"We started this business before it was fashionable," declares Susan Weiss, founder of Ark Naturals, Natural Products for Pets. "We believed and still believe we can make a difference." Founded in 1995—a time, according to Weiss, when the petfood industry was not interested in natural—the company has continued to steadily grow while sticking to its initial goals.
"I can remember a (trade) show in the late ‘90s, where I was trying to induce a retailer to carry natural," Weiss recalls. "And she said to me, 'No one is interested in natural.' I can remember when I would walk into a pet store and tell them that they needed to put a small sign up that said natural corner. That was a revelation to retailers!"
Fifteen years later and the demand for natural products has grown explosively, with Ark Naturals doing better than ever. In 2009, its profits were up by 10%, and Weiss predicts that the final 2010 numbers will show double-digit growth. "I think one of the things that has made us so successful is we had to figure out tools to stay in business by making it understandable to the retailers so they wouldn’t shake in their shoes about whether they could understand enough to sell natural," Weiss says. "We continue to work hard. We continue to question our formulas as science is ongoing and we have to be flexible and re-think what we held as absolutes."
In 2009, Ark Naturals introduced its pet dental line—including Breath-Less Brushless Toothpaste and Breath-Less Plaque Zapper—and won the 2009 Pet Age award for the most requested product by retailers. In 2010, the company introduced three new products, including Paws in the Pie, low calorie, low sodium, wheat-, corn- and soy-free treats for small and large breed dogs. And the product line only continues to expand—the company will unveil several new products in March 2011.
"One of the problems with growth is trying to remain hands-on," says Weiss. "As our products move into distributor environments, it gets more difficult to stay in touch with our retailers. Growth means the juggling act gets harder, not easier." Ark Naturals tries to keep all those bones and biscuits in the air by providing exceptional customer service with live people to talk to and getting back to customers quickly, says the company. Weiss also emphasizes the importance of maintaining inventory, maintaining quality control and providing education to both retailers and pet parents.
"One of the things I worry about is how our message is being delivered," Weiss says when asked about what keeps her up at night. "What I mean is, how is the pet guardian interpreting it? Do they know how to use the product? Do they know when to use the product? Do they think if they use Ark Naturals (or any natural competitor) products that they never have to consult with a vet?" Ark Naturals tries hard to encourage pet guardians to ask questions and get the right answers and thinks working with Association of American Feed Control Officials to improve labeling and ingredient claims is the key. Weiss describes pet parents as "self-diagnosing" because they think they know what glucosamine is or what probiotics do, and often decide if their pet really needs it without getting any kind of advice. "I don’t want to say that I can cure cancer," she says. "But somewhere between saying almost nothing and making wild crazy claims, there should be better options out there. I think this is really important."
As for predictions regarding the future of her company and the industry as a whole, Weiss declares Americans are the most amazing pet guardians and will continue to support the natural pet industry. "I just hope that we don’t sell our souls to get the most shelf space."