Maine Small Business Owner of the Year: Mike Cote, President & CEO of Look's Gourmet Foods/Bar Harbor Foods

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March 19, 2012

By Matt Wickenheiser, BDN Staff

Posted March 16, 2012, at 4:37 p.m.

WHITING, Maine — Last week was busy for Michael Cote, president and CEO of Look’s Gourmet Food Co. in Whiting.

It started with a trip to Anaheim, Calif., to pitch the company’s high-end Bar Harbor Foods products at a natural foods expo. Then he caught the red-eye out to hit the premiere East Coast Boston Seafood Show. Then he headed back out to the West Coast for the remainder of the expo.

It may sound like a lot of travel, but everything’s relative. Cote travels more than 200 days each year, marketing his company’s goods to customers everywhere. That work has been a key part of making his company successful, said Cote, who was named the Small Business Administration’s Small Business Person of the Year for Maine this week.

“Being a small business owner is not easy,” said Cote.“You got to take the bull by the horns. Nobody represents your products the way you do.”

Born to children of immigrants who worked in Maine’s textile mills, Cote bought Look’s in 2003 after discovering the assets of the 86-year-old company. Until that point, Cote had spent his career working for other people in the foods industry, with high-level tenures at companies that include Pepperidge Farms for 18 years and at Odwalla, before it was sold to Coca-Cola.

“In a few short years, he has turned that around into a thriving, profitable business that’s adding employees as they grow, and is becoming a national presence, all down on the shores of Holmes Bay,” said Harold Clossey, executive director of Sunrise Economic Council, who nominated Cote for the award. “That’s pretty cool.”

Clossey also is an SBA award winner this year, having been named the Financial Services Champion of the Year for both Maine and New England.

Cote said in buying the assets of a company that had closed, it was clear the business had to be run differently to be successful.

“That immediately told me I had to change how things were run,” said Cote. “We reinvented this entire brand. We differentiated ourselves in the marketplace — we do those niche things bigger, better than our competitors do. That’s been the main focus of our company. We don’t just do seafood products, we do unique, qualitative seafood products.”

They market products under the Bar Harbor Foods brand. Products include Indian pudding, clam chowder, clam juice, lobster chowder, crab bisque and many others.

That focus on value-added products, and a diverse mix of them, has allowed the company to be successful as other seafood canneries have fallen by the wayside, one at a time. There used to be 42 canneries up and down the Maine coast, Cote noted. Today, Look’s is the last.

Cote said he was very proud to get the award, but said it was really recognition of the work his 26 employees are doing.

“I just think it’s a great thing for our company,” he said.

Clossey noted that much of the canned seafood market is now in Southeast Asia, Thailand, Vietnam, and similar countries. To have a factory in Maine competing successfully in the market says something, he said.

“It shows the entrepreneurial spirit is very much alive in Washington County,” Clossey said.

Cote and the other award winners will be feted on May 17 at the SBA’s awards ceremony in Augusta.

Those other winners, besides Cote and Clossey, include: R. Scott Robinett, manager of Computer and Information Technology at the Maine Small Business Development Centers, Veteran Small Business Champion of the Year award; Sherry Brown, Susan Pope, Jane Harmon and Bonnie Pothier of Key Bank’s Key4Women Champions, Women in Business Champion of the Year award; Patricia Rice, Minority Small Business Champion of the Year Award; Black Dinah Chocolatiers, Home-Based Business Champion of the Year Award; and Howell Laboratories/Shively Labs, Small Business Exporter of the Year Award.

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