Luie Fass is known in the seafood industry as "the Phoenix," for the legendary bird consumed by fire who rises again from its ashes.
And for good reason. His Hampton, Va.-based fish company, Fass Brothers, has been bought and sold three times, lost its restaurant chain and fleet of scallop boats two years ago as a consequence of expanding too rapidly, gone into Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings, changed direction and become profitable again.
The company still is called Fass Brothers, even though Luie's brother, Arthur, left the business several years ago to begin a maritime trading company in Newport News. Luie Fass remains -- but no longer as an owner.
The company was sold again last September for $300,000 to Centuri Inc., a New York-based corporation that has been involved in high-tech video games and wholesale sporting goods. Centuri officials could not be reached for comment on the company's plans for Fass Brothers.
Fass -- who has sold the firm and bought it back before -- remains president of the fish-processing company, which now is a wholly owned subsidiary of Centuri. But on a recent afternoon when fish was being shipped in and out of the factory at a rapid pace, he remarked: "If they wanted to sell it back to me tomorrow, I'd buy it back."
Fass is buying and selling fish just as his grandfather did 125 years ago, despite intermittent years of rough sailing. The difference is that the company's product line today is frozen, instead of fresh, and packaged in eye-catching boxes with a banner that reads, "Frozen Fresh From the Virginia Capes."
"You have to learn to change with the times in this business," Fass said. Six months ago, he closed his dock facilities in Hampton and stated firmly that he was "out of the fresh-fish business."
In his new incarnation, Fass imports frozen fish, including flounder from England and Holland, whiting and trout from Brazil, shrimp from Argentina and scallops from Peru. He's checking into frog legs from Bangladesh.
One reason for the switch from fresh fish to frozen is the price, he said. For example, the wholesale price on imported frozen Peruvian scallops is $3 a pound. Domestic scallops sell across the docks for roughly $6 a pound. "Which would you buy?" Fass asked.
Fass said he expects the company's new frozen-fish product line under the Virginia Capes brand name to be given equal billing eventually on supermarket freezer shelves with such frozen-fish competitors as Gortons, Booths, and Van de Kamp's. He also said he intends to compete with Mrs. Paul's, a frozen-fish pioneer with its popular breaded fish sticks, which is now a subsidiary of Campbell Soup Co. "What does Campbell Soup know about fish?" he asked.
By his own estimation, Fass is starting out far ahead of the competition. "I was the largest seafood dealer on the East Coast at one time. I know more about the industry than anyone else on either coast, bar none. I know the problems in this business," he boasted.
"If anyone can pull it off, Luie can," said Martha Blaxall, a Washington-based marketing consultant to the seafood business. "He is an amazing and resourceful individual. Plus he has the contacts and knowledge." Kerry Muse, executive director of the Midatlantic Fisheries Development Foundation, a nonprofit trade association, called Fass "progressive, especially with his marketing of squid."
But the new product line is not widely sold in the Washington area yet, Fass said, adding that he would like to see the Virginia Capes package displayed on the shelves of local Safeway and Giant supermarkets.
"If Fass makes a presentation we can accept, we'll sell the product," said Fred Strauss, Safeway Stores Inc.'s fish buyer for the Washington area. According to Strauss, Fass has "a good chance of succeeding."
Other large seafood processors in Virginia, including L. B. Amory and Co. Inc. in Hampton, Va., and Harrison Seafoods in Newport News, are not in direct competition with Fass, because no other company in the state offers a similar frozen-fish line, according to Shirley Berg, executive director of Virginia Marine Products Commission. Buyers at trade shows have been "reacting very favorably to the Virginia Capes product," she said.
Despite such praise, however, Fass also has provoked distrust among many people in the fishing industry.
"He's very knowledgeable as far as the seafood end of the industry goes, but he doesn't have a real feel for the fisherman's plight, which may cause some of his problems," said Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association. Simns, who has worked with Fass on the Midatlantic Fisheries Development Foundation, relates one incident that occurred a few years ago.
In his haste to fill orders for large quantities of blue fish, Simns said, Fass brought up large boats from Florida, which were more technologically advanced than the local Chesapeake Bay boats, instead of using local Maryland or Virginia watermen. According to Simns, Fass' move left a bitter taste in the mouths of many local fishermen.
The name Fass has been synonymous with fish in the Hampton Roads area since 1860, when Isaac Fass, who came from Germany to settle in Portsmouth, Va., discovered a lucrative market in porgies, sea bass, trout, flounder and croakers. The business prospered and passed from one generation to another. Luie took over in 1953, at age 24.
"I don't know why, but my father wanted me in the business," Fass remembered. "He said he worked all of his life for me to come in. So I went in. . . . Crazy."
