Nicaragua’s Sahlman Seafoods this week became a giant in the land of shrimps.
On Wednesday, this small U.S. seafood company emerged from its shrimp farm among the mangroves of Chinandega to receive the U.S. State Department’s highest international business honor, the Award for Corporate Excellence (ACE).
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented the award to Sahlman’s president Marty Williams during a special ceremony in Washington, D.C.
“Sahlman Seafoods is a small company, but it’s having a big impact,” Secretary Clinton said, while extolling the company’s commitment to hiring local women, sponsoring a local soup kitchen, investing in education and health, and protecting the environment.
“This shows that when American businesses move to a town, the quality of life improves and the community gains,” Clinton said.
In giving Sahlman Seafoods the 2011 ACE award—an exclusive honorific given to only two of 62 international businesses nominated from around the globe (the other ACE went to Procter & Gamble for its work in Nigeria and Pakistan)—Clinton stressed that businesses can “indeed do well by doing good.”
“When companies act responsibly they can make vital contributions that benefit everyone, from spurring economic growth, to promoting good governance and the rule of law, to providing humanitarian relief after natural disasters,” the secretary of state said.
Sahlman Seafoods’ executives say something worth doing should be done well. Since the company was founded 75 years ago in Florida, and then later opened its Nicaraguan subsidiary in Chinandega in 1996, Sahlman Seafoods has focused on being “a good corporate citizen,” according to Williams.
It’s not easy work, he said, but it’s the best way to do business.
“It means time, effort and energy trying to make a difference in the environment and the communities in which we work,” Williams said. “But our employees continually prove that a company can do well and do good at the same time.”
The Nicaraguan shrimp farm contains 44 ponds on 375 hectares of a remote island in the Gulf of Fonseca, off the north-westernmost corner of Nicaragua. The company’s modern processing plant, which meets the highest U.S. and European standards, is located in the nearby municipality of El Viejo and has the capacity to process 120,000 pounds of shrimp per day, which it exports under the brand Bee Gee.
The company also focuses heavily on environmental conservation and reforestation. It has developed revolutionary water-conservation initiatives for the shrimp industry and rigid programs to protect the red mangrove population. Sahlman involves local school children in helping to reforest 50,000 new mangrove seedlings every year as part of the company’s environmental education outreach program with the local community.
The company employs some 700 local Nicaraguans on all levels of its operation, making it a U.S. company with a Nicaraguan face, according to Jaime Garcia, the plant’s production manager.
Garcia says all the Nicaraguans who work at Sahlman are onboard with the elements of corporate, social and environmental responsibility, which he says “is part of the work culture.”
Winning the ACE award, he insists, “is a great honor and it makes us feel even more committed than ever to continue supporting the community and protecting the environment.”
That team effort is helping to change the image of the shrimp industry, Williams says.
“In an industry that is not always seen as friendly to the environment, we are very proud of our operating in a sustainable manner,” he said. “And we are constantly reminded that not only can a shrimp farm exist without causing damage to the surrounding area, but also thrive.”
In 2012, the company is taking its community development efforts a step further with the Sahlman Foundation, a non-profit entity to provide funds and supplies to outreach programs.
U.S. corporate diplomacy
For the U.S. government, the ACE awards are about recognizing the important developmental role that U.S. companies play in far corners of the world, but also their unofficial role as ambassadors for U.S. culture and values—the softer, diplomatic side of capitalism, as it were.
“In an increasingly interdependent and interconnected world, corporations are key actors in international affairs,” Secretary Clinton said.
“For many people around the world, the most direct contact they will ever have with the United States is through American businesses—that’s how people learn what we stand for and who we are, and what aspirations we share,” she said. “So this is really important not just to the bottom line, but to our national security, our interests, our values and the future of our global leadership.”
In other words, Sahlman Seafoods’ shrimp business is anything but shrimpy business.