very successful in their endeavors. Next was the British group that pursued the goal without any preparation. They ended up not being able to adjust to the conditions, and so they all died. Then, there was Shackleton and his team that became trapped in the ice. His determination to keep everyone on task for over a year and half leading to their successful rescue is an incredible, and very poignant, story of leadership.

What is your favorite quote?

“Do or do not, there is no try.” -Yoda. It speaks to the commitment of let’s not try to do something, let’s do it. I love that quote as it’s one I always go back to for inspiration.

Key Learnings:

  • Just because something doesn’t work out initially doesn’t mean it’s a failure.
  • If you truly believe in an idea, be your own champion.
  • Be naturally curious and pursue ideas.