An exclusive interview with the owner of Pets Choice about his incredible career in the pet trade
Where did your journey begin in the pet trade?
My father had a grocery agency with a few staff, and it was a nice little business. I was the only one of my siblings that was interested in the family business always spending time with my father during school holidays visiting customers. However, during my third year at university, my father phoned me up and said: “I’ve sold the business. In a year’s time, when you finish university, we can start up again if you’d like.”
So, I went home, and we started a new food broker business. I spent 10 years building the business from scratch which was extremely hard work. Without my father, his knowledge, and contacts, I think it would have been very difficult.
That is when I first entered the pet industry. We saw a tube of dog food called a chub in a pet shop under a brand called Davies and I thought that was a great idea to launch into the grocery market. Fortunately, I managed to find an ex-butcher to set up a production site in Nelson, Lancashire. We launched under my brand, Top Gold, and we sold into the cash and carries. Our first customer was Nurdin and Peacock, which eventually became part of Bookers.
We had our first delivery into stores, and I went in to see the product on shelf. However, I couldn’t find it and when I spoke to a member of staff, he told me that it had sold out in a matter of hours! I was only in my mid-twenties but at that point I knew it was going to make us some money.
You’re synonymous with Pets Choice. How did you first become involved with the business?
We needed to diversify our business. In 1990, I approached Ted Davies, who was the
biggest distributor of chubs in the pet trade, while I was biggest in the grocery sector. I said to Ted, “Look, why don’t we combine our turnovers and become a joint force?”
He said, “That’s a great idea but I’ve just sold my business to Pets Choice.” Pets Choice was basically put together by city investors in London. Someone had the idea that they would buy several pet companies, build them, and then float them. I sold my brand and signed an agreement to head up a grocery division for Pets Choice for a six- year period.
I concentrated on building the sales in grocery but eventually the whole group started to collapse by mismanagement. Pets Choice ended up with over 100 shareholders investing in the business, heavy losses, shareholders falling out on a regular basis culminating in Pets Choice being on the verge of bankruptcy in circa 2002.
The largest shareholder, Charles Von Westenholz, phoned me up saying that the company was on the verge of receivership. That’s when I decided to convince him that we could turn this around. He said that no shareholders would invest further to keep the company alive. So, I said: “I’ll invest.” Then in 2002, Charles and I took over the running of the business. Charles took over the finance and I took over the strategy and sales.
What did you do to turn Pets Choice around?
We were predominantly a chub manufacturer, and all the chub manufacturers had virtually gone bust. We bought the biggest competitor called Webbox. We then had a situation whereby we had a different brand in every retailer, so I went round to every customer and said: “We’re not doing any other brands apart from Webbox or Davies and, if we don’t gain full support then we go bankrupt.” So that’s how we started.
In 2002 we inherited a mess. Court injunctions against the company, credit notes that could not be processed as we were already at the maximum of our bank factoring facilities and millions of loan stock outstanding. Charles did an incredible job convincing shareholders to write off much of the loan stock whilst I concentrated on re-building the sales.
I live in Essex. He lived in Hertfordshire and so we flew up every week to Blackpool and then on to Blackburn. We started very, very slowly turning it around but we were working from old premises which made it difficult. By 2006, we had tidied up the company and were in danger of making a profit.
You went on to complete a buyout of Pets Choice — tell us about that.
Charles went skiing — he was a fantastic skier and competed in the Olympic Games for the UK — and he had a heart attack and sadly died on the slopes. All I had was a one-line email on our plans as we had always just operated with trust.
His sister was married to a man called Anthony Oppenheimer, who owned at the time, De Beers. I went to see him in his Holborn offices and explained what Charles and I had been planning to do. He backed me to carry out a management buyout. So, we completed a buyout in 2006 and we went from 110 shareholders down to five of us: myself, Ted Davies, and some other silent investors.
Between 2006 and 2014, we began developing the business but the problem we had is that even though I had investors behind me, they weren’t willing to invest in new assets and equipment due to previous losses. One way that I could build the business was to go out into Europe and the Far East and look for people to produce products for me under our brands.
We launched cat treats in 2003 and today Webbox has the number 1 best- selling cat treat in the UK market with Webbox Lick-e-Lix. Come 2012, I had become the largest shareholder in Pets Choice and had maximised what I could do without investment. I went to the board
and explained that we needed a plan of investment so that we could have a saleable business. They said, come back with a three- year plan.
I came up with the plan that we would buy a new warehouse, which is actually the warehouse we have now and one end of it was about 20,000 square feet, which was dilapidated. We would knock that down, build that into a new manufacturing factory, and gain BRC accreditation and then look to sell the business. So, we bought this warehouse, and we were just about to lay the first brick when we had a board meeting in London. I walked in and there were two guys at the end of the table I’d never seen. They were actually from a company of advisors and they advised the board that we shouldn’t wait two years as it may not work and the investors should sell now.
