When most petfood manufacturers talk about their customers, they’re referring to the human buyers—pet owners, retailers or distributors—of their products. “At K9 Natural, we do the opposite,” says founder and director Geoff Bowers. “We look at the food from a cat or dog’s perspective. If we open our eyes and minds, we will see what nature provides for our dogs and cats.”
By adding this dog- and cat-centric twist to the well-known business philosophy that the customer is always right, K9 Natural has grown 300% per year for the past three years and expects to continue the same growth rate through at least this year, says Calvin Smith, CEO. Bowers adds that the company’s success springs almost solely from its product, a “truly natural, balanced, convenient and affordable raw food diet for dogs,” according to its website. In September, the company added a line for cats, Feline Natural.
“A product that cats and dogs should eat is the main key to our growth, followed by the reaction from the cats and dogs when they have a chance to do so and their owners who witness it,” Bowers explains. “Another key to our success is the fact we tell you that the food is not perfect; it cannot be. Nature provides perfection, not humans. If our food was warm, covered in fur/feathers and running/flying past your cat or dog’s nose, then K9 Natural would have produced the perfect food for cats and dogs.”
Before starting K9 Natural, Bowers already had a long history of success working with dogs as a trainer and police dog handler in the UK. In training dogs as well as other handlers, his philosophy was to observe and learn from the dogs. That led him to take a sabbatical to Alaska to study gray wolves and learn how they trained their pups.
“During my sabbatical with Gordon Haber, PhD, he taught me the true family values wolves employ to survive,” Bowers says. “Being a police dog handler, I had seen the worst side of people. To understand that I was now witnessing the perfect family was life-changing. Wolves work as a superb team; they look after one another; when they mate, they mate for life. How many humans can we say do that today?
“So through that study I began to realize we had so much to learn from nature,” he continues. “Nature in my view is perfect and indisputable.”
That perfection included the wolves’ athletic, healthy bodies fed on a natural, animal-based diet. On his return to the UK, Bowers changed his dogs’ diets to raw and immediately saw huge differences in their health, Smith says, and enjoyed lower veterinary bills. Bowers was also motivated to pay tribute to two dogs he had lost to injury; he wanted to pay them back after they had saved his life multiple times, Smith explains.
After moving to New Zealand in early 2003—partially because he transferred to that police force but also because he saw the country as an ideal place to source meat for dog food—Bowers and his wife, Diane, met Bruce and Judy Mayhew, German Shepherd breeders and business owners. “Inspired by Geoff’s story and motivated by their shared passion to improve the well-being of dogs, Bruce and Judy enthusiastically contributed their business expertise and resources, and together they made their dream of producing a 100% natural raw food diet a reality,” the website says.
“Palatability has never been tested or been an issue with any food we have produced,” Bowers says. “We say fussy cats and dogs do not exist; they are simply telling us they cannot eat the food we are trying to feed them.” He cites company research showing about 33% of dogs are deemed picky or fussy and about 50% of cats. “So raw provides a solution to their owners,” he adds.
The K9 Natural line currently includes lamb, beef, venison and green tripe. The dog products are comprised of 85% meat, bone and blood, plus 15% fresh fruit and vegetables, whole eggs and garlic. All the animals supplying the meat are grass-fed and receive no antibiotics, hormones or other substances.
At first K9 Natural’s raw products were frozen, says Smith, who joined the company in 2010. “Then we realized we needed to add convenience, so we also started producing freeze-dried products.” That move also allowed K9 Natural to start exporting, which it now does to 18 countries in Asia, Europe and North America. The company just started shipping frozen products to the US this year.
While successful, the exporting has not been without challenges, particularly complying with the differing regulations of the various markets. “No one had ever made a food that was exportable around the globe in its truly raw state. K9 Natural is the only food on the planet that can travel to any continent, including Europe, without being irradiated, cooked or sterilized,” Bowers claims. “Why? Because of the stringent food safety regulations we subscribe to in New Zealand and the products we use to make the food.”
Bowers adds that achieving certification took many months and thousands of dollars. “No one had done this before,” he says. “The hardest places to export to are the EU and Australia; we are the only company able to import a truly raw, uncooked, non-irradiated product into both of these continents. It took 18 months and the laws to be rewritten, but we succeeded as we will not compromise.”
With the cat food line, human customer demand did play a role. “Feline Natural came about from the pressure of our dog food clients who owned cats; they felt guilty they could not feed the same quality food to their cats as they were to their dogs,” Bowers says. “We released Feline Natural first in the New Zealand market to great reviews by the cats (they gulped it down) and their owners.”
The company introduced the cat line to the global pet market at SuperZoo 2011 in Las Vegas, Nevada, USA, where it was a “huge hit,” Bowers says, along with the green tripe product. The company is planning more line extensions for both dogs and cats, he says.
Further growth will also come from continued expansion into other markets, including Japan, which Smith believes offers the next best prospects. “He lived in Japan and understands how the Japanese value quality and convenience, which are two strong attributes of our freeze-dried range,” Bower says.
The continuing growth and expansion has not gone unnoticed. “We were ranked the eighth-fastest-growing company in New Zealand in 2010 by Deloitte,” Smith says. In November 2011, Deloitte named K9 Natural to its Fast 50 list of New Zealand's fastest-growing companies; in fact, the company ranked in the top five.
“The overall outlook for K9 and Feline Natural is extremely positive,” Bowers adds. “The same goes for any company that makes a food cats and dogs eat, there will never be a problem selling it. People have always known what their cats or dogs should be fed. We are just letting people know it’s fine to trust your instincts.”
Bowers sees K9 Natural’s success closely tied to that of the overall petfood industry, even those members who criticize raw products. “For us all to survive, we need to work together and accept that the consumer needs to be told they have options,” he says. “I firmly believe no company set off making a food for companion animals in the belief it would harm them; as an industry we need to work together to make sure that never happens. But we also need to realize that raw feeding is here to stay.”