“Buying my brother out, who had been my partner for 25 years was a huge challenge. I risked putting everything on the line.”

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Polar Salmon Hjerting Laks builds on a family heritage of salmon smoking for several generations. SalmonBusiness met with the company in Esbjerg, West Coast of Denmark, to hear the story of how a small salmon oven in the backyard was transformed into a business producing 100 tonnes of salmon quantities a week.

It all started in the 1920s when Leo Kjærgaard at a young age took over his deceased father Peder Kjærgaards’ small grocery store in Hjerting, 10 km from the 5th largest city in Denmark, Esbjerg.

The 1930s were hard on the small family business, and as many costumers had a tough time paying for the groceries, they paid with fish. To make the best of these fish, Leo Kjærgaard got them smoked. With the exchange of a box of cigars, Leo Kjærgaard learned from the local smoker how to smoke salmon in his own build smoke oven in the backyard behind his grocery store.

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Father of Christoph Kjærgaard in 1965 with trucks deleverage of Norwegian Salmon. Hjerting Laks. Photo: Private

A lot has happened since the big salmon hung in the homebuilt smokery in the backyard. Industrialisation followed and so did the need for enormous amounts of salmon to be processed in short time periods. Hjerting Laks, therefore, merged with Polar Salmon in 2016 but the grandson of Leo Kjærgaard, Christoph Kjærgaard 4th generation is still at the end of the table maintaining the family’s reputation and keeping a solid foundation while the winds of change shift.

Christoph Kjærgaard has driven the family business forward since Hjerting Laks and Polar Salmon merged in 2016. The road has had its bumps, and working without his brother by his side was not easy. Photo: Katrina Poulsen

“A lot has changed during the last 10-15 years. Today we produce around 100 tonnes of commodities a week, our growth has had an annual increase of 20 per cent. This year we expect an additional 10-15 per cent” says Christoph Kjærgaard, CEO of Polar Salmon Hjerting Laks.

Hjerting Laks has moved the 10 km to Esbjerg and now has big industrial production as Polar Salmon Hjerting Laks where mostly Norwegian salmon is smoked and distributed into 100 different taste variations.

Christoph Kjærgaard explains how he all through his childhood growing up in the old factory, he has always been happiest when having lunch with smoked salmon on rye bread.

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The warm-smoked salmon that does not have the fitted size for slices are squeezed together into a rectangle and sold to sandwich suppliers who want an accurate amount that can be weighed, so all costumers get the same amount in their sandwich. Photo: Katrina Poulsen
15 % of the salmon sold from Polar Salmon Hjerting Laks is wild salmon from Alaska. The salmon has a more intense red colour than other salmon. Photo: Katrina Poulsen

Tough becoming a global organisation
The transition from being a family-run company to a global organisation was not easy.

“It’s been a very big decision for us, of course. We could see that we had expanded a lot and had to expand and build a factory more somewhere else, as there was no room where we were. If we were to complete that merger, moving from Hjerting, was a significant decision. But there were so many obvious benefits to it. Among other things, the neighbour was interested in buying the old factory at a reasonable price,” says Christoph Kjærgaard.

In association with the merger, Christoph Kjærgaard’s brother Andreas Kjærgaard chose to be bought out of the business. He wanted to try out something else, and today runs a motor workshop.

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Andreas Kjærsgaard and Christoph Kjærgaard ran the family business, Hjerting Laks, for 25 years until the merger in 2016 with Polar Salmon. Here they are featured in front of their great grandfather, grandfather and father. Their great grandfather established the grocery shop from which their father would later sell his own smoked salmon. Photo: Private photo

“Buying my brother out, who had been my partner for 25 years was a huge challenge. I risked putting everything on the line. If it didn’t work for some reason, then it would be tremendously bad business, as it would also affect the family reputation and a business that went back many years,” explains Christoph Kjærgaard.

The time following the merge was new for Christoph Kjærgaard, where for the first time he would be head of the company alone and walking into a new era. But the transition has gone beyond all expectations, even though Polar Salmon, an affiliate of the Danish/Greenland giant Polar Seafood, entered the merger with a deficit.

“The financial statements this year exceed our expectations,”
Over the past few years, Polar Salmon Hjerting Salmon has been able to present annual reports with an annual profit of DKK 18 million and DKK 17 million for 2017 and 2018, respectively. The 2019 annual report has not yet been published, but the company expects a good result.

“The financial statements this year exceed our expectations,” says Christoph Kjærgaard.

Of Polar Salmon Hjerting Salmon products 55 per cent goes to the Danish market, after which Italy is a major buyer of salmon and 25 per cent goes that way. The remaining shares are delivered to the rest of Europe.

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The employees at Polar Salmon Hjerting Laks are half danish and a half from Poland and other Eastern European countries. Photo: Katrina Poulsen

The company produces both warm smoked and cold smoked salmon, most often from Norway, but also occasionally from the Faroe Islands, Iceland and Scotland.

In addition, the company sells wild salmon from Alaska, which accounts for 15 per cent of their total raw materials and is particularly popular in Italy, but also to a greater extent in Denmark and in several European countries.

Will there be a 5th generation?
Christoph Kjærgaard has three children aged 17-21 years. Whether one of them will become the 5th generation of Kjærgaard to bring the company forward is not yet certain, because Christoph Kjærgaard will not pressure any of his children to take over the company.

«The most obvious is our daughter, but she is only 17, she is in her second year at the business college. She is very interested in business operations and is very good at accounting. So she is probably the most obvious, but I will not persuade her to anything,” concludes Christoph Kjærgaard with a smile on his face.