Q&A with Robert Downey, founder and CEO of Annamaet Pet Foods

Learn more about the philosophy of this functional dog food's founder and find out just why you never mess with a moose from Robert Downey, CEO and founder of Annamaet Pet Foods.

Robert Downey, founder and CEO of Annamaet Pet Foods, racing with his sled dog team.
Robert Downey, founder and CEO of Annamaet Pet Foods, racing with his sled dog team.

Petfood Industry : What new brands, products or packaging have you introduced in the past 12 months (or how many)? Can you provide information on how they are doing in the market to date?

Robert Downey, founder & CEO of Annamaet Pet Foods : Our two newest products include a Grain Free Feline for all life stages and a Grain Free Lean for dogs. Why lean? Obesity is the number one health problem in dogs today and mimics the trends in humans. At Annamaet we feel there needs to be a feeding option and plan for those dogs prone to being overweight. After consultation with a veterinary nutritionist we made a product with superior ingredients and all of the attributes of a weight control diet (high protein, low fat, additional carnitine and omega-3 fatty acids) without all of the fiber. In an effort to help our customers, you will find two sets of feeding instructions. For those customers who want be able to feed more to their normal active dogs there are “normal feeding directions,” while for those dogs struggling with weight problems there are “obese-prone feeding directions.” Both of these products are doing very well in the market.

PI : What are your company’s keys to growth?

RD : Continued focus on nutrition as well as quality control. We strive to build strong relationships with distributors by providing exclusive territories, in-depth staff training and supporting the independent retailer. It is also important to maintain proper margins for both the distributor and the retailer.

PI : What would you say sets your company apart from the competition? What do you strive to be known for?

RD : I believe our biggest advantage is the passion we have for what we do. Annamaet is also a company that is truly concerned about the environment. I spent seven years doing graduate work in canine nutrition and exercise physiology. Our strong background in nutrition as well as a lifetime involvement with dogs is a definite advantage. I feed my 14 dogs every day before I go to the office, so I am not only feeding our customers dogs and cats, I am feeding my own. Our studies in nutrition have been published in peer reviewed journals for over 30 years. This includes being cited in the 2006 NRC Nutrient Requirements of Dogs and Cats.

I grew up with a kennel of bird dogs and then got involved in the sport of sled dog racing, which has been an important part of my adult life. I have been lucky enough to participate in races from the interior of Alaska to the Patagonia region of Argentina to the Pyrenees Mountains of France. The highlight was winning the 2008 Limited North American Championship in Fairbanks, Alaska.

PI : Please provide sales estimates for 2012—or a comment on sales trends.

RD : Our sales in 2011 were up 43% over 2010, and in 2012 our sales are up significantly higher than that.

PI : What is the outlook overall for the future of your company? Any projections or possible new directions?

RD : We are very excited about the prospect for Annamaet Petfoods, as the consumer is becoming better educated and making better decisions for their pet’s nutritional needs. They are realizing that investing in quality can save them money in the long run with a healthier and a longer-lived pet. Our newest project we are working on is a line of grain-free treats that will be companion treats for our grain-free products.

PI : Where do you see your biggest opportunities?

RD : While there are certainly areas of the US that we need to increase our presence, there is a growing demand worldwide for quality US-made products. The worldwide web has brought Annamaet to parts of the world that would have been impossible a few short years ago.

PI : How would you evaluate the current state of the petfood industry?

RD : I think the industry is pretty healthy. One thing the recent recession has shown is that most pet owners will not compromise on the quality of nutrition for their pet.

PI : What predictions do you have for the petfood industry?

RD : Continued growth for companies that focus on nutrition and customer service. A continued evolution of ingredients towards human grade. As technological advances continue, there is no doubt some of this will be absorbed into the petfood industry.

PI : What are some of the recent noteworthy accomplishments of your company?

RD : In 2010 Annamaet introduced a Grain Free line that has certainly exceeded our expectations. More recently we have formulated our own canine vitamin and mineral package to provide completely chelated minerals, avoid any ingredients from China and provide L-Carnitne to help increase fat metabolism.