I said that if we sold now, it would only be sold to another company within the pet industry and they would close Pets Choice down. I’d been traveling up to Blackburn for 18 years by then, and to lose 90 jobs in Blackburn and not take it to the next step, I thought was criminal and so I said: “Give me 12 weeks and I’ll look to buy you.”
In the summer of 2013, I bought them with a partner and since then we’ve built the business from around £22million turnover to over £100 million in 2023.
What does Pets Choice look like today?
We have a state-of-the-art head office and have invested in people. We have brought
as many roles in-house as we can and have gathered a group of fantastic individuals such as brand managers, designers, category, PR, social, sales and operations to drive the business to a different level.
We will continue to invest heavily in our sales teams to really drive volumes and that will hopefully bring profitability and enable us to invest back into the business. As a private business, as opposed to equity, we’re continuing to reinvest everything we have back into the business and the local community.
Building Pets Choice has also included acquiring other brands, including Bob Martin. What do you look for when acquiring new brands?
We’ve been on an acquisition trail, and we’ve acquired some really great brands, such as Spike’s, TastyBone, WildThings, Feathers and Beaky, Hatchwells and Animate. We have Webbox, which is a very strong brand in grocery, but it’s now very strong in the pet trade as well. Even though we have driven Webbox the other way round, we will not drive our dedicated pet brands into the grocery market, which I think is key for growth, loyalty and respect in the pet trade.
I have been fortunate to have bought companies where individuals have approached myself wanting to sell their brands for a fair price to retire, but wanting more importantly to sell to a company which would carry on building on the ethos that they had built their brands. We’ve identified them as niche brands that can be developed.
When you’re a company of our size, I think it’s very hard to acquire companies that are being sold to equity. We’ll never have the money that equity has to buy companies. We therefore need to find acquisitions that are smaller, but we see great potential for. In the case of Bob Martin, our largest acquisition to date, it unfortunately went into receivership and we purchased from the receiver which fortunately would not have been attractive to equity investors.
The Bob Martin acquisition entered us into the pet medical market; it’s very different but we put quality at the forefront to ensure the products were the best they could be. We’ve turned that company around from a loss-making business to a thriving business, investing in more equipment, driving greater efficiencies, launching new products, and growing.
How much satisfaction do you gain from the impact that your businesses have had on communities?
Blackburn, and the people there, are very close to my heart. We do a lot of local support. We support the Blackburn Youth Zone heavily and work alongside many other charities. I think employing local people and creating jobs, whether it’s in any of our sites in Blackburn, Yatton or Cardiff, is fantastic.
I see no reason why we cannot double our turnover over the next decade towards a £200m business however we have to do this in the right way. You must create the right atmosphere and take your workforce along with you on the journey. You’ve got to have people who want to work for you. Whoever you are, it’s about how you can work together.
We’ve got in excess of 350 people now. I think it’s amazing, but I want to create not only jobs for people but create fulfilling careers. And the only way you can create tangible careers is with people who want to succeed and by giving them a company that is succeeding and growing sales and profitability. That’s what I’m passionate about.
Would you ever consider retiring?
My wife would love me to retire! But I’ve no desire to. If we were on a sell-out program, we wouldn’t be investing as we are. I would love to pass this on to my son and daughters. My son, James is already in the family business but not in the pet business. I think the pet industry is great and there are so many opportunities — we’re just getting started!
What personal qualities would you say have made you successful?
I was never the most academic person however by perseverance I managed to go to university where I learnt valuable life skills and realised that employing staff much more intelligent than myself and giving them the freedom to be entrepreneurial was a way to build a business.
I think I’m quite good at making decisions and I don’t fear failure. There’s a lot of people in life that say: ‘I could have done that.’ But they don’t. I’m well prepared to put everything on the line to borrow money to grow the business. I’ve never been afraid because I believe I will succeed, taking great employees along the journey with me whilst having some fun along the way.
Are you a pet person yourself?
I am a pet lover. My first cat was called Bobby, and I’ll never forget Bobby. I had a dog and she’s on my business card. Unfortunately, she died 18 months ago, she was a real trendy Golden Retriever. At the moment, we don’t have any animals but we would love to get another dog.
What have been the highlights of your career?
There’s so many! One of my highlights was meeting the Queen in Buckingham Palace. We received the Queen’s Award for Enterprise and International Trade for TastyBone.
The other one was completing the Great North Run. We raised around £5,000 for Guide Dogs which is a charity close to my heart. I must be mad because I hate running!