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Wednesday September 16, 2009

PEI's mussel man saw opportunity where others saw a lowly mollusk

He sold his house to start his business, eventually creating an international market for PEI mussel growers

Special to The Globe and Mail

A pioneer of Prince Edward Island's mussel industry, Russell Dockendorff first harvested the shellfish in the late 1970s to supplement his income as a lobster fisherman.

Over the next 30 years, he helped to not only put the product on the international market, but make PEI the largest producer of North America's cultured mussels.

"It was back in the days when people thought we were crazy," said John Sullivan, who started in the island's fledgling industry around the same time. "It [a mussel] was something that people used to kick out of the way."

But Mr. Dockendorff, who would later became known as the king of PEI mussels, saw a future in the cheap, plentiful shellfish - so much so that he sold the family home in order to buy equipment for his new venture.

Since there wasn't any mussel machinery on the island at the time, Mr. Dockendorff had manufacturers modify potato grading equipment to suit his needs.

"It was all trial and error in the beginning," said Len Knox, a friend and former competitor in the mussel industry. "He had so much trust and faith."

After a couple of years the island's industry took off and orders started flooding into his business, PEI Mussel King. His daughter Esther Dockendorff remembers the first shipment of mussels that left the island bound for Calgary.

In a panic, Mr. Dockendorff enlisted the help of his wife Dorothy and some of their six children to not only get the 180 kg shipment to the airport on time, but to stop the container from leaking water while still keeping the mussels fresh until they reached their destination.

"He was a risk taker," said Esther Dockendorff. "And he wasn't scared of work."

Mr. Dockendorff was born in 1927 on a potato farm in Mount Hope in the eastern part of the island, not far from Morell, where he later started his mussel processing business.

At age 10, his father had a farming accident, leaving him disabled.

The young Mr. Dockendorff took over the farm and remained there for several years until he was forced to leave in search of money.

He stumbled on a variety of jobs, doing everything from sawing logs to working at the Ford Motor Co. in Ontario, until venturing into lobster fishing.

Early on he met the love of his life, a young woman named Dorothy MacKinnon. After their quiet wedding ceremony in 1947, the couple jumped into their truck to drive a load of logs to Charlottetown.

With the money they earned they flew to Moncton for a brief honeymoon. They continued to work together throughout their lives.

Living by the motto "You've got to keep moving ahead or you'll get run over," Mr. Dockendorff recognized about 10 years ago that the North American market was becoming saturated, so he turned his sights on buyers in Europe, China, and Israel. He was successful at creating an international market for his company and for other PEI mussel growers. He also expanded beyond fresh mussels into higher-end packaged products.

At age 82, he remained president of his company and just prior to his death was excited to be launching a new product he had helped to develop. At the office every day, he dropped into the plant on the morning of the day he died, just to check on things.

"Money was not the driving factor. He loved the challenge. Finding a new way to make things work," said Esther Dockendorff.

A devout Christian who kept a Bible on his desk, he once said it was being able to help people that made working worthwhile.

He donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay for everything from medical bills to heating fuel for homes in his community.

He never got tired of mussels and often brought home a bagful at mealtimes. Dipped in garlic butter is how he liked them best.

"He loved the mussel industry," said Esther, who has taken over as president of PEI Mussel King. "It was sort of his baby."

Russell Dockendorff

Russell Dockendorff was born on July 28, 1927, in Mount Hope, PEI, and died on Aug. 22, 2009, at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Charlottetown after suffering a brain hemorrhage at his home. He was 82. He leaves his wife Dorothy; children Linda, Stewert, Russell, Esther, Donna and Scott; brother Harold and nine grandchildren. He was predeceased by sister, Lillian and brothers, Edgar and Gordon.

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