How Sniffers Pet Care is building a retail empire in Huddersfield
Simon Brown, the director of Huddersfield-based Sniffers Pet Care, doesn't have to travel far in search of immediate feedback.
"I test our products on my pet beagle Bobby, who is a good judge but will eat anything." he said.
Bobby's palate will be put to good use over the next few months, because Sniffers is on the scent of more growth opportunities.
After initially rebelling against the prospect of working in his family's business, Mr Brown found it offered a career path which played to his strengths.
The company's sales books tell their own story. The pet treats retail business has achieved 25 per cent year-on-year growth, hitting the £1m turnover mark at the end of last year.
Although Sniffers has been active in the pet wholesale trade for 40 years, Mr Brown crossed a new frontier when he launched the brand, Buffalo Natural Dog Treats. He guided the process from concept to seeing the products on the shelves of a national retail chain.
Mr Brown made a dramatic switch when he left Lloyds Banking Group to become a director at his family's wholesale business, but it has unquestionably paid off.
The business has traditionally supplied independent pet stores as well as larger chains such as Pets At Home. It is also investing heavily in e-commerce, which has been accelerated by the pandemic and an upturn in both pet food and online sales.
"My family has been in the pet industry for three generations," Mr Brown said: "We ran a chain of pet stores along the M62 corridor from the 1970s to the 1990s but, as the supermarkets took a bigger foothold, we exited that side of the business.
"In 2012, my dad Ian won the contract for the Bow Wow dog snack, which is based in the Czech republic. He transformed the business and got the brand to work with big names like Pets at Home."
Initially, Mr Brown chose to pursue a career in the financial services sector where he received invaluable mentoring from a woman who has become one of the most influential figures in the corporate world.
"I went straight into the marketing side of Lloyds Banking Group/HBOS after leaving university and climbed the ladder reasonably quickly internally,'' he recalled.
"I worked as an executive assistant to the retail CEO of Lloyds, Alison Brittain, who is now the CEO of Whitbread.
"She transformed my career and was a superb leader; down to earth but very clinical. She understood the importance of a multibrand portfolio to capture a multitude of different customers.
"She had great ability to lead and set the direction of the brand. She had real clarity about the way forward. She was all about getting out and meeting people."
This emphasis on conducting business with a human face helped to shape his next move when the family business came calling.
Mr Brown said: "By the end of 2016, I realised I needed a change and my parents were thinking about the future of the business.
"I jumped ship to work in the family business, despite having vowed I would never work there. Perhaps it's instinctive to not want to work in your family's business but perhaps I was always destined to work with my dad.
"Like any business, when you get to a certain size it is a number's game. A lot of what we have done is follow an outsourcing model by working with local firms.
"When I joined in 2017 we were turning over £670,000 a year. We turned over £1m last year and the turnover figure should be 25 to 30 per cent higher this year despite the pandemic."
The company has six staff and imports goods from Europe, the Far East and India. In a fiercely competitive market, it pays to think globally and take the time to meet partners face to face.
"We introduced Buffalo Natural Dog treats, which we sourced direct from Mumbai,'' Mr Brown said. "We made a leap of faith and got on a plane to India to source them. They are easy to deal with and very forthcoming, although they don't always find people coming to them. We import 500 tonnes a year from Mumbai.
" We have developed an e-commerce offering in recent months. Everybody was unsure what the impact of COVID-19 would be in late March, so we needed to create a direct to consumer outlet and also put more emphasis into social channels. We are also listing with Amazon shortly.
"We know that the market is growing at a 10 per cent rate year on year. It's a very buoyant market and we want to introduce another natural dog treat brand."
His plans for growth include reviving a name that was familiar to pet lovers in Yorkshire, half a century ago.
"My grandfather purchased the Walter Smith retail brand in the 1970s,'' he said. "We want to bring that brand back to life."
He remains concerned about the long term future of the high street, which has taken a battering during the pandemic.
"Lots of retail sites have moved to out of town,'' he said. " But what will happen to the town centre high streets when the shops move away? There are going to be broader economic challenges."
"In five years, I would hope we are turning over £5m. As a family business we are here for the long run. I spend a lot of time thinking about how we generate capital to grow the business.
"We have heritage and experience to lean on. We have a realistic attitude and understand the market place but still have plans to grow."
It looks like Bobby the beagle will be gainfully employed for some time.
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