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Bumble Bee Reinvention Relies on Capable Leadership

Jan Tharp, CEO of The Bumble Bee Seafood Co. discusses leadership methods that overcame chaotic months for the company.

Jan Tharp, CEO, The Bumble Bee Seafood Co.
Jan Tharp, CEO, The Bumble Bee Seafood Co.

Packaging World:
Are there things that you can point to during the recent challenging times specific to Bumble Bee and even now in the pandemic, that have really elevated the way that you lead or change the way you think about things?

Jan Tharp:
You’re talking about a crisis and leading through crisis. And essentially when you’re in that state, what you’ve lost is predictability and control. And as humans that’s what we want. Without predictability and control, we all become very anxious.

If you can clearly articulate the plan and explain to your team members how long it’s going to take you to get to your end state, what that end state looks like, and how they can help you along in that journey, well, then you’ve diluted that anxiety and all that energy is moving toward your to-be state. It’s essentially communication. And it happens every single day. And if you can do that effectively, you can manage through a crisis.

Let’s talk about the operations. How have things changed to ensure the alignment, confidence and trust as you move forward in a new strategic direction?
One of the tenants of my leadership style is to listen. And that’s sometimes really difficult because when you’re in a situation and you hear of a problem, you want to solve for that problem, that’s our natural instinct. So being able to take a step back and listen, and don’t filter your ideas through your own head, but to listen with empathy and compassion to what people are saying, certainly helps design the programs that matter to our employees or our team members. And so, we’ve done that. We did a survey to get a pulse of how people are feeling inside the company. We’ve done the exact same thing in our factories. And from there, we’re using that data to give back programs that help our team members. And the difference here is when this first started, everyone jumped to their own conclusions as to what our team members needed. And it went through our own filters of some of the things that we were thinking about. And what we found is that what they really needed wasn’t any of the things that we thought that they wanted. It was heightened communication. It was a few things that we could be doing better inside of our facility. And so, what our team members are feeling is: not only did we listen, but we’re paying back in programs that matter to them. And when you do that across an entire company, the results are actually remarkable.

Sustainability must be a key element of your identity since your company talks a lot about being advocates for fishermen and for the ocean. What does sustainability mean to the Bumble Bee brands?
We came up with a platform that we call Seafood Future. It’s focused on the fish, it’s focused on the ocean, and it’s focused on people. We all need to be thinking about sustainability. When we develop a new product, it can’t go through the entire process and then hit sustainability after it gets on the grocery store shelf. It has to be part of the design process.

Ocean plastic is a big concern with consumers. So is the fact that the population is growing. The population should be right around nine to ten billion people by 2050. And what we’re doing today will not sustain that type of growth. Bumble Bee was one of the first companies to get into a plant-based seafood partnership. It doesn’t dilute anything that we’re doing in the wild-capture fisheries, but it certainly is another way of embracing the fact that together we need to do something to protect our oceans.

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Are you able to measure whether or not this is something that is important to your consumers and resonating with them?
I would say plant-based definitely is resonating with the consumers from the standpoint that plant-based products in general are up 31% over the last couple of years. In our case, traditional seafood is, prior to pandemic, relatively flat to declining. Again, plant-based seafood is not going to overtake traditional fisheries, but certainly it can live in that same space.

I think that a lot of consumers are concerned about sustainability, but there is a gap between intent and action. I can have a conversation with you and we can talk about sustainability and you will tell me how important the oceans are. But then when you go and make your purchase decision, is that conversation top-of-mind or are you looking for price? Are you looking for value? And I think that that’s different with each constituent, depending on where you sit on the spectrum.

Tell me about packaging. We’re seeing some different packaging coming from Bumble Bee (visit for more) and also this new commercial campaign.
We’re very excited about our new commercials because they’re communicating in a different way. Tuna is a fantastic product. [In terms of] the protein per calorie, there isn’t any protein that is better, [but] we haven’t been talking about that in a way that resonates with consumers. Every one of our ads is a use of education and it comes at it from a completely different perspective.Whether you’re hiking, whether you’re at the gym, whether you’re just looking for something easy to make at home, we’re trying to bring that relevance back and we’re trying to do that in unexpected ways. I think every commercial that you see from the Yes! Bumble Bee! campaign, you’re not expecting a pouch to show up at the end, or you’re not expecting a can of tuna, and that’s by design.

The unexpected, the provocative, and the bold elements get people to start envisioning seafood in a different way, a new and exciting way. We’ve retired Horatio, our mascot of many, many years, and we have a much more of an adult presence on the shelf with Bee Well for Life. And we’re talking about the health benefits of our products, because there are numerous health benefits.

You are a co-chair of the PMMI Packaging and Processing Women’s Leadership Network. Can you tell me why that is important to you?
I have always said there is something for everyone in the packaging and processing industry, whether you’re creative or technical. The landscape is so wide that it provides so many opportunities. There’s something to be said about leadership and really honing in on leadership skills, because it is a completely different skillset and something that you need to work on if you’re going to motivate and influence people to join you on your journey. At the Bumble Bee Seafood Company, we want talent to join us here, and we have to do that through effective leadership skills. So, I think that is absolutely something that we can teach at the Packaging and Processing Women’s Leadership Network.

What is your long-term vision for Bumble Bee?
If you would have asked me 10 years ago, I probably would answer, “Bumble Bee’s in the shelf-stable seafood category.” But that’s boring and that’s not going to get you to come to work for us. When you think about it and change the narrative and talk about what we’re really doing here at the Bumble Bee Seafood Company, we’re feeding people’s lives through the power of the ocean. And we are touching people’s lives. We are influencing them, and we are making them better. And that is something that people would want to be part of. People will want to join us on that journey because we are doing something for the planet. We’re fighting for the health of the oceans. We’re elevating lives of people that help us on this journey. And we’re also doing things for our brand, that’s at the core of why we exist. And, we’re trying to create products that resonate with consumers. That journey of feeding people’s lives through the power of the ocean is so much more impactful and so much more heartfelt. So, my wish as we look forward the next 10 or 15 years is that we bring that purpose to life and every team member around the world feels that, believes it, and is so proud to be on this journey with us.

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