Sector trends

Butcher’s: barking up the right tree

Pet food producer Butcher’s has reinvented itself, investing for the future and seizing on changing demands.

Graham Baker founded the pet food business – named for the butcher’s shop that his parents established in nearby Rugby – after noticing that dogs were huge fans of the tripe produced at the shop. He set about developing a process to seal it into tins, and Butcher’s first recipe hit the shelves in 1987.

“When they put tripe in a can, it just flew off the shelf – the dogs loved it, and that is the key to the business’s success,” says Butcher’s chairman Geoff Eaton. “It’s about putting really good, natural, nutritious food in a can and making it easy for owners to feed their dogs.”

This has proved a winning combination. “The pet food market had been dominated by major global players. When the Butcher’s brand arrived with its tripe recipe, it was selling so well the competitors launched their own tripe products with big advertising campaigns. But the more the competition advertised, the faster the Butcher’s cans flew off the shelf! If you have a great product, the shoppers will find it. That was the fundamental thing that drove growth for the business for the first few decades.”

Butcher’s has in recent months become the country’s number one wet dog food brand. The growing demand for high-quality, natural, local ingredients plays to the company’s strengths. “We’re in a strong position because it’s entirely consistent with our heritage,” says Eaton. “We’ve invested heavily in reconnecting with that heritage. It’s the fundamental driver behind the relaunch of the brand that’s taken place over the last three years.”

A bold move

That relaunch has been part of an ambitious plan to transform the company, instigated when Baker brought in Eaton – also chairman of New England Seafood International and former COO of Premier Foods – as an independent chairman to steer the company through the next phase of its growth. Eaton says the investment in revamping the company was a bold move, especially in the current climate of uncertainty. “It’s one of the characteristics of a family company, that you can make brave decisions.”

Having invested £30m into its 370,000-square-foot factory over the last five years, Butcher’s is pumping a further £5m a year into the brand. “We invested £3m in improving our recipes, another £1m in improving the quality of our team,” says Eaton. “What we’ve done is really transformational. It reflects the change in the market and focus on natural, quality ingredients. We focus on what’s best for the dog rather than what’s best for the owner. I think that focus is really resonating with consumers.”

We focus on what’s best for the dog rather than what’s best for the owner. I think that focus is really resonating with consumers

Geoff Eaton
Chairman, Butcher’s Pet Care

The business has also invested heavily in increasing its number of product formats, allowing it to access a wider market. “We’ve brought in a foodie culture – a number of the leadership team are from the food industry. That’s a really important development because it focuses everyone’s mind on the quality of the food.” The increased product range includes a dedicated ‘cat team’, complete with subscription options to ensure that kitty never runs out of food. “We’ve launched Blink, a new brand in premium cat food, using human-grade chicken fillets and tuna.”

As well as what’s in the cans, what’s on them has had a makeover, creating a look distinct from the rest of the market. “Almost every other brand has a picture of the pet on the front, while we concentrate on the food that’s within. You don’t go into a grocery shop and buy something because it’s got a nice picture of a person on the front. You’re much more interested in the quality of the food.”

The new packaging is on point for another key consumer concern: saving the environment. “We’ve invested in cardboard for our multi-packs, so we’ve taken plastic packaging out. We’ve cut the equivalent of 4.2m plastic bottles per year.”

Expanding overseas

The company’s reinvention hasn’t been without its challenges, among them the move into exporting. “We’ve had to create a brand in an international market that was relevant to retailers, and get the attention of those retailers as a very small business,” says Eaton.

Will Brexit add to those challenges? Eaton isn’t overly concerned, despite the establishment of a base in Poland seven years ago, from which international operations will eventually be run. “Because we’re a predominantly British business, which sources almost exclusively from British and Irish farms, we’re reasonably well hedged against whatever form of Brexit happens. We do source some things from the continent, and we’re supplying products into Europe, but it’s a relatively small part of our business.”

And it’s not just Europe that the export business is directed at. “We’re focusing very much on emerging markets. In Asia we’ve built a really good foundation in emerging economies where pet food is very immature in its development. Consumers are looking for affordable, natural nutrition, and that’s where we think the market has the most potential. If you take a market like China, which has enormous growth prospects, top of the list of consumer priorities is natural nutrition.”

For the future, as well as expanding into overseas markets, Butcher’s is considering broadening its range of product types. “We are predominantly a wet food supplier, but in Europe we have a more complete range, including a dry food, because it’s important for the retailers out there and we want to be relevant in all areas of their pet food business.”

In the short term, the next phase of growth will be focused on building the core dog brand and expanding Blink and the cat food subscription offering. “Subscription is very much the rage for a large number of businesses, but we believe that you’ve got have an outstandingly good product to survive long term in the subscription business,” says Eaton.

Premium pet food delivered directly to the door? The postie might just become your cat’s best friend.

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