Tommy Henry with St. Peter Projects

Tommy Henry with St. Peter Projects

This week on The Mobile Alabama Business Podcast, we sit down with Tommy Henry. Listen in as we discuss his life, career journey, and how he got into the world of seafood!

Produced by Blue Fish.


Tommy Henry: I'm Tommy Henry, and I'm vice president of St. Peter Projects. Marcus Neto: Amazing to have you on the podcast, Tommy. So I'm excited for a couple of reasons. One, we're friends, so whenever I get a chance to shout out what friends are doing I like doing that. But also, you do something that I don't think 99.9% of the world knows even happens, and so I'm excited to share that with people. But before we go there, why don't you tell us the story of Tommy Henry? Where are you from? Where'd you go to high school? Did you go to college? Are you married? Just give us some of the backstory. Tommy Henry: Sure. And again, thank you for having me, too. Marcus Neto: Yeah. Tommy Henry: I was born in Atlanta, Georgia. Moved to Bay St. Louis, Mississippi after second grade. Spent all my formative years there, and I went to Saint Stanislaus High School in Bay St. Louis. Marcus Neto: Say that 10 times fast. Tommy Henry: Yeah, no kidding, right? From there, I went up to Pearl River Community College, played soccer for two years. Then I went to Southern Miss in Hattiesburg and got a bachelor's degree in communications, and then started my career. Marcus Neto: Very cool. Now, I know this is a family-run business. Tommy Henry: Correct. Marcus Neto: So did you go immediately following college into it? Tommy Henry: I did not. I went to Tampa, Florida, to a tuna company named Anova Foods. And then from there I went to Atlanta, Georgia to a salmon company, and then I came home. Marcus Neto: So was that at the... And I mean, we're jumping over, but. So was that at the direction of your... Or was that a suggestion that your father made? Or- Tommy Henry: Well, I kind of felt like it was, you needed to earn some rights to be a part of this bigger business. And so the business that we had, he didn't have the time to teach me, being a one-man show at that point. So I went to these other companies to get education and learn, and learn bigger business and learn bigger programs. And I've carried that all the way through my career, which has been very helpful. So working for those companies for a couple of years each really, really helped catapult the direction that we're going in now. Marcus Neto: It shows you what I guess, is possible, right? Tommy Henry: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Marcus Neto: In a larger organization now. And so you went to college, graduated, and then we outlined that. And just for those that might be interested, married? Kids? Tommy Henry: So, I have kids. I've got a boy and a girl, six years old, twins. Not married; still friends with my ex-wife, which is always good. Marcus Neto: That is good. Makes things easy. Tommy Henry: So she's an awesome person, and really does a great job with the kids, and so we co-parent very well. But they are two of the biggest blessings in my life. Marcus Neto: Very cool. Tommy Henry: They are awesome. Ben and Georgie Henry. Marcus Neto: And so, ladies, if you're out there and you're looking for a special somebody in your life, I can vouch for Tommy. He is an outstanding human being, so. Tommy Henry: Well, thank you, Marcus. Marcus Neto: Yeah. Now your first job, and I always kind of give some intro to this. Your first job where you were pushing a broom or flipping burgers or doing whatever, not your first job starting in these kind of corporations. Tommy Henry: Correct. Marcus Neto: Were there any lessons that you still remember from that job? Tommy Henry: Absolutely, that I do not want to go back to it. Marcus Neto: Yeah, I hear that. Tommy Henry: I was washing dishes at my uncle's restaurant in Bay St. Waveland, Mississippi, Lil Rays. And then I graduated to line cook up there, and then worked numerous construction jobs during the summers, and waiting tables and all that. And beautiful people, awesome industries; just, you learn pretty quickly that that's not what you want to do for the rest of your life. Marcus Neto: For sure, yeah. And so going back to that job washing dishes at your uncle's restaurant, I mean, was there something specific? Or was it just like, "Hey, this is motivation for... I definitely don't want to wash dishes for the rest of my life"? But usually there's something else that you take away from those, whether it's putting... I don't know. Anyway, is there something that you- Tommy Henry: Yeah. I mean, I would never down on any job. There's a job for everybody, and to do things. And inside that job you're sweating, you're dirty, food's flying all over you, you're taking people's plates. And it's definitely needed. It just, it hits you at some point when you go, "I want to go to college. I want to go do bigger things. I want to go learn. I want to get educated, so that I can do some different things with my life." So not one in particular incident or another, just overall. It was a great job, it was a great start to my working career. Shows you work ethic. You just learn that there's bigger