Eight hours. That’s all it took to put an entire season of production, hundreds of jobs and 62 years of work by three generations of the Quinlan family in jeopardy. On April 11, 2016, a massive fire at the Quinlan Brothers’ flagship plant in Bay de Verde, Nfld., sent smoke billowing from the east to west side of the building and across the town, causing the mayor to declare a mandatory evacuation and state of emergency.
According to a CBC News report, the flames were so big, and the smoke was so intense, that the fire was picked up on satellite imagery. Eight different fire departments came from as far as 90 kilometres away to help battle the blaze, and though no lives were lost, nothing remained of the plant.
Now, a fire is never convenient, but to hear president Robin Quinlan tell it, the timing couldn’t have been worse. “It was the start of snow crab season and that was the plant where we processed it,” he says. “There were boats in the ocean full of crab, ready to go. And we had no facility.” Snow crab represents about 80 per cent of Quinlan Brothers’ business. No one said it out loud, he recalls, but no one in the industry thought they’d be back that season or anytime soon.
This wasn’t the first time Quinlan Brothers had faced adversity, however. The company, founded in 1954 by brothers Patrick and Maurice Quinlan, grew at a cautious pace. The brothers never over-leveraged themselves, focusing instead on building respect with the independent fishermen who supplied them with product. In time, Quinlan Brothers went from a local fresh cod plant to a player in the global industry, exporting its products to 20 countries in North America, Europe, Asia and Scandinavia. The sales pitch was simple: “Our fishermen go into the ocean, put out nets and that’s it,” says Robin, the grandson of Maurice. “Our fish is wild-caught, and the world loves Canadian seafood.”
Along with the growth came pain. In 1992, the Canadian government imposed a moratorium on cod fishing in Newfoundland and Labrador, hoping the over-fished, depleted species could rebuild. Boats remained docked and tens of thousands found themselves out of work. “Those were dark times,” recalls vice-president Wayne Quinlan, Robin’s father. “You didn’t know if you were going to survive or not. The bank was calling every second day.”
This forced the Quinlan Brothers to pivot. The company built two new processing plants and started looking to Greenland halibut (or turbot), shrimp, and pelagic fish like sardines, herring and mackerel that could be exported to Asia or sold to zoos for animal feed.
Patrick Quinlan was instrumental in growing the business and took Robin, then a commerce student at Memorial University in St. John’s, under his wing. Once Robin graduated, Pat taught him how to run a seasonal business like a finely tuned Swiss watch—with precision, but also around the clock. “I remember once I was going to a friend’s wedding and Pat called to say there was trouble down at the plant,” Robin recalls. “I couldn’t say, ‘Sorry, I’m going to a wedding.’ In fact, the only wedding I was ever assured to get to was my own.”
In the tight-knit community of Bay de Verde, with a population of just under 400, the Quinlan Brothers understand the value of relationships. Fishermen are treated like trusted friends, often approaching the company for small loans to buy nets and other equipment instead of going through a bank. “If I met a fellow on the road and he said he needed a new outboard motor, there’d be no need to set up a meeting,” says Wayne. “I’d just shake his hand and say, ‘Go get it.’ ”
It’s a counterintuitive way of doing business but in Newfoundland, a gentleman’s agreement is binding. “Pat often told me that when you’re exiting this world, the only thing you’ll be remembered for is what your handshake meant,” says Robin.
The afternoon of the fire, messages of support started to pour in from Quinlan Brothers’ employees, competitors and customers around the world. Competitors offered the use of their plants during the night shift. For months, Quinlan Brothers’ employees, many of whom had been with the company for most of their working lives, drove an extra hour or more for their shifts. Not a pound of crab was wasted and not a person went unpaid. “Thanks to the play Come From Away, the world now knows about the community mentality that makes Newfoundland unique. It’s all true. When people here are down, the rest pick them up,” says Robin.
At the same time, they had to decide what to do next. Pat, now 88, gave Robin a choice: use the insurance money to rebuild, or leave the empty lot and keep the business afloat with the other two plants still standing. Not rebuilding was not an option for Robin: “It never occurred to me to leave our people at home or end Pat’s legacy,” he says. “I wasn’t having that.”
Instead, they would build the biggest and most modern snow crab facility in the world. Robin and his team travelled from Iceland to China in search of new technology. They drew up plans and worked with contractors and subcontractors who were willing to work day and night. The first shovel went into the ground on Aug. 1, 2016, and seven months later, the new 600-by-80-foot plant was ready for opening—an unheard-of feat that would have taken at least a year under normal circumstances.
“I wouldn’t wish what we went through on anybody, but we came out a better company,” says Robin. “Coworkers became friends. There’s a whole new sense of camaraderie, pride and respect in that plant. When a bunch of people come together with a single focus, anything can be done.”
On the anniversary of the fire—a year to the day—the Canadian Food Inspection Agency came to the new plant and put Quinlan Brothers’ licence back on the wall. Pat was there to cheer on the reopening but passed away later that year, well respected for his impact on the community and remembered for his handshake.
Looking to the future, Robin plans to expand the supply for Quinlan Brothers’ new cod and Greenland halibut plants, and build strategic partnerships to maintain the raw material. “In other words,” he says, “invest in your facilities, then go look for fish to fill ’em up!” Just like Pat would’ve done.