The very centre of the Marz Seafood headquar ters in Stykkishólmur is pillared by a tall shelf, stacked with books by female writers, Annie Leibowitz’s photography collection “Women” and a big tablet of female body paintings titled “The Nude.”
It is a bright and totally open space save for one private office, and even that door is left open. It belongs to Erla Björg Guðrúnardóttir, who started Marz Seafood in 2003. Over the last ten years it has become the only entirely female-run seafood exporting company in Iceland and one of the most successful in an industry dominated four to one by men.
Forty-one-year-old Erla calls the five females she runs Marz with ‘her girls’ and she speaks of them with the same level of affection and adoration as she does of her three daughters, who are also ‘her girls.’ This could be because there is no distinction between the employees of Marz and her family—they are one-in-the-same. “I take care of my girls,” Erla says. “I treat them with respect. I want them to marry me when they come to work.”
They share a catered lunch everyday where they talk about everything from a daughter’s singing career to business strengths to an upcoming trip to Burma. They take a break for fresh juice midday; they go out for drinks on weekends and take a group trip together once a year. They’ve run a marathon, climbed a mountain and completed a triathlon together. They are a dynamic group of women from different backgrounds and of ages that differ by up to twenty years.
“I think I have a mixture of very tough women; they are not typical women,” Erla says.
Tough and atypical were part of Erla’s upbringing in a fairly poor and un-peaceful family in Reykjavík’s Breiðholt district, from which she was driven to be independent. When she was 15, she moved away from home with her boyfriend and had a daughter shortly after. They were together for five years and Erla lived an accelerated adolescence. “When I look at my daughter today, 15 going on 16, and I think of her leaving home and moving in with a boyfriend and cooking and pretending to be 40—I wouldn’t want that for her, but I think it largely explains how I am today.”
When she was 24-years-old, she met her husband Sigurður Ágústsson, who grew up in Stykkishólmur and ran a salted-fish-production factory there. They moved to his hometown and, in her disinterest in the handful of clerical and administrative positions at banks and shops in the town of 1,100 people, she enrolled in a business administration programme at Reykjavík University. She completed her education in two-and-a-half years, most of the time remotely from Stykkishólmur, with occasional stretches of up to three-weeks in Reykjavík studying and taking exams while her husband watched their then one-year-old daughter.
At university, a teacher asked the 120 people in one of her business classes which of them wanted to run their own company. The male-female divide in the room was about 40:60 and nearly all of the men raised their hands. Only Erla and a few other women raised theirs.
“I had always wanted my own company, that was nothing new. So I founded this and gave it a name that had an international ring to it—Marz Seafood,” Erla explains.
No small fish
Fish, a passion and resource-driven way of life in Stykkishólmur, became her passion too. She got started with 1,000,000 ISK ($8,238.86 USD) of her savings and began buying and selling cheaper seafood products that the big companies didn’t want to deal with. She needed to gain the trust of producers, who started by selling her one pallet of fish at a time. It wasn’t until several years had passed that Marz began buying fish from Sigurður’s production factory.
In 2004, the company’s second year, Erla hired the first ‘girl’ to help her manage all of the accounts. By this time she was selling to different traders, supermarkets and industrial companies in Europe—most places but the UK. “Icelanders sell most of their fish to the UK,” Erla says. “So when we were starting, nobody wanted a new player in that market, and I had to find other markets that people didn’t want to put so much effort into.”
She began selling to Italy and France and ran the operation out of a 25-square-metre loft above Sigurður’s factory. She took on more employees, all women, and expanded to a second office in Denmark, staffed by two girls year round. In 2010, she moved into the new space in central Stykkishólmur, a 400-square-metre converted post office. She hired a man once but it was a brief engagement. Beyond that, all of her employees were, and are, women.
It’s business and it’s personal
“I think when you reach a point of three or four [women], it’s very hard for a man to come into the group. I mean, if we found a suitable man, with the right skills, we would hire him. But I think that would take a very confident and self-assured man. There is a dynamic here with these women,” Erla says.
She’s never been at the receiving end of off-the-cuff remarks about her all female staff and she even had one producer tell her he would stop working with her if she hired men. “I think gender is such an obsolete idea though,” she says. “You can have very masculine women, very feminine men.”
Erla identifies as a feminist because she fundamentally believes in equal rights. This is not a value that is held in all of the countries where she does business. Regardless, Marz has been able to break into markets where conservative gender roles are still valued. “What it comes down to,” she explains, “is—do you have the product they want? Do you have the price they want? Then they get over it. I could probably grow faster in some of those countries if I had men, but we’re still doing business with them.”
Erla does acknowledge two qualities that stand out among an all-female workforce: empathy and intuition. When she talks with her producers, it tends to be more personal. “We ask them about their kids and their families,” she says, “I’m not talking with them about football; we connect on a different level.”
She is also largely driven by a gut instinct she sees as inherently female. “I use my intuition a lot when I’m doing business and I think that is a pro for women, being able to use that gut feeling. I know that’s not something you can measure or prove, but I’ve learned over the years to trust it,” she says.
Alternatively, she sees less risk-taking among an all-female company.
“Girls in general are more risk averse than men and sometimes it can be limiting,” Erla says. “I just don’t jump into things. I want to be certain, I want to be sure that what I’m doing is the correct, right thing to do.”
Regardless of gender, “If you don’t have the right people to back you up, then your company is not going to work,” she says.
Sign of a great leader
The power structure at Marz is fairly linear. Beyond Erla’s role as the head and face of the company, she works closely with the other employees and encourages them to think as independent innovators.
“We have very lax power here. The girls choose their own titles. If the logistics girl wants to be ‘manager of logistics’ or ‘director of logistics’ it doesn’t matter, really.”
Erla subscribes to the notion that great leaders should surround themselves with people different and even cleverer than themselves—in Erla’s case, a variety of clever and diverse women. “I don’t believe in a great hierarchy,” she explains. “It doesn’t matter if you’ve worked with me for nine years or six months. It’s about whether or not you can deliver what you say you’re going to deliver, about how hard you work.”
After ten years, Erla has learned that the most steadfast way to get a foothold in this industry is with respect earned through knowledge above all else.
“I think that me and the girls,” she says, “when we sit down at a meeting, as soon as we open our mouths, people listen. That’s not about being male or female. We know what we’re talking about and we know what we’re doing.”