things out there in life that people can obtain if they put their mind to it, and get educated and move forward. Marcus Neto: Absolutely. So now I want you to tell people a bit about the business. Tommy Henry: Okay. Marcus Neto: And then, as you can, weave in how did it get started? Because I know your father started this, you said 60 years ago? Tommy Henry: Yeah. It was in 1979, is when it was incorporated. Marcus Neto: Okay. So tell us a little bit about the business and what it is that you all actually do, and then tell us how he started it. Tommy Henry: Okay. So we're wholesalers, we are brokers. We do a lot of trading on different over-produced or stagnant items. So what we do is we come in and either start a program with new fish for you, for restaurant menus; for retailers we pack our own label of domestic whole cooked crawfish, domestic alligator meat. And then we also do an Indonesian farm raised pompano that we're building programs on. So we basically go into food service distributors and/or retailers, find out what they're using and what they need, and we put together the programs for them. And we bring in the product, either on our label and/or another, and we store it in public cold storages around the country and deliver them as needed on programs. Tommy Henry: The second part of the business is more of what we call a salvage type. So if insurance companies have loads that were hot on temperature, or if they have product that are in freezers that are just stagnant and not moving, we'll buy that for pennies on the dollar and then try and go move it to food banks, to various different lower income areas that would... That's still great protein that needs to move. A lot of salesmen want to sell things that are on the front end all the time, and they forget about products that might be a little bit older that have no issues whatsoever. So we go in as our specialty and the people that we know, and we target or approach customers to not mess up markets with that side of the business. And then we promote our business on the front end with the domestic items, and then also the packet label items that we source for people. Marcus Neto: So, I mean, I'm just going to... I've likened this to almost like a stock market for fish. Tommy Henry: Very much so. Marcus Neto: I mean, it blows my mind when you think about this. I mean, is there a... What's the term for where you trade stocks and stuff like that? Is there like a marketplace for- Tommy Henry: Right, yeah. There's no Dow, there's no NASDAQ, there's nothing like that. Marcus Neto: I was just like, "Tuna's up, tuna's up. Buy, sell. Sell, buy," you know? Tommy Henry: Yeah. Right, right. And we do, we speculate on stuff. So if I know tuna's moving up, which it did recently, you buy ahead of time and save yourself... Or, excuse me. Well, you can either, A, keep your customers happy and not raise prices drastically, and/or you just get ahead of the markets and you make a better profit. So absolutely, it's just like a stock market in a lot of ways. And a lot of people outside of you attribute it to that when I explain it. Marcus Neto: It's just an absolute trip to think of it in that sense. Because, I mean, we don't think of food in those respects. And I don't know if this exists for meat and stuff like that, or if it's just for fish, because it is such a global thing. Tommy Henry: Right. Marcus Neto: Typically with meat I get the impression that it's like, well, there are ranches, processing plants within a general area, and then that just goes to the grocery stores and the butchers and stuff like that in that local area. So I don't get the impression that tuna is being found in Massachusetts and being shipped to Japan. I mean, it's just- Tommy Henry: Right. It's a global industry, and things come from all seven continents. They come from all over the place, and it's really amazing the logistics of it and how it goes. And people don't realize the work and the effort and the people that are involved in getting that food to their plate and/or their door and/or in the retail stores. It's an amazing process. And on a global scale people look at seafood and think it's huge, right? Marcus Neto: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Tommy Henry: Well, it is. It's a huge scale of production and processing and importation and then domestic processing, but it's really a niche community of people. And really it's a lot smaller industry than people think, as far as the people that are in it. But it's on a global scale, which is really, really cool. Marcus Neto: No, that is interesting. So go back and tell us how your father... I mean, how did he get started in this business? Tommy Henry: He's one of a kind, Marcus. He was in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, and his cousin was living in Atlanta at the time when Atlanta was booming. This was early '70s, it was starting to pick up pretty good, so he went out there and he started a fish market. They ran that one fish market, turned into five fish markets. Did absolutely amazing for half a decade, really good. So what happened was at the end of the run, the big box stores started to come in. Your Walmarts, your