Go Fish! Northern Fish Turns 100

Photo by Linda Sok

John Swanes and son Ross run Northern Fish Company, one of the oldest and most successful family businesses in Tacoma. Over the past century, five generations of the family have helmed the company, turning it into a thriving business. But the company’s overwhelming success hasn’t gone to their heads. “My dad, being of the Norwegian-nature, stoic and always worrying about the future, has always said we’ve been going out of business since 1912,” said John with a chuckle. Never taking advantage of success and always working a little bit harder is what keeps this company flourishing. John and Ross don’t take one minute, one cent or even one fish for granted. They’re hard working, humble; small-business owners who take pride in the delicate art of selling fresh, quality fish. Because at the end of the day, they’re feeding their community, their friends and their family, and they hope the family business can continue to for another 100 years.


It’s Not that Complicated: John – You can make business as simple or as complicated as you want. We try to stay focused on exactly what we’re doing here and it’s very basic. You’ve got dead fish that’s got to get to the consumer as fast as possible so they’ll buy it again it’s so good.


Joining the Family Business: Ross – It was a choice to come back and work with Northern Fish and I take a lot of pride in it, but I went and did other stuff. I worked for a consulting company, a software company; I went back and got my masters. It was a career choice for me.


Pressure to Uphold the Family Business: Ross – Yeah, there’s pressure but we don’t look at it as a generational thing, there’s a lot of pride in it that we talk about, but if you hold on to a company purely because you want to hand it to the next generation, it’s not necessarily the best way to operate. You want to hold onto a company because the business is profitable and has satisfied customers.


Experience is Key: John – I came straight to work out of college and worked for my dad, Vernon, and I didn’t really bring a lot in from the outside world, other than I had a college education. … When Ross was deciding what he wanted to do for his career, we suggested he go learn some things from other people and get a taste for what it’s like out there.


Owning a Business is a Lifestyle:John- When you run your own business, it’s a lifestyle change that you’ve got to be willing to buy into. You don’t come at 8 and leave at 5 and not worry about it. You’ll get calls throughout the night; you’re working weekends, and if you don’t want to do that you’re probably not going to be successful at a small business, that’s just the way it is.


Most People Don’t Know: John- Over 90 percent of the seafood in the United States is farmed.


Customer Fears: Ross – We like talking about wild, it’s kind of who we are, we like to sell wild products, but the fears of farmed salmon are so overblown compared to poultry or beef.


On Honesty: John – We’ve raised our families in this town, my great-grandfather lived in this town, you’ve got to be able to raise your head up high when you walk down the street or when you go to a social event or some place and you’ve got to be proud of what you do — and we are.


Where to Invest: Ross: If you get big enough, spend all your time making sure you have the right people. We’ve grown quite a bit in the last 10 years, and our biggest asset is that we’ve got some employees who have been here for 15-plus years, and I rely on them a significant amount.


Who is a Famous Hero You Look Up To? Ross -We’re small business owners, you know? There’s no such thing as really heroes than the guys who get up every day and go to work, those are the guys I typically respect the most.


We Feed Our Friends: John – Let’s say we’re going down to the car museum for a fundraising event for local sports or something like that, I don’t want someone saying “Hey I got some bad fish from you John, what’s going on?” You know, that’s no good. You’re feeding all your friends.


The Community’s Business: Ross – A lot of my parents’ friends, just by association take pride and want Northern Fish to succeed because they’ve grown up around it too. It’s their Tacoma company.


Favorite Seafood: Ross – We’re kind of a little boring when it comes to seafood frankly in our personal lives. We get asked, ‘Well how do you cook salmon?’ And my answer is, with heat … make sure it gets warm and that’s about it. If it’s good fresh fish, I don’t do anything to it.

is the managing editor at South Sound magazine. Email her.
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