PI : How has your company changed over the past several years?

RD : I think we have changed little over the years—we continue to focus on nutrition, science and quality control. We are a family-owned and -operated company, and now have the second generation coming into the business, so we don’t anticipate any major changes in the near future.

One change we have made is to our packaging. We have redone our graphics added zippers and carry handles to some of the bags, and have been described by some as the best bags in the industry.

PI : What are some of your most difficult challenges? In other words, what keeps you awake at night?

RD : Nothing keeps me up at night; I go to bed with a clear conscience! But during the day what concerns me is the continual flood of misinformation that pervades the Internet.

PI : How have the 2007 petfood recalls and the more recent Salmonella-based recalls changed your relationships with your suppliers and co-packers?

RD : The recalls have had little effect on us, as we have been testing our products and ingredients at independent labs since we started 26 years ago. We have always been forthright in our questioning of suppliers and careful to single source our ingredients. Our co-packer that we have been with since the beginning has never been involved in a recall and they maintain a strict quality control program. Many manufacturers have been forced to reexamine their procedures as well as their choice of ingredients in light of the consumers' demand for transparency and honesty. The recalls have had a positive effect on our sales as consumers look for safe, quality-conscious companies.

PI : Is there anything else you’d like to tell our readers about your company?

RD : A lot of people ask, why is there a moose on every bag of Annamaet and what does the word "Manitok," the name of our red meat grain free formula, mean? "Manitok" is an Inupiat Eskimo word that means “rugged.” Why would you name a dog food “rugged”?

Well, as I mentioned, I have sled dogs and I spent many winters in the interior of Alaska training sled dogs. One day, I was out on a training run when I turned off the main trail into a turnaround and I ran into a cow moose with a calf. A cow moose is very protective of their young and in Alaska, a dog musher’s biggest fear. They can be six foot at the shoulder and upwards of 1,400 pounds. I slammed on the brake as I was worried she was going to come into my dog team and start stomping and kicking my dogs.

I started waving my arms and screamed at her, hoping to scare her off. All it did was make her angry and she focused on me. She ignored the dogs and charged past the team towards me, her hackles up, nostrils flaring. My first thought was to get the dogs out of there, so I let go of the team and told them to go home. They were more than happy to leave; off they went, heading for our cabin miles away. I thought I could get to a birch tree that I could climb to safety. The snow was too deep and the moose caught me half way to the tree, knocked me down and started stomping me. That was the last thing I remembered; she knocked me unconscious and left me for dead. The deep snow actually helped me as it cushioned my body while she was stomping me and it insulated my body against the -10 degree temperature after she knocked me out.

I was unconscious for about 30 minutes, which is dangerous, especially in those temperatures. When I came to, I was hypothermic and she had broken my ribs, torn the cartilage in my chest, fractured my elbow and given me a severe concussion.

As the cobwebs started to clear, I realized what danger I was in. With my concern for my dogs' safety, I got them out of harms way, but now I had no way to get home—I could not walk the miles back to the cabin with the injuries I had. My only way back, my dog team, was gone—I had signed my own death warrant!

My thoughts turned to my family over 4,000 miles away. My goal was to make it back to the main trail where maybe a trapper, a snowmobiler or even a dog musher friend would find my body. I stumbled back the 300 yards to the main trail and couldn’t believe my eyes—there was my dog team! The snowhook had fallen out of the sled, caught in the snow and stopped my team. The snowhook is similar to a boat anchor; it can be used like an emergency brake to hold a dog team for a short time.

I was able to get back on the sled and hang on as the dogs made their way back to the cabin. I don’t remember much about the trip as I was in and out of consciousness all the way back, and by the time I reached the cabin I was in shock. I was able to make it inside where I called a friend and said I was stomped by a moose. That was the last thing I remembered. He drove me 40 miles to the nearest hospital. After surgery and months of rehab, as I healed my friends started calling me “Mr. Rugged.”

A few years later, when we were looking for names for our new grain-free formulas, we came across the word "Manitok." We thought it had a nice ring to it and the fact that it meant “rugged” was a double meaning.

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