Merrick Pet Care is a family-owned company where success seems to self-perpetuate. For just under two decades, the company has been manufacturing pet treats and petfood products, and even today, the company is working hard to improve and expand its product lines.

It all started with the patriarch of the family, Garth Merrick, who was the driving force behind the success of the treat line and the entire company's origin. He started out making private label petfood and later added treats to the product line with great success. Today, the company sells more than 65 treat products.

Many members of the Merrick family have played a role in the company. Tyler Merrick, Garth's son, moved back home to Amarillo, Texas, USA, to be closer to his family following the events of September 11, 2001. He currently serves as president of Merrick Pet Care, while Garth is CEO.

Family ties

According to Tyler Merrick, there are a lot of positive aspects to being part of a family business. Merrick Pet Care has many employees who have been with the company since its inception, adding to the sense of working with an extended family. Tyler and his siblings are the third generation of the Merrick family to work in the petfood industry. Lee Merrick, Tyler's grandfather, was the first. The young Merricks grew up working in the plant in various departments. Tyler and his sister, Noelle, and brothers, Sloane and Teel, all worked in areas like maintenance and bagging dog food on the packaging line.

In a day and age where mergers and acquisitions happen every day, Tyler Merrick believes it is unique to see a family business still function as one. Merrick Pet Care doesn't have any outside investors, but it does have professional management and "great people that help make the business work every day."

Recently, the company went through a transition that has been "monumental," according to Merrick. The addition of a COO (James Witcher) and a CFO (Sam Spradlin) for the first time has changed some of the philosophy/management styles at the company. As Merrick stated: "We are a David in a Goliath world, so our style will always be to innovate and do it well. We like what we do and have a lot of fun doing it with a high degree of professionalism. We really aim to put people in a position to succeed, dream, innovate and create and do their jobs every day without being micro-managed."

Birth of a gourmet revolution

Approximately a year after Merrick joined the family business, he started working on developing a new line of gourmet petfoods and re-inventing the image of Merrick Pet Care. Merrick says the idea for his gourmet line came to him one sleepless night. "I couldn't sleep and so I went out and started working, and the ideas started flowing. The product names and recipes all came in the early morning hours. We took these ideas and began working on a line of petfoods that would rival the best in the world. We worked with our nutritionist, research and development teamand the rest is history."

Merrick Pet Care launched the eight gourmet wet dog food entrees in October 2003. Today, the company offers 15 dry and wet gourmet "excursions." These entrees feature human-grade ingredients including freeze-dried fruits and vegetables, trout, buffalo, duck, beef, venison, lamb, chicken, turkey, lobster, salmon and crab, to name a few.

Some of the creative names include Cowboy Cookout, Turducken, California Roll, New England Boil, Thanksgiving Day Dinner (complete with cranberries) and Surf & Turf. These products were even the first petfood to be featured in Gourmet magazine, in fall 2005. Grammy's Pot Pie (wet product) is the company's top seller to date. For the dry dog food, the most popular versions are Wilderness Blend and Grammy's Pot Pie.

Merrick noted that he likes to think the company is working ahead of the trends. "We try to think about what trend is coming next and what we can do to be a part of it. We also really love being pioneers, too, sort of setting our own trends. We definitely try to be the innovators in our market, and not the followers," he said.

Merrick Pet Care prides itself on its ingenuity, as well as its award-winning marketing. Merrick noted that he has seen the largest petfood companies in the world take some notes from his company's ideas, and he has seen its influences in their packaging, advertising and product names. He is flattered by that fact, but at the end of the day it means "we have to work that much harder."

Marketing at Merrick Pet Care has always been done entirely in-house. The marketing department has won numerous awards for its packaging and advertising campaigns. Merrick laughs when he hears people say, 'Merrick hired some fancy-schmancy ad agency from Fifth Avenue to remake the company.' We were just some guys sitting in a plain-Jane warehouse in Hereford, Texas, on the side of a highway, throwing up ideas on a walland some of them stuck."

Driving innovation

Merrick Pet Care is continually working on new products. In fact, four new canned products just recently hit the shelves, including Rocky Mountain Rainbows, French Country Café, New Zealand Summer and Brauts-n-Tots. A dry cat food has been in production for about six months.

