THE FAMILY behind Wagg Foods is building “fortress UK” in North Yorkshire by investing in products, processes and people as the pet food business expands in British and overseas markets.
The Thirsk company is one of Yorkshire’s fastest-growing manufacturers, with sales rising 12 per cent to £65m last year, and is led by Richard Page and his younger brothers Tom and George.
Wagg has appointed ice cream entrepreneur James Lambert as chairman, adding his talent for manufacturing as well as his nose for mergers and acquisitions.
The company is spending £6m on a 100,000 sq ft distribution warehouse with new offices at its base near Thirsk, the latest in a long line of investments.
Richard Page, managing director, said the company has invested around £30m over the last decade on plant and machinery and a similar amount in brands.
In the coming weeks the business will relaunch its Wagg brand, the best-selling dog food by volume, and it wants to make Harringtons, its affordable premium brand, the best-selling by value. And earlier this month, it launched its first wet dog product with a listing in Morrisons.
Wagg has strengthened its management team in finance and operational roles to help the business cope with growth. It is also working on initiatives to develop the culture at the company, which now employs more than 150 people.
Significantly, the family business introduced new capital at the start of the year.
Mr Page said the company plans to strengthnen its position across all the key categories within pet food, starting in dry dog food where it has a 25 per cent share and then expanding its treat business from 2 to 10 per cent of the market.
Wagg also wants to develop the same share in wet as it has in dry, probably through organic growth and acquisition, he added.
He told The Yorkshire Post: “If the vision comes to fruition, this would be a £200m sales business with strong cash generation. We can then focus on overseas expansion having built a market-leading pet business in the UK.”
This strategy mirrors the storied growth of R&R Ice Cream, which consolidated the UK market before expanding into Europe and then further afield under Mr Lambert.
Mr Page said Wagg is in a similar position to R&R a dozen years ago in size and turnover. Customers number Aldi, Asda, Morrisons, Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Pets at Home. Overseas markets include Denmark, New Zealand, Germany, Singapore and Norway.
James Revis Page founded the business in Yorkshire in 1923. His sons Bill and David built up an animal feed business but this struggled during the agricultural recession of the 1970s and early 1980s.
Bill Page, now 75, had the vision to diversify into pet foods in 1985 and secured listings in Asda and Morrisons. The company moved to Dalton, near Thirsk, in 1990 to focus on dog food and mass market distribution via the big grocers.
Bill’s sons Tom and George joined in the early 1990s to help the fledgling business. It was a tough decade and the family had to sell heirlooms to make ends meet, including a sofa to pay a quarterly VAT bill.
In 2002, the company bought an extruder - a transformational point - and stepped up production.
Richard Page returned to Yorkshire after nearly 20 years working as an investment banker in the City and took over the running of the company. Three more extruders followed along with nine automated packing lines to make production as efficient as possible.
Wagg commissioned a combined heat and power plant two years to make its own energy and now produces three quarters of its needs. It has the capacity to run a fifth extruder, said Mr Page.
As a high-flying dealmaker in the City of London, he advised on multi-billion dollar deals involving global corporations and governments.
But that was no match for the thrill of industry. He said: “It is a lot more satisfying going into a Morrisons store and seeing somebody pick your product off the shelf. They are making that decision without having to sell it to them hard like a banker does.”
Wagg Foods is sponsoring The Yorkshire Post Christmas Appeal, which is supporting Support Dogs, which provides specialist dogs for people with a range of disabilities.
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