Kmart, your Krogers, your Winn-Dixies, those guys. Well, they had a lot more money to go buy a lot of things, and have the buying power to make their costs of seafood cheaper, so it really kind of put him out of business. Tommy Henry: Well, at the end of that run he had met an Israelite that was farming a specific fish over in Israel, which we now know today as tilapia. So he went to Israel, talked to the kibbutzes and the Israelite and saw this fish and thought, "Man. It's farm-raised, it's working towards sustainability, and nobody knows about it in the US market." So he brought product back, fed it to our family, and we all ate it and loved it, so he named it St. Peter's Tilapia. Tastes so mild, everybody loves it. And the reason why it's named St. Peter's is because in the Bible St. Peter threw his net over the other side to feed the multiples, and he fed multiples with tilapia. Marcus Neto: Wow. That is so cool. Tommy Henry: So that's why it's called St. Peter Projects. It's a very blessed company. He did work with Mother Angelica on his own dime that did stuff to help communities; still does. And so from there he started selling fresh seafood from Israel to the market. Well, then they found out that they could get three growing seasons in South America instead of two, because the mean temperature for tilapia is 70 degrees. So they moved everything to South America and started pushing the fresh tilapia from there. Well, again, here come the big guys from the orient and various different places that can do it on much larger scales because of labor, and all the different factors that they can do. Well, that put him out of that business. Tommy Henry: So he's been on a rollercoaster. But from that, all the people that he met... That's why I was talking about the seafood industry earlier. All the people that he met still supported him, so he started brokering seafood to them where he would flip for nickels and dimes whatever they needed to other importers that would need product, and/or to other smaller entities of food distribution and wholesale markets. And he did that business, or has done that business now for 60 years. When I came into the business, I wanted to change it a little bit. I wanted to buy the seafood. I wanted to own it. I wanted to do it so we could make better margins, and also control our destiny as far as we go instead of just brokering it for other people. And that's what catapulted where we are today, for sure. Marcus Neto: That is so cool. I mean, and it's interesting to think of just how drastically things have changed in that whole industry. And 60 years is a long time, but it's not a long time, right? And so to see it go from a non-existent, like we don't know what is being raised or what is being fished in other countries, to now knowing what that is and also being able to purchase it at the local Publix. Tommy Henry: Right. Marcus Neto: You know what I mean? It's just insane to me. But do you remember the first time... This may be a little bit difficult because you joined the business after it was already running, but I can still imagine that there was still a time where you thought, "Okay, this is something. I can see myself going into this, and this is going to be a really good thing." And really kind of grasped hold of what it was that you were doing. Tommy Henry: Sure. I've been in this industry now for 13 years, and eight of those 13 have been back with our family business. About four years ago I realized how much it was going to work, because we instituted the buying and selling, where we bought it, took possession of it. And as that grew and grew, by the fourth year we were seeing major jumps every year. Just major, major jumps in percentages of business. And then we started putting stuff on our own label about four years ago, and that's when I knew it was going to really take off and work because we had the customers, we had the respect, we had really good product. And so ever since then, about four years ago, it's really taken flight. Marcus Neto: Wow, that's cool. And it's interesting, because it's just small changes that you're making here and there that kind of still fit within the business model. Tommy Henry: Yup. Marcus Neto: That kind of changed the trajectory of what it is that you do. That's awesome. Tommy Henry: Very calculated movements. People try and grow too fast, too much, and you really need to move at the pace that your business is going. Marcus Neto: Barry and Vicki keep telling me that you're smart. I don't see it. Tommy Henry: I don't know. They give me a lot of credit. Marcus Neto: Now, if you were talking to someone that wanted to get started in running their own business, what's the one bit of wisdom that you would impart to them? Tommy Henry: I would tell somebody to make sure that you know your markets, know your customers, know your product better than anybody else. Educate yourself on every market, everything that has anything to do or pertain to your business, and know more than the other guy. Know more than your competitor, know more than your customer, so that you can teach them. So to learn, really it's the biggest weapon that anybody can ever use. Anybody can go make a