In the dynamic petfood industry, few companies have undergone more change in a short period than WellPet. Built on the foundation of two petfood stalwarts -- Wellness (in turn built on Old Mother Hubbard) and Eagle Pack -- WellPet has integrated separate staffs and cultures, formed a new leadership team, conducted in-depth consumer research, implemented new sales and training tools, relaunched two brands and developed several new products-all in only about a year.
But just as important, says CEO Tim Callahan, is what has not changed since he joined the company in late 2008. "When I spoke with the people from both the Wellness and Eagle legacy companies, we talked about the entrepreneurial founders, the passion those folks had for pets and pet nutrition and how they really got people committed to that.
"So frankly, the first thing we focused on was making sure we don't lose the essence, the foundation of what has made both companies great," Callahan continues. "And the reason this is also important is because to me that's a common link. When you bring two companies together, as you know, it can be a challenge. We had that common heritage, so even though they were different companies with different brands and products, there was a similar path in terms of how we got to where we are today, and that brought some connection to the company."
Yet, as Callahan mentions, merging two companies can pose challenges. WellPet's included the fact that some of its brands were competing against each other. "One of the very first things we did was consumer research, making sure we were very clear on how we positioned our products, how we talked to consumers and that the distinctions and messages about our brands were very clear," Callahan says. That research led to changes in packaging and marketing for the company's Holistic Select and Wellness brands.
Callahan professes great pride in the amount of research Wellness does. "I don't mean academic, brainy research; I'm talking about real world, talking to consumers, talking to customers, thinking about how people shop this industry, this category, what's on their minds, what their unmet needs are," he says. "It focuses our company on things that matter. For a company of our size, and focused very specifically on this superpremium, natural space, I'm hard pressed to see anyone who does as much research as we do."
Similar research will be applied to relaunch the venerable Old Mother Hubbard brand this year, along with launching a weight management product for Holistic Select and a line of stews. "We're also looking at some things farther down the road that are rooted very much in natural nutrition," Callahan says. "I'll go back to what's made the company great-being on the leading edge of good, natural nutrition-so we're looking at some interesting areas there as well, more step-function type innovation."
Thanks to its innovation and products, WellPet has grown more than 20% a year, even during the recession. The growth also comes partly because of the company's large sales force; nearly 90 of the total 200+ employees are salespeople, and they all receive in-depth training.
"We've put a tremendous amount of effort into taking some of the learning from the research we had done and not only sharing that with our sales team so they're more knowledgeable about the industry and what consumers are telling us but also sharing that information with our retailers and distributors," Callahan says. "We do a variety of town hall meetings, training sessions and things of that nature.
"When you call it a sales force, it sounds like it's just selling," he continues. "Obviously, that's part of what they do, but there's also a service aspect in terms of sharing the insights that we've learned and helping our customers build their businesses, not just our brands. It's a support that's really unmatched in the industry." (See "Educating pet retailers.")
Callahan also considers WellPet's quality and safety standards as part of the service and support behind its products. "From just a supply chain standpoint, we made a more than US$1 million investment over the past six months in our facility in Mishawaka, Indiana, USA, to continue to make sure it has outstanding product quality," he says. "We continue to push a quality agenda that not only influences our own manufacturing but also within our co-manufacturers."
In keeping, WellPet has taken a very active role and position on the new Reportable Food Registry established by the US Food and Drug Administration, Callahan adds. "We've pushed very hard into factories and our full manufacturing world and have taken a very clear and direct stance about quality and how we're going to be proactive. There's no ambiguity about that."
Despite its many successes to date, WellPet is not likely to rest on its laurels. "Sometimes companies that are successful can get complacent," Callahan says. "One of the best things you can have is what I call constructive dissatisfaction. That means, in a constructive way, challenging what we're not doing well. And I think that there's still very much that mentality here. It keeps everybody energized. We celebrate the success that we've enjoyed, but we know there's a lot to do.
"We've spent a lot of time bringing these companies together," he continues. "I think we're at a point now where, between some of the things we're bringing to market and other initiatives, there will be a great opportunity for us to engage even more substantially with our retailer and distributor communities. On the marketing end, we're doing some very interesting things with pet communities, reaching out to folks. I think it will be a very interesting year, we'll have a lot to talk about, and we'll continue to earn retailers' and consumers' trust."
Educating pet retailers
WellPet considers educating the pet retail channel part of its mission. "We have really invested heavily in the last six to eight months to give our salespeople tools to be more effective business partners with our independent pet specialty channel," says Tim Callahan, CEO. "Going forward, I think it's more important for retailers to become sound businesspeople."
To WellPet, that means helping retailers understand not only the company's brands but also the industry. "I think it's important for the pet specialty channel to rededicate itself to what it does." Callahan says. "There are great examples of retailers that compete very effectively against Walmart, for example. How do we work with them around that knowledge of the industry, knowledge of pets, knowledge of the food?"
Callahan views the aggressive movement into the petfood market by large mass retailers like Walmart as a looming threat. "I also see confusion between natural and holistic and some of those descriptions, and I think there's an opportunity to reinforce what they mean and bring more clarity to consumers," he adds.
To that end, WellPet is in discussion with various retail partners and industry organizations about a potential education program, not only for retailers but possibly for consumers, too. "The question becomes, can we be an enabler, because we're a company that has resources around marketing and consumer messaging," Callahan explains. "I think it would be time and money well spent."
Debbie Phillips-Donaldson is editor-in-chief of Petfood Industry and Petfood Forum.
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