Leigh Kirtley is a "machine," according to her banker. In the past year, she has launched 10 new petfood products, established her OmniPro superpremium petfood line in 21 countries outside of North America and set in motion an ambitious US launch to start in early 2008. Until recently she has done all this on her own in the male-dominated pet industry from an office in tiny Madison, Mississippi, USA.
"It's a lot to manage," she says. "When my banker said I was a machine, I replied, I have to be!'"
But her management achievements this year have included finding key support people and partners and developing a plan for what she insists will be controlled growth. "Companies can grow themselves out of business," she says, "so we are targeting a 50% growth rate because we feel this is the most we can manage."
Through the back door
Kirtley started OmniPro in 2004 to complement her export business, K & K Pet Products Export Inc., which she opened in 2000. After successfully exporting products from Chomp Inc. (treats), Nutri-Vet Nutraceuticals LLC and Feline Fresh (cat litter) to 51 countries, she decided she needed petfood to round out the line. To better control the product line in what she saw as an ever-changing regulatory environment, she launched her own petfood company.
"For now we are a boutique operation in a highly competitive niche market, one of the main reasons we decided, from a marketing standpoint, to come in through the back door,'" Kirtley says. "We established dominance in the less competitive overseas market first to achieve a stable base of repeat customers. We simply found a need in the global market and filled it. And, I had established contacts through trade shows and referrals in the industry."
Kirtley's college degree is in international trade, and she had worked as a trade specialist for the state of Mississippi, helping companies import and export. When she decided to leave that job and start her own business, she chose the pet industry because of its high volume, which she had noticed while doing research for other companies. "It was a numbers game," she says.
OmniPro began with a line of superpremium dry foods that has grown to 23 SKUs for all lifestages. The formulations were developed using chicken and rice or lamb and rice as the base, plus other ingredients designed for export to the European Union and other countries with strict regulatory environments for imports, according to Kirtley.
She explains that she worked with experts at her contract manufacturers to develop the formulations. "I tried to keep them clean so they would clear customs in all the countries," she says, referring to the dry food formulations.
When it came time to develop a wet food line, Kirtley had three goals:
The result was OmniPro Holistic canned foods with unique ingredients such as caviar, sweet potatoes and pheasant. The base protein for most of the wet products is salmon because, Kirtley believes, "You don't have to explain the health benefits of salmon. It's delicious with exceptional nutritional value (omega 3 essential fatty acids) found in few other foods.
"For the carbohydrate, I didn't want rice or potato because everyone has it, and it's bland. I wanted something different," she adds. "The caviar was a natural for me because I go to the sushi bar, and I get that all the time."
To Kirtley, adding caviar was also a way to humanize the productand it worked. Sales doubled, she reports, after the first four flavors hit the market in September 2006.
Kirtley built on the initial success by adding lifestages to the wet foods line. These include puppy and kitten formulas with a double protein source (chicken added to the salmon), plus lite products with a second main ingredient (besides the salmon) of sweet potato.
Kirtley is positively bullish on the latter ingredient. "The sweet potato not only adds an all-natural flavor to the product but also delivers health benefits without the extra calories," she says. Plus, her home state of Mississippi is a major producer of this crop, and it's a staple in many cultures around the world where OmniPro products are sold.
Building a team
With the global success of Omni-Pro, Kirtley believes other elements are aligning to launch it in the US, which she's planning for the first quarter of 2008. But rather than continuing to go it alone, now she's reaching out to a team of experts to help, including a transportation manager and CPA, both part-time and off-site.
Kirtley also relies on customer service representative Sheri New and a national sales firm that is working to get the products into major US pet and natural food retailers. Also joining the team is Bill Porter, a local businessman with a wealth of experience working with small, minority-owned companies and now serving as OmniPro's part-time CFO.
Porter sees more success and profit ahead for the company because of Kirtley's passion to create unique products that the market wants. "Those are usually the best sellers, especially in a small company," he says. "You live it, go to sleep with it, wake up the next morning and it's still yours. And you're just so committed, and I've always felt that's the best."
For the US launch Kirtley is also relying on her existing partners at her contract manufacturers to deliver the volumes needed for the US market. Both the dry and canned food manufacturers have doubled capacity this year, with the final phase of expansion for the canned manufacturer due in the first quarter of 2008.
Made in the USA
Kirtley sees her relationships with these vendors as key to OmniPro's success. "None of the plants I work with were involved in this year's recalls because none of them import ingredients," she says. (The lone exception is the lamb used in some OmniPro dry foods, which comes from New Zealand. According to Kirtley, because the US has had cases of BSE, other countries require lamb used as an ingredient to be from New Zealand or Australia.)
Kirtley says the fact that all other OmniPro ingredients are US grown or produced has been a major selling point. "Our whole concept is Made in the USA.' We have the American flag on everything," she explains. "In overseas markets, Made in the USA' carries a lot of weight, because it's perceived that we can make a higher quality food than can be made in other countries."
Kirtley believes that perception means the industry will continue to prosper, despite the US recalls. "I still think the US makes the best petfood on the planet, and everybody knows that," she says. "Our plants are booming."
Her long-term goal is to come out with a dry petfood line to match the holistic canned line. "That will be the only dry food on the market with caviar in it," she says. "Conventional wisdom says that a healthy diet is one low in fat and, invariably, short on flavor. I beg to differ."
Madison, Mississippi, USA
Officers: Leigh Kirtley, president; Bill Porter, CFO; Sheri New,customer service
Brands: OmniPro Superpremium dry foods, OmniPro Holistic canned foods
Facilities: All production done by contract manufacturers
Distribution: Available in 21 countries in Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Will be available at major US pet retailers starting in the first quarter of 2008.
To market OmniPro and other pet products outside the US, Leigh Kirtley arranges an exclusive distributorship in each of the countries to which she exports. "We use the Market Access Program, or MAP, which is part of the Foreign Agriculture Service (FAS) within the US Department of Agriculture (USDA)," Kirtley explains. MAP includes a matching marketing funds program, which allows her distributors to receive 50% back on their marketing plans for the products they sell for her companies.
According to the FAS website (www.fas.usda.gov), MAP uses funds from the USDA's Commodity Credit Corp. to "help US producers, exporters, private companies and other trade organizations finance promotional activities for US agricultural products. MAP encouragesthe development, maintenance and expansion of commercial export markets for agricultural commodities." The program provides funding for consumer promotions, market research, technical assistance and trade servicing.
Debbie Phillips-Donaldson is editor-in-chief of Petfood Industry and Petfood Forum.
By Lindsay Beaton
Giving back is a significant part of the pet food industry, and companies focused on philanthropy want to make connections, not just donations.
By Ann Reus