sale, but if you're educated on that sale and you retain that business you've got a partner for life. So it's not just a sale. Educate yourself on what you're doing, so that you can make a conversation and make a program and make good business relationships with people. Marcus Neto: What's something that you know about seafood that nobody else knows? Tommy Henry: Oh, lord, I don't know. Not that nobody else knows, but certainly I educate myself a lot on markets. I see trends and I study trends quite a bit, because it's not like fresh fish. We do mostly frozen. So fresh changes daily up and down, and it's hard to kind of navigate. But you pay attention to what's going on in the world, you see what other countries are doing and what we're going to face, like we are now with shipping problems and all different types of labor issues. And you really just move forward with what you're thinking is going to happen, and then in that way you really kind of get ahead of what's going on. And it's a hard thing to do, but if you do it and you're diligent about it, there'll be a lot of success. Marcus Neto: Yeah. No, and some of it's just the gut. You do this for long enough and you can start to start to see the patterns. And it is amazing to me, guys like you that deal with purchasing from around the world, and you really do have to kind of stay up-to-date on what the international events are and stuff like that. Tommy Henry: Absolutely. Marcus Neto: Because a ship getting stuck in a major shipping channel, I don't know if that would have necessarily affected you, but- Tommy Henry: Oh, it affected me greatly. Marcus Neto: Yeah, I can imagine. Yeah. Tommy Henry: That was a fun ride. Marcus Neto: He's sweating a little bit now, folks. Tommy Henry: Yeah. Marcus Neto: You can't see it, but there's a little perspiration on the top upper lip. Tommy Henry: Oh, yeah. That was a fun few weeks there. Marcus Neto: Yeah, I can imagine. I know a lot of people that deal with goods, and that was not a fun time. So anyway, you said what you're currently working on. So if you look to the business world, who's one person that motivates you? And I'm not looking for, "Oh, my dad, or my brother, or my uncle." I'm talking like, hey, you go to the grocery store and you look at a magazine and it's Elon Musk or it's whoever, Bill Gates or whatever. Tommy Henry: Different organizations that are doing things now, like Legit Fish and traceability programs that we have in our industry, that are really trying to help the consumer understand where their fish is coming from, how it's being processed, what is any chemicals or anything that they're using and/or not using. So these organizations that are helping the consumers actually get information that they weren't getting before, those are some of the biggest influential people I think in this industry. Because it used to be just selling fish in a box, that's what it was. Well, now you've got QR codes on there that link you back to the fishermen all the way to the plate, or to your retail bag. You've got people doing different traceability programs so that you can know where all your product is at all the times, which really helps our industry out a lot. Tommy Henry: So I would say organizations like that. Your SeafoodSource news, that keeps you updated on what's going on around the world with different industries and different products. Those type of people are very influential because they're here to not sell something, they're here to promote the business of seafood. It's not their job to sell products to distributors and wholesalers and retailers, it's their job to educate people and also educate the consumer. Which, fish has always been a really hard thing to teach people about. People understand beef and poultry, pork. Seafood's something a lot of people are scared of, and so getting the word out about it is really, I think, probably one of the most influential type of organizations that we can have. Marcus Neto: You just said something, and it did strike me. So people are somewhat fearful of seafood. I don't quite understand that. And maybe it's because I was raised by somebody who grew up on the coast of Brazil, and so has quite a bit of experience with seafood, but I don't know. I mean, I've never been fearful of it, but I do understand that. There are a lot of people that don't like to try it, it tastes too fishy or whatever. And it's just like, well, if fish tastes too fishy, then it's probably not edible. Let's just start there. Marcus Neto: It's not going to taste like chicken, nor should it. And let's just establish, the chicken breast is the biggest chunk of tasteless meat that you could ever put in your mouth. So, I mean, when I start thinking of a Chilean sea bass or something along those lines, where it's just an amazing piece of seafood that... Literally just stick it on the grill for a couple of minutes, and it's done. Maybe wrap it in some foil and put some butter on it. This is not complicated stuff. What would you say to somebody that has that fear in them? Tommy Henry: Give it a try. Try it. Just give it a shot, because I think especially during COVID that we've all been through, products were hard to