Quality is a big thing for the entire industry, a challenge we're all facing together.

In the current economic environment, the opening of a new manufacturing facility is worth celebrating. Add in that the plant is located in the middle of the US (where manufacturing has been steadily declining), it's received Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification and it will manufacture a new but already successful line of products, and you can understand why plant owner Mars Petcare US is proud.

But the driving force behind all this is something simple yet fundamental to millions of people around the world: a passion for pets, according to president Luc Mongeau. "We're pet lovers," he says. "We're always working feverishly to ensure that we leverage top-notch science and superior nutrition knowledge to deliver amazing products and make the world a better place for pets."

That phrase--"make the world a better place for pets"--is one Mongeau uses often and represents the ultimate goal of all the company's latest initiatives, including product innovation as well as sustainability. "For us, it's about what we're doing here with this facility, but it's as well taking the latest knowledge to make sure we create products that will allow pet owners to share more meaningful moments with their pets."

Everybody wins

In just a year on the job (after stints in other divisions such as Mars Canada Snackfood, Food and Petcare), Mongeau has presided over much growth and change, capped off (for now) by the opening of the new plant in Fort Smith, Arkansas, USA. Environmentally friendly features such as water recycling, energy reduction and protection against erosion and light pollution earned the facility the LEED gold certification from the US Green Building Council. Mars says the plant is the first petfood manufacturing facility worldwide and the first building in Arkansas to achieve such recognition.

"We're so excited about this plant, not only that it's LEED-certified, but it's using resources much more efficiently," Mongeau says. "This allows us in return to deliver more value to the consumer, either with better products or ones that are more affordable. Everybody wins in that equation."

The 305,000-square-foot facility features a linear production flow-ingredients come in one end, finished products go out the other-and best-in-class equipment to maximize efficiency, energy use and the 40 current employees. It includes plenty of room to add to the two existing processing lines and could eventually employ 200. (Read more about the plant's "green" features in the December issue.)

Another major new development for Mars Petcare US is its Center for Excellence, a multimillion-dollar, state-of-the-art R&D, testing and training facility added to the company's plant in Kansas City, Missouri, USA. The center will soon support all 20 Mars plants in the US and is key to the company's efforts to continually improve the quality and safety of its products.

Quality first

Benches across the front of the new Arkansas plant display what Mars defines as its five principles: quality, responsibility, mutuality, efficiency and freedom. Mongeau says quality is always first across all Mars US facilities. But he also acknowledges a continual learning curve, and not just for his company.

"The industry's changing extremely fast," he says. "Manufacturers, customers, regulatory bodies are learning every single day. In the last few years we've invested tens of millions of dollars to ensure we've continually upgraded our plants so we meet the latest food safety standards. And we're doing a major investment in ensuring our quality and safety teams are up to date on all the latest training. So somebody joining Mars in safety will go through six weeks of training before being deployed in the plant."

Debra Fair, director of corporate affairs for Mars Petcare US, adds that the Center for Excellence is set up to handle much of that training, plus advanced training for Mars associates, in addition to testing. "It's for quality testing, laboratory testing, you name it," she says. For example, the Cesar dog food produced in Arkansas will undergo extensive safety testing at the center, according to plant manager Chris Hunter.

"Quality is a big thing for the entire industry, a challenge we're all facing together," Mongeau says. "As part of our commitment to pets and pet owners, it is our highest pledge to ensure we're delivering products that day in and day out they can truly trust. Not only trust that we'll be delivering the right nutrition but that they'll be safe."

Leading edge

The Arkansas plant will manufacture only the Cesar Canine Cuisine brand of dog food, which recently expanded with new Bistro Entrees. "These products are at the leading edge of nutrition, leveraging the key trends right now," Mongeau says. "We see the dog population moving to smaller breeds, and the consumer recognizes Cesar as a brand that understands small dogs, understands the relationship the owner has with a small dog. Consumers trust Cesar to deliver top-notch nutrition with the best ingredients, and Bistro just builds even more on that with a humanlike product."

Fair adds that with the Bistro line, the packaging innovation is just as important as the product. "The flex tray is what Cesar is known for, and when you walk down that grocery aisle, it's very prominent," she says. "It's putting it in a package that consumers gravitate toward and makes their lives easier as it relates to having those great feeding moments with your pets."

Mongeau agrees: "Our first principle of quality includes packaging that delivers the freshest product out there so the feeding experience is maximized. With Bistro the clear trays really allow you to see the quality of ingredients. You see the pasta, you see the vegetables, you see the chunks of meat and the high quality of the gravy. It's such a logical extension of the Cesar brand, and consumers really get it." He and Fair say so far the Bistro line is doing very well in the marketplace.

Desire to do better

Mars has also added to its Pedigree brand with the Pedigree+ line of wet products. "It's all about humanization," Mongeau says. "Either it's about ingredients that look very much like what pet owners eat or it's about capitalizing on human health trends. For example, Pedigree+ adds glucosamine to improve joint function as well as omega-3 fatty acids to deliver a shinier skin and coat."

"Humanization often has to do with functional benefits," Fair adds. "Pedigree+ is the fastest spinning product in the premium wet category because it's offering functional benefits that people can relate to."

How do ideas for new Mars products originate? "We spent an entire day recently doing an ideation session about what we can bring out in the multiple categories that we're in," Mongeau says. "We talk about humanization, but what's really important for us is to be petcentric. If it doesn't make a difference in the life of the pet, we will not do it. It's really important for us to start with the pet."

That leads him back to the company's passion: "It's really our love for pets, our desire to do better, combined with our strong sense of responsibility for the environment. That's the culmination of this plant opening, and we're very proud of putting this facility on the ground, respecting the environment and allowing us to produce more great product."

Business basics

Headquarters: Frankin, Tennessee, USA

Officers: Luc Mongeau, president; Debra Crew, general manager, grocery store brands; Rena Crumplen, general manager, Mars Petcare Canada; Serge Duge, general manager, store brands; Debra Fair, director of corporate affairs

Sales: approximately US$3 billion in 2008

Brands: Cesar, Pedigree, Whiskas, Goodlife Recipe

Distribution: All of North America

Manufacturing facilities: 20 across the US

Employees: about 3,000

Websites: www.cesar.com , www.pedigree.com , www.whiskas.com , www.thegoodliferecipe.com