"In today's corporate age, there are fewer and fewer family owned and operated manufacturing businesses, especially ones as unique as ours," says Charlie Nelson, vice president of sales and part of the family that owns Tuffy's Pet Food .

Tuffy's, based in Perham, Minnesota, USA, is indeed unique, and not just because of its ownership. Its history and collaboration with other divisions of its parent company, KLN Enterprises, brings a distinctive knowledge to petfood manufacturing.

All this adds up to growth of over 30% a year. While that may not be unique in the dynamic petfood industry, it does make the case for-as Tuffy's national sales manager, Jim Farrell, puts it-striving to "be who we are and keep within our niche."

The right thing to do

Part of who the company is includes 40-plus years of manufacturing its own petfood, beginning in 1964 when founder Darrell "Tuffy" Nelson and his son, Kenny, developed the Tuffy's line of dog and cat food as an off-shoot of its livestock and poultry feed business begun in 1947. Petfood sales soon took off, leading the company to discontinue manufacturing feed.

In 1971, Tuffy sold his company to Star-Kist Foods, which was eventually bought by Heinz Pet Products. The plant in Perham still made Tuffy's Pet Foods in addition to 9-Lives Cat Food. In 1996, Windy Hill Pet Food purchased the plant and Tuffy's label; two years later, Windy Hill merged with Doane Pet Care.

Then in 2001, the Nelson family repurchased the facility and label. Charlie Nelson explains why: "It was the very first company our family got involved in, so it was near and dear to our hearts. Just as important, the corporate owners were planning to close the facility altogether. Of our town of about 2,200 people, roughly 140 people were employed by that business, a lot of husbands and wives, a lot of people whom we go back with." Buying back the business, he says, "felt like the right thing to do."

At that point Nelson also became involved in his family's company, which, in the years it was not making petfood, had created two other businesses: human snacks and licorice. "We were able to bring some of that expertise on the manufacturing side of human products back to the manufacturing side of petfood, so it was a very nice fit for us," he says. "All three companies have been able to share knowledge and experience. That really separates us, we believe, from others in the petfood industry. To own our facility, be hands on and have that expertise is key for us."

All available knowledge

Since re-entering the petfood arena, the company has launched three new brands:

  • Nutrisource , a superpremium line on the market since 2003;
  • Natural Planet Organics , a certified organic line launched in 2007; and
  • Pure Vita, a single-source protein formula on shelves since mid-2008.

"When the family took over again in 2001, work started immediately on a superpremium line of products," says Chuck Orvik, product specialist for Nutrisource. "That work went on to make Nutrisource a broad set of products that used all the nutritional knowledge, all the ingredient knowledge available in 2001 and 2002-it took about two years to develop. That became our main product line." This fall the company will introduce a line of wet petfood products under the brand.

Not only is the Natural Planet Organic line certified organic, but so is the Tuffy's plant, which is also certified by the American Institute of Baking. "We're very proud of the product because it's certified, and the feedback we get from customers is that pets really like it," Orvik says. "That hasn't always been true with organic products."

Recently Tuffy's added cat food to the Natural Planet Organic brand. Another point of pride is that the company donates a portion of proceeds from sales of the line to Angels of Hope, a group that places angel statues in memory of children who have died.

Focus on independents

The newest product line, Pure Vita, is designed for pets with allergies. "Using a single-source protein like the duck formula, or the separate salmon formula, allows us to target customers who are looking for a unique protein source or are feeding for a possible allergy," Nelson says. "We also tout high levels of antioxidants," including from ingredients such as acai berry and pomegranate.

Tuffy's purchases many of its ingredients from local growers and uses extensive research, state-of-the-art equipment and quality testing to ensure consistent, high-quality products, according to its website. Besides some international distribution, the products are sold throughout North America, but only in independent pet stores. "Our focus is to grow our labels on a national basis through the specialty pet chain," Nelson says. "While we want to be able to sell our products in all states, the channel we do that through is very important to us. We really enjoy working family to family with our business."

Family to family

The family emphasis is not just a warm and fuzzy sentiment; it's part of the company's business strategy as a key differentiator from competitors. "We like to do business with family owned distributors and retailers, and that's how we set ourselves apart," says Farrell. "That's what we like to be known for: as somebody big enough to have a high-quality petfood but also able to take care of independent retailers' needs, ensure their profitability and keep that relationship."

This strategy permeates the company's supply chain. "What distinguishes the network of suppliers that provide our ingredients is that they by and large have been suppliers for many, many years," Orvik says. "We've done business with the same suppliers who know us, who know what we expect of them and we've developed partnership relationships with many of them."

"Which kinds of lends itself to why we weren't involved in the 2007 recalls," Farrell adds. "We have a large marketing push with our brands that we know our sources."

Nelson emphasizes the company's commitment to the strategy: "We have absolutely no plans of not being a family owned company, and that is a big question we get asked. With so much consolidation going on in this industry, people want to know and like to know and deserve to know that we're going to be around, we're going to continue to provide high-quality, ethical products, we're going to continue to bring new items to the market that our retailers are asking us for."

Back hunting again

The family touch extends even to consumers. "They contact us all the time with questions and compliments about how great our products are," says Paula Sucher, sales coordinator. "Their dogs that were old and crippled and sleeping by the fireplace are now back hunting again after eating our food.

"We have a personalized customer service desk here, too," she continues. "If someone has a question, they can pick up the phone and talk to a person on the first ring. We don't have any automated phones. People tell us all the time how nice it is to actually talk to a human being right away."

Nelson chimes in: "If there are questions on ingredients, they're answered directly by us. That's why we're growing and why I think we have nice relationships; it's doing these small things that we don't have any plans of getting away from. We remind each other of the grassroots approach to growing this business." If they stay on that path, he says, "We can continue to grow nicely, focus on our segment of the industry and keep moving forward."

Online extra!

Read the full interview with the Tuffy's team.