get. Beef, poultry, chicken, it was all very difficult, and we saw a huge uptick in seafood. Marcus Neto: You did? Tommy Henry: Huge. And so I think the consumer went out and said, "Well, we can't get this, and/or it's too expensive. Let's try this." And then more and more people do that, and try it. Like you said, the Chilean sea bass, phenomenal fish. Branzino. You got multiple. Lionfish. Fish that people never- Marcus Neto: I've never tried lionfish. One of these days. Tommy Henry: Yeah, that they never think about. And so if you see something at your local market, if you see something at a restaurant, just give it a shot because you may be surprised at how good it is. Marcus Neto: Yeah. And I'm a big fan of seafood, just because it's high protein, it is low in fat. So that allows you some leeway with, okay, I'm going to add butter to it and stuff like that, which typically enhances its flavor. So are there any books, podcasts, people, or organizations that have been helpful in moving you forward? Tommy Henry: I looked at that question, Marcus, and I would most certainly go to two categories. People, and then our industry as a whole. So people-wise, obviously my father has been in the business a long time. I would reference him for sure. He's been a very influential person in my life, in more than just seafood. Marcus Neto: Sure. Tommy Henry: But he taught me a whole lot, and then I have another gentleman, I call him my seafood dad. His name is Steve Crawford. He brought me into a lot of different businesses that my dad didn't know about; broadliners, and going to multi-unit restaurant chains, and how to conduct yourself in those environments. So those two people have been very influential in my career path and my growth, and will always forever be thankful for them. And then the seafood industry as a whole. As I was mentioning to you earlier, it is a very small community, as large as it seems on a global scale. And we all look out for each other, and you all talk, and you get a family sense with the people that you deal with, and they care. So helping each other and not just always trying to make a buck off one another, and really coming together as a community to promote something that we all love. Marcus Neto: Yeah. No, that's really cool. Now, what is the most important thing that you've learned about running a business? Tommy Henry: Whew, man, that's a big one lately. I've been wearing a lot of hats lately. I think the most important thing is, mind your business. Make sure you're on top of it. Make sure you're there early, make sure you're there late. Make sure you're the one checking over everything. Make sure that everything is running to your caliber, your speed. If you don't, and you don't mind the shop, you're going to go in another direction.And you want to obviously keep learning, but just be mindful of the shop basically. Really know your business, understand every aspect of it. Don't slack in any area whatsoever, especially as a business owner. If you don't like accounting, learn accounting anyway. If you don't like doing stapling BOLs or paperwork- Marcus Neto: I feel so judged right now. I don't know. Tommy Henry: I don't mean to throw you down [crosstalk 00:21:40]. Marcus Neto: Yeah, I know. Throwing me under the bus, man. No, I think one of the... Because I did Emerging Leaders a couple of years ago, and they take you through all these different things. And at that point in time actually, I had a friend that went through it before I did, and he said the book that they read was Managing By the Numbers or something along those lines. I forget what it was. If somebody cares that much, I'll get you the title. I've got it on my bookshelf. But anyway, it was a very interesting book that talks about profit and loss statements, balance sheets, accounts receivable. All those things that are very important to a business, and helps you understand the relationship between all of them. Marcus Neto: But it is not... Still, the thing that I do not like the most is dealing with the accounting. But if you don't know your numbers, you can't see the writing on the wall of what's going to happen in two or three months when maybe business goes down or it goes up. Or you change something about your advertising and then it either makes you get too many leads, which drives you insane because you're trying to balance all the work, or not enough leads and so you're trying to let people go, and all this other stuff. The numbers really tell you a lot. Tommy Henry: It's like the accountant always tells me. She says, "If you're unbalanced, you're going to fall over. It's got to match up." Marcus Neto: Yeah. Well, that's the accounting humor. Tommy Henry: Oh, yeah. Marcus Neto: It's one step below dad humor, so. Tommy Henry: Dad joke. Marcus Neto: Tell people... This is the hardest question I ask anybody. How do you like to unwind? Tommy Henry: As soon as I step my feet off land and onto a boat, it starts right away. If I need peace, if I need to calm down, if I need to pray, if I need to think, if I need to do whatever I need to do, I step off the dock into a boat and just take off. Marcus Neto: Do you have a boat? I don't- Tommy Henry: I do. Marcus Neto: