Big Paw pet foods
Recipe for growth: Little BigPaw brand plans to benefit from UK meat’s kudos

Gone are the days when the family pet’s diet consisted of dinner table leftovers or packets vaguely labelled “meat” and various fillers. Four UK winners in the international trade section of the Queen’s Awards for Enterprise are expanding their overseas markets by supplying discerning pet owners with products such as fresher, tastier food, supplements and accessories.

According to Euromonitor, the research company, the global pet care market was worth $117bn in 2017, having grown by 28 per cent over five years (2012-2017). It predicts significant further growth in developing markets such as the Asia Pacific region. The two main factors behind that are the growing importance of pets to their owners, and the latter’s willingness to pay for the best quality. “Pets are an increasing part of owners’ lives and indeed this is shaping the way pet ownership is viewed,” says Paula Flores, Euromonitor’s pet care industry manager.

Jim Weston, co-director of The First Class Pet Company in the West Midlands, says the business decided to branch out from exporting others’ pet food to making their own three years ago after witnessing strong demand in Asia for higher-quality products.

The company launched the Little BigPaw brand to capitalise on the “kudos” attached to British meat in some countries. “In Asia, they spend more time looking at the label than we do on our human food in the UK. They examine it to the minutest detail,” says Mr Weston, who owns two dogs, Skye and Billy.

One niche the company has targeted is small dogs, citing the growth in this category in Asia. On a visit to Tokyo, he was struck by the number of tiny dogs he saw wheeled around in pushchairs.

“Small dogs are fussy — or at least their owners think they are,” says Mr Weston. “Most of them are being treated like babies. We actually looked at baby food packaging [for inspiration].”

The range the company formulated involves a higher meat content, different mixes of vitamins and minerals, and smaller packets to ensure freshness.

The most challenging aspect of exporting to Asia, he says, was meeting import requirements. Many pet foods list “meat derivatives” as an ingredient. This means any meat can be included, which is handy for manufacturers wanting to be flexible, but a red flag for customs officials. The company must state the exact contents of the packet and stick to that. “Supplying it has been a bigger challenge than selling it,” says Mr Weston. “Now we know the rules properly, we can supply them.”

The company, which declines to reveal turnover, employs five people working from home and is growing “fairly rapidly”, with 9 per cent of revenues coming from the UK.

Family business Simpsons Premium is branching out into Europe and undercutting rivals to take its high-quality products to a wider market of cat and dog owners. “We market our products at a reasonable price compared to our competitors and this is what has given us the edge,” says director Lisa Simpson. “The public is getting more aware of better foods to save them on vet bills.”

The Wigan-based company has launched a range for dogs with allergy, skin or stomach problems. “I used to breed dogs and, when you own a lot of dogs, you know what works. I’ve always managed to turn [veterinary problems] around through diet,” she says.

Simpsons recently launched a dedicated French website and plans to follow suit in the Netherlands and Ireland.

Lintbells, based in Hertfordshire, makes nutritional supplements to maintain pets’ good health. Products such as Omega-3, vitamin and protein supplements, are formulated to help with concerns such as cognitive health, joints and skin. “Humans take a lot of supplements themselves because they want to stay healthy or look better and the same principle increasingly applies to their pets,” says co-founder John Davies. Lintbells’ turnover last year was £12.5m, up 30 per cent year on year.

The company employs 65 staff and has won backing from private equity firm Inflexion, which will help power its expansion abroad. It has been eyeing the US market, for instance, for three years. Mr Davies, who has two dogs, Pippa and Aidi, warns, however, that it is no simple task to cross the Atlantic.

“Everybody gets excited about the US because they speak English but they don’t speak it in the same way,” he says. He lists some of the problems of doing business with the US: varying state tax regimes; customer service across four time zones; different employment laws.

One frustration has been hiring contract manufacturers. While the market is “awash” with potential suppliers, he says, it has been difficult to get them to make products to Lintbells’ specification. But Mr Davies is encouraged by some current trends, such as a “structural change” in vets’ thinking. Where once their sole concern was curing sick animals, now they think as much in preventive terms of “health and wellbeing”.

One key trend is that while many pets used to be considered dirty animals that should live outside the house, they are now often treated like family members. Some even sleep in their owners’ bedrooms and the market for house-training them has expanded accordingly.

Company of Animals is based on a farm in Surrey, where its founder, animal psychologist Roger Mugford, runs a behaviour training centre. Its first product was the Halti Harness, a type of leash that dissuades dogs from pulling on it. The company has since devised a range of accessories that train pets to, for example, be less aggressive or eat more slowly.

Financial director Paul Marshall says the company is focusing on overseas markets now that its products are “pretty widely distributed in the UK”. Turnover is £15m and it employs 40 staff.

Meanwhile, The First Class Pet Company’s Mr Weston has a closer market in mind. “We’re sending off a hamper to the Queen,” he says. He hopes the royal corgis might take a fancy to it.

Queen’s Awards

This year’s winners — in four categories: innovation, international trade, sustainable development and social mobility — are published online by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. For the list, and a guide to applying for a Queen’s Award for Enterprise in 2019 (from May 8), go to:

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