The company has also been working hard on developing a new gourmet sausage treat line that is expected to be in stores in November or December. Initial orders have been so overwhelming that it has backed up production, and the company is expanding capacity to meet demand.

Merrick Pet Care purchased from Italy the equipment necessary to produce these treats. Merrick says it is the first company in the US to have the technology. The unique casing is a sprayed-on vegetable-based product. The new products are modeled after the formulations for dry and canned food products that were so successful for the company. The initial roll-out will include six sausage flavors: Cowboy Cookout, Grammy's Pot Pie, Thanksgiving Day Dinner, Venison Holiday Stew, French Country Café and New Zealand Summer.

Today, products made by Merrick Pet Care total approximately 135 (dry, canned foods and treats included). The company must be doing something right: It has seen approximately 1,000% growth in sales from September 2001 to September 2006. There has also been good growth in the private label division. In the 2005-2006 Pet Age Retailer Report, Merrick Pet Care brand treats were listed as the second best-selling brand leader in key pet supply categories.

Operations and distribution

Merrick Pet Care currently employs about 400 people. Most of the day-to-day business functions are handled in Amarillo. The company's dry and canned food production facilities, as well as two distribution centers, are located just down the road in Hereford. With the two centers combined, Merrick Pet Care occupies about 200,000-square-feet of plant and warehouse space. The dry petfood plant currently operates 24 hours a day, six days a week, and runs two extruder lines. The cannery operates two shifts on three lines that fill multiple size cans (3 oz., 5.5 oz. and 13 oz.). There are also a couple of treat plants in Hereford and the surrounding area.

Merrick Pet Care brand products are handled by a traditional distribution network that sells to the specialty pet retail channel. Merrick believes this creates a more exclusive image for the company's brands. The company still manufactures some private label product that goes through a variety of channels as well, such as grocery house brands that sell through grocery/mass merchandiser-type outlets. Geographically, distribution for Merrick products is North American. The international market is something the company may consider in the future.

Future of the industry

Merrick believes that, in general, the level of quality in the petfood products on the shelf today is better than ever. He imagines the future of the petfood industry will continue to follow the human consumer channel. From this arena, crossover products and ideas will no doubt soon be seen in the pet aisle, according to him.

Merrick points to diversity as the key to a bright future for the petfood industry. "I think the other thing you will see in our industry is diversity of products used. Consumers love variety and that goes for their companion pets as well. They like to try not just new dog food flavors within a brand, but new dog food brands on a regular basis. This is a carryover from the human consumer product arena. They want the latest, greatest new thing, and they still have their favorites, like chocolate chip cookies, but they don't mind variety. The same is trickling down to petfood.

"People and their companion pets will continue to try new things, so I think we will continue to see more variety in the petfood aisle, pet treat aisle, etc., and I think that will mirror what consumers purchase for themselves," Merrick continues. "The exciting thing is that consumers have more choices and better choices than ever before. It is our goal to be one of their choices on a daily basis."

Merrick Pet Care has concrete evidence that their products are performing well, because their dog food has won the title of "Pet Food of the Year" from the Glycemic Research Institute (GRI). This is the second year in a row that Merrick's petfood products have won the accolade. The award was presented to Merrick Pet Care for its Turducken, Grammy's Pot Pie and Thanksgiving Day Dinner gourmet canned dog food products.

The GRI is based in Washington, DC, USA. As a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, the GRI is committed to responsible scientific research to provide a greater understanding of the glycemic index and its relation to foods that are glycemically acceptable for the overweight, diabetic and health-conscious public.

Due to high demand from the public for information regarding petfood, GRI added the Pet Food of the Year award and its accompanying Seal of Approval. To qualify for Pet Food of the Year, the product must have a low glycemic index and be formulated without meat by-products or ingredients known to be harmful to animals. The food must also be nutritious and palatable, with a focus on longevity. GRI has no ties to the petfood industry and does not accept monies from any company for the Pet Food of the Year award. For more information on the GRI, visit www.glycemic.com.

Pet Food of the Year