We've never had that discussion before, so. Tommy Henry: I do. Yeah, I do. Marcus Neto: And why have I not been invited on this boat? Tommy Henry: I don't know, man. Marcus Neto: What the hell? Tommy Henry: I think this relationship's just growing, so I think we need to get you out there soon. Marcus Neto: I thought we were friends, man. Tommy Henry: I don't have quite as big a boat as we've been on before, but [crosstalk 00:23:35]. Marcus Neto: I believe that. Not many people do, but it's good to have friends that have those kinds of boats. Tommy Henry: Absolutely. Marcus Neto: Yeah. So you like to unwind by stepping on a boat. Tommy Henry: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Marcus Neto: So I have to ask you this other question, which is, if you were to sit down to dinner and you could choose anything to be on that plate in front of you, what would that be? Tommy Henry: Definitely seafood. And truthfully, my favorite fish is a pompano. Marcus Neto: Really, pompano? Tommy Henry: Florida pompano, and the pompano that we're doing out of Indonesia is a Florida farm-raised pompano hybrid. It tastes very similar to the Florida fresh pompano. So that's one of my favorite eating fishes. It's really just delicious. Very succulent. White, flaky meat, got a fatty belly, sashimi grade. It's just a really nice product. Yeah. Marcus Neto: Good stuff. Yeah. He knows his seafood, folks. Listen to him. So, well, to wrap up, tell people where they can find you. Tommy Henry: So is going to be the best way to find me. It's got all our contact information on it. It's got information about our company, all our brands, what we're doing, and then all our contact information's on there. So if anybody wants to reach out or ask questions, please. Anytime. Marcus Neto: Yeah, no, that's great. I want to thank you again for coming on the podcast. To wrap up, any final thoughts or comments you'd like to share. Tommy Henry: Yeah. I mean, I'd like to thank you. I've never done anything like this before, and this is really cool. And we've become good friends, and this is a really neat process. And what y'all are doing to get the word out to people about different businesses and what people are doing, I think, is really awesome. And thank you for having me today. Marcus Neto: Yeah, no, I appreciate you saying that. I'm going to take two seconds and just kind of tell people. We started this project four or five years ago because I got tired of hearing all the negative news, and I have since cut out all news. I don't watch the news, I don't look. I mean, occasionally I'll pull up both CNN and Fox just to kind of see, okay, what are the headlines? What are they fighting each other on? But I wanted some mechanism by which we could show all the amazing things that business owners were doing in Mobile, and so we launched the website, and we did the podcast as a way of promoting the positive news that was happening in Mobile. Marcus Neto: And so when you go to and you see the articles or you see the events or you see the podcast, it's all geared towards showing Mobile's good side, its positive side. The people like you that are helping, not... You're helping fuel an industry, right, but you're also helping employ people. You're bringing dollars into this area that wouldn't necessarily be here, right? Most people don't think about that. They think of the restaurateur that starts a restaurant. Well, the money that that restaurateur is getting is more than likely money that is here already, right? Somebody has to go into the restaurant in order to make a purchase. Whereas us being an advertising agency, and you being a broker for all these seafoods, we're doing work all over the world. And so those kinds of people that bring money into an economy from outside of the area are very... That's very good to have. Just from a business diversity and economic development standpoint, it's just a very good thing to have. Marcus Neto: And so we wanted to share all the positive things that were happening in this area, and so we decided to put our foot where our mouth is, I guess, and started this whole thing. So thank you for saying that. And I'm two seconds over, but it's just important to kind of highlight that over and over again because many people come in late to the party. Because we've done over 200 of these podcasts at this point in time, and so they may not know the story of why we did this. Because you didn't pay anything to be on here. Tommy Henry: No. It's a pleasure. Marcus Neto: And I don't want any of your money. I want to be able to share your story, and who knows? Who knows who listens to this? Maybe there's a distributor or a restaurateur that helps you out. Great, buy me lunch. That's why we do it, is because we just want to help the business community out. So anyway, I'm sorry to take up all that time, but I do appreciate you being here. So normally what I would end with is, Tommy, I appreciate your willingness to sit with me and share your journey as a business owner and entrepreneur. It's been great talking with you. Tommy Henry: Absolute pleasure, Marcus. Thank you very much. Marcus Neto: Thank you.
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