How do you take a new pet food brand to 35 countries in just five years?
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Eddie Milbourne is founder and managing director of international pet food brand Canagan, a business that exports to over 35 countries, with over 4,000 pet stores across the world.
Tell us about your business
At Canagan, we make high quality, grain free pet food for dogs and cats. All Canagan products are free from derivatives, chemicals, by-products, artificial flavourings and preservatives.
The idea behind the product is simple. Whilst dogs have evolved from wild animals into domesticated pets over thousands of years, the canine digestive system has remained virtually unchanged, and they have little natural digestive support for breaking down and metabolising complex carbohydrates and cereal grains found in many of today's pet foods.
Canagan has therefore been specially designed to closely mimic the ancestral diet of cats and dogs, with a high meat content.
How have you developed it?
From launching Canagan in 2012, we’ve grown the business internationally and now export our products to four continents and more than 35 countries, with a predicted turnover of £25 million for this year.
We’ve been fortunate to be voted Supplier of the Year by the Pet Production Retail Association twice and win awards such as the Garden Industry Manufacturer’s Association Pet Export Achievement Award. We currently have 22 full time members of staff and work with over 4000 pet store partners across the globe, helping to provide further jobs throughout our supply chain.
Eddie Milbourne's pet food business is growing fast
What was the inspiration for launching Canagan?
I previously enjoyed 16 years as the UK distributor for an American pet food brand. In March 2008, a multinational company acquired the brand and withdrew the product from the UK.
Having received no financial compensation for the abrupt ending of our distribution company, I quickly created Symply Pet Foods Ltd, the umbrella company for Canagan, and started trading in March 2009. Our new product line was every bit as good as the former brand and a straight replacement for pet stores.
Fortunately, through long-term relationships with many key clients, we were able to build a strong foothold from which we could grow, leading to the establishment of Canagan in 2012.
Why is it different from other brands?
As a family owned business, we are under no pressure from shareholders to cut corners on ingredient integrity to drive up profit margins. This is what our success is built around. Our customers can see the positive results on their pets by using our products and therefore loyalty to our products is very high.
As a business, we are also focused on our relationships with independent pet specialty retailers. This is the principle upon which our business is founded and we will never change our philosophy.
As a former pet store retailer myself, I know what it is like to have to have a business destroyed by brands that you trusted selling out on their promises by supplying supermarkets and big box discount stores which you cannot compete with.
That is why we will never do it. Moreover, Our 1000 plus pet store partners in the UK are very loyal to our brands and actively convert their customers onto our products. When you have a good product, this happens organically.
How are market conditions right now?
The premium pet food market is relatively saturated and dominated by large multinational corporations. In order to stand out against the competition, your product really must be a cut above the rest.
I think that the largest market developments will occur on an international scale particularly in Asia where household income and pet ownership and is on the rise. Japan, for example, is already one of our biggest markets.
Moreover, we are seeing a trend towards the humanization of pet foods, with many other boutique or niche companies using human food names. At Canagan we have even launched a canned product that resembles “Shepherd’s Pie!”.
How have you marketed the business (any quirky ideas for getting your name out there are welcome!)?
The business is structured on the principle of solely supplying independent pet retailers, rather than the large supermarkets or pet food chain stores. As such, we put customer service at the very heart of everything we do and pride ourselves on having a very fast response time.
As part of this strategy, we are increasingly focusing on engaging with our customers and clients through social media. It adds a fun element to the brand and we love hearing from our customers and their pets on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
What have you done to publicise the brand?
The most rewarding part of running my business is watching my team and staff members grow into experts in the field. When you invest everything in your own business emotionally and financially, you feel every minor bump in the road but having a good team around you certainly alleviates this.
What would you change about politics/law/tax?
For us, health regulations can be particularly challenging as we sell meat-based products. Every country around the world has a unique set of criteria to protect itself from potential health concerns so there are often a number of hurdles for us to overcome when launching in a new country.
This is why Brexit is a shame, as the EU is the only trading place we can send goods without a vast array of Health Certificates.
Have you made any big errors?
It wasn’t a mistake, but it is certainly one of the biggest risks we have taken to date, and that is entering the brand into the competitive US market. It’s much more cutthroat than we anticipated because it’s saturated with pet products but we are slowly but surely making good headway there.
Some markets are more competitive than others
What do you do to keep staff on-side?
Our staff are incredibly loyal. Some of our staff have worked with us for more than 15 years with two members approaching 20 years of service. I believe this is because, as a small company everyone has a lot of contact with senior management and we actively encourage our staff to come up with ideas of things we should do differently or products we should design.
If the idea is a good one, we will run with it. This collaborative approach ensures everyone feels part of the team.
We also have a companywide bonus system that rewards all staff when sales target are met, not just the sales team or managers. Every single person receives a bonus every time we have a record month (including all the warehouse and back office staff).
We’ve also had company holidays to Las Vegas, company go karting, golf and bowling. I truly believe if you look after staff, they will naturally look after the clients and business will be good.
What's your advice for others starting businesses today?
1. Passion drives everything: It creates positive energy. It motivates. It is contagious. Passion gives life to creativity and innovation because only when people are passionate about something, they can come up with creative solutions, give their all, and drive transformative change.
2. Network, network, network: An essential part of any business attempting to sell a service or product is to network like there is no tomorrow. This is what builds confidence in your brand and convinces people that you are a serious player.
3. Remember, it’s not a dress rehearsal: Whenever you get an opportunity to do something in life you should always do it, you might not get another chance.