According to Fass, the company earned profits of about $900,000 a year through the 1950s and 1960s. The Chesapeake Bay was productive at the time, and there was no shortage of fresh fish from the bay or ocean. It was 1968 before the brothers even put in a freezer, Fass said. At about that time, the Fass brothers sold the company to Liberty Equities, a real estate investment trust, for $3 million in stock. The deal allowed the Fass family to retain control of the company and provided capital to expand the business.
Fass Brothers' move into restaurants in the early 1970s was a logical outgrowth of a sound business, Luie Fass said. A chain of Fass Brothers seafood restaurants was opened in Virginia, Washington, Tennessee and North Carolina. They served fish delivered fresh from Fass Brothers' docks. Fass said that at one point, the restaurants were making more money than the fish-packing house.
Fass said problems started when Liberty Equities was merged into Smithfield Foods in the early '70s. The brothers decided to buy back their company from Smithfield in 1974 because, Fass said, "the management of Smithfield Foods and I didn't see eye to eye." Smithfield Foods sold the Fasses back their fish-processing business; however, it refused to sell the restaurants. Fass said the brothers retained the right to build more restaurants under the Fass Brothers' name and started five more, four in Baltimore and one in Washington.
Back on the seafront, Fass says he noted an interesting development: The market for sea scallops, which were abundant off the coast of Virginia, suddenly boomed. Scallops delivered to docks in Virginia jumped from slightly less than 3 million pounds in 1976 to 7.5 million pounds in 1979, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. The wholesale price for scallops also leaped from $1.69 a pound to $3.17 in less than three years.
Fass took advantage of the scallop boom, but he didn't anticipate that it would go bust so quickly. By 1982, there were only 2 million pounds of scallops sold across the docks of Virginia, and the price remained steady. That's when the sailing got rough for Fass Brothers. The Fass company, flush with profits from its restaurant chain, had built 20 boats between 1978 and 1980 to go after the scallops. "We used working capital for construction. We built restaurants and paid cash for them. We expanded the docks and paid cash. Then we suddenly found ourselves with no working capital," Fass said.
Other factors contributed to the company's sharp economic decline. Fuel oil rose from 11 cents a gallon to 25 cents a gallon, Fass said. Interest rates (the boats were mortgaged) jumped from 8 percent to 22 percent. According to Fass, the fishing vessels that had been returning with 800 bags of scallops per trip began returning with only 100 bags. And profits at the Fass Brothers restaurants, which were not managed by the Fass brothers, "went out the back door," Fass said. The restaurants had to be closed.
"That's where I found myself in 1982. It was a horrible mess," he said.
The Fass brothers, who were fighting constantly at the time, considered their options, Luie Fass said. "We could go to Chapter 11, sell the company, or close the doors. But one of us had to get out. It wasn't working," he said. Arthur left. Luie stayed, filed for protection from creditors under Chapter 11 of the federal bankruptcy laws, and quickly changed the direction of his packing house from scallops to squid.
Luie Fass says he read in the newspapers that El Nino, a tropical Pacific weather condition that causes a warming of ocean waters, was adversely affecting the squid fishery off California. West Coast fishermen weren't finding the 10-armed sea mollusks, also known as calamari, which are considered a delicacy by many gourmets and overseas. Fass knew there were plenty of squid off the coast of Virginia and began buying them, packaging them in three- and five-pound boxes for retail sale.
"I guessed right. The market was bare and the whole world came to us," he said. According to Fass, the company made exactly $1 million from February 1983 to February 1984 selling squid -- long considered a throwaway fish by East Coast fishermen.
Under Centuri, Fass Brothers is now divided into three groups. The retail division sells packaged frozen fish to supermarkets and other outlets; the squid division markets the mollusk worldwide; and the commodity trading business buys and trades fish in bulk.
While admitting he's taking a risk with the frozen-fish business, Fass is optimistic. Among other reasons, he anticipates that customers will turn away from breaded frozen fish to his unbreaded frozen fish. "What we need to do now is develop sales," Fass said.
Meanwhile, the company employs 350 people and Fass keeps the factory going around the clock, packaging 160,000 pounds of fish a week.
But Fass says the company -- and the U.S. fresh-fish industry -- face another obstacle: inroads made by foreign competitors who fish in U.S. waters. Fass, who has been a lobbyist and spokesman for the fishing industry -- he is a trustee of the Midatlantic Fisheries Development Foundation -- is critical of U.S. government policies that allow other nations fishing rights in return for concessions in other areas.
Even so, Fass the businessman buys foreign-caught fish cheaply and sells it, at a profit, on the U.S. market.