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Interview with Robert Caslow

Interview with Robert Caslow
Robert Caslow (above left, next to the late Eric Caslow) reflects on his time at Acme and the next chapter ahead.
How did it all start for you?

I’m going to go back to the time when my grandfather— Harry Brownstein, who started this business—was still alive. So that was the early 1960s. I used to follow him down to the Fulton Fish Market. We’d go from stall to stall and it seemed to me that he knew everybody. I didn’t know if he was visiting or buying fish or what, but it seemed that at every stall he stopped into there was a little whiskey to be had early in the morning. I think that that was my first indoctrination into the business.

Through my high school years, I helped out at Acme during the summers. It was a seven-day-a-week business, and my dad and my uncles alternated who would open up on Sunday. When it was my dad’s turn, I volunteered. You know, big shot seventeen-year-old kid, I’d get to open up. I’d tell my friends, “I got to go home guys. I’ve got to go to work at four a.m.” I’d go into the factory at four a.m. on Sunday, and we’d make a few orders. There weren’t answering machines in those days. You called the customers, got the orders, made up the orders, split them up, everybody took some in their cars, and delivered on Sunday morning. It was something I felt proud of doing.

I wanted to go right to work at Acme out of high school but there was something called the Vietnam War going on and my mother said to me, “You’re going to get drafted if you don’t get your deferment by going to college.” I didn’t really want to go to college, but I didn’t want to go to war either. I went to Bryant College, a business school in Providence, Rhode Island and got a decent education there. I came out with a degree in management in 1970 and started full-time at Acme. I graduated college on a Friday and on Monday I was here working. I was very anxious to come to work.

It was my dad and my uncle who were running the place at this point. But I didn’t really work for my dad. He had a general manager at the time named Walter and I worked under him. I did whatever they asked me to do from driving a truck to packing herring, making orders, delivering, whatever needed to be done. My brother joined us a couple of years later, and he was in the production side. I was in sales, marketing and distribution. Back then, there was still a lot of competition. There was Marshall’s Smoked Fish, Montrose, Nova Scotia. And that was just in this section of Brooklyn. There were other companies in other sections of Brooklyn, and in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Cleveland. There were just companies all over the place making smoked fish. How did we survive? We put our noses to the ground. Eric and I had a great career together. We were working 60 to 70 hour weeks. You got there early, you had to be there. It was important that a family member was here when the plant was open. That’s the way we were brought up. We were good workers, we were fair managers. Unfortunately at that time, we didn’t have a lot of middle management. So Eric and I made all of the decisions on everything including what kind of coffee to order. We didn’t go as far deciding on what paperclips to get, but the coffee, yes. We weren’t the smartest guys on the block, but we were there every day. We kept plodding away, coming to work and trying to do the best job. That’s who we were.

Caslow family of Acme Smoked Fish
Can you think of moments over your career that stand out, any event that is particularly notable to you?

I remember the first time we ever did a hundred thousand in sales for the week. I came running home to my wife and said, “Can you believe we did a hundred thousand in sales? It’s unbelievable.” I think it was my first year working and we did somewhere between three and four million for the year. I thought that was huge. Then we kept plodding along.

But more importantly, it was when the fourth generation decided to come to work here. The first one was my nephew, David. I wasn’t blindsided, but I didn’t know that any of the children—I call them children—wanted to come into this business. I was really, really happy that there was someone else. I thought that my brother and I would die here with our boots on and somebody would push us aside and do something else here. By the time Adam came in, Eric and I had an unwritten rule that David worked with me and Adam worked with my brother. We just thought it was better not to work with your dad. And when Emily was in college, she would call me every day and ask, “How were the sales?” I knew that she was interested, but I wasn’t sure if she was going to want to come into this. I looked at it as a dirty, smelly, smoky business. I mean, it was a family business, but you had to really work at it. It was no gift. It wasn’t just staying home and getting a check. No, you really had to work at it.

The fact that the next generation was interested, and wanted to work here, and wanted to try it, was a big highlight of my life.

What do you see your role being at the company now?

My involvement at this point is more to be here as an elder statesman. I’m here for moral support, to be a cheerleader. I remember sitting with my brother after meetings, after everyone left, and I’d say to him, “You know, they want us here. They don’t necessarily want our input.” We needed to strike a balance between what we thought was really important to say to them as opposed to telling them what to do, because they need to figure it out themselves. That’s something that I was very proud of, that between the both of us we were able to step back and turn the control over to the next generation.

I don’t remember a line in the sand that said, “Okay, from now on, you’re in charge.” It was just very smooth and seamless. I use the word cheerleader or chairman or mentor because I don’t want to step too far back and not come here anymore. I want to continue to be here for them when they want to tell me some of their issues or bounce ideas off me. I want to be able to give them whatever good insight I can.

This being a multi-generational business, what does the family element mean to you?

Family’s always been an integral part of our business. I’m very proud that this was a family-run business and it’s still owned by the family, but we have so many talented people here. It gives me great pride to see the talent that we have here to help run this business. You can’t run this business with just a few brothers or cousins or whatever. It started as a family business and it’s important to me that it remains a family business, but without the terrific staff we have, I don’t know if we’d be able to do that. Family businesses usually don’t last into the fourth generation, let alone the fifth generation knocking at the door. We’ll see. We’ll see what happens.

How have you seen the focus on sustainability evolve, especially as it’s transitioned into the fourth generation and beyond?

I think the way we looked at sustainability in the past is, “Will we be here next week and next month and next year to support all the families that work for us?” But now we have Rob Snyder on board and he’s enlightened us on sustainability, culture, and the philanthropic nature of the company giving back. For a long time, Acme was focused on viability, staying alive financially as a business. So we’ve been slow to start doing these things. But now we’re large enough to take them on. The desire has been there, but you need someone to focus you and get you started and keep pushing, because it needs to continue. It’s a way of life. I hope everyone continues to be conscious about our planet. Not just seafood, you know, everything.

I’m thinking of my dad. If you asked my dad what his aspirations for the company were, he’d say, “Nowhere to go but up!” That was his expression. And it’s true. We’re doing terrific and climbing. So what are my aspirations for this company? Not just to grow, but to grow with a purpose to be responsible citizens of seafood. I really think that’s an important part of our family heritage. You reflect back and you see, when Eric and I were here, that there were about 150 people working. And now I’m told there’s over a thousand people working for this company and we’re responsible for supporting these people and their families. So that’s sustainability to these families and to the seafood business as well. I hope that this generation and the next generation to come continues that desire and has the fire in the belly to continue this kind of work.

Caslow family Acme Smoked Fish

 

You can watch Robert's full interview here.

 

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