News Industry Profile Ancol



Industry Profile: Ancol
14th April 2015

By Sandra Pearce

Ancol is a leading manufacturer of collars, leads and harnesses in the UK, but also has a reputation for its other pet accessories including toys, grooming and clothing ranges. We visit its Walsall base to learn more about the company

As children, the Lane siblings recall spending much of their early childhood in their parents’ factory. “There was no such thing as child minders or nurseries back then,” says sales director Sarah Lane. “And exhibitions! We’ve been around the world, and to some really exotic places with our parents, but all we ever saw was the exhibition hall!”

It was in 1971 that Ann and Colin Lane set up Ancol to produce pet accessories. Ann had worked in a bank while Colin had been a factory manager for a fancy leather goods manufacturer, and identified an opportunity to manufacture leather collars for dogs.

The UK pet industry was in its infancy, and the bulk of leather products were being produced by saddlers or branded products.

“It was niche,” adds Sarah, “but dad was very passionate about animals and he could see there was potential.” His instinct was spot on. Last year, the company’s turnover was around £30 million at retail value, with 8% growth year on year.

Although Ann and Colin have long retired (officially), Colin remains chairman and is involved in key decisions, such as the recent investment of £250,000 for machinery including a leather-cutting machine, which helps improve quality and performance and reduce waste. When you make 7,000 leather products every day, of which 5,000 are dog collars, you want to make sure waste is kept to the absolute minimum – especially when the raw material has seen a 21% price hike, thanks in part to demand from the car industry and China.

Though Ancol started off making collars, leads and harnesses (at one point, it was delivering 3,000 cat collars a day, and was a pioneer for flea collars), it soon moved into grooming, clothing and toys as well as bedding, feeding dishes, cat furniture and small animal treats.

It also manufactures an own-brand range for the RSPCA, Cath Kidston, Pets at Home and other retailers. It will not go into bird or aquatics: “We’re sticking to what we know best,” said director Simon Lane. Ancol now has a range of 1,200 skus, from which about 40 pallets of products are packed everyday for distribution via wholesalers, for export or retailers. Its biggest sellers remain collars, leads and restraints, he reveals, “In black, blue and red.”

Made in Britain
Change is in the air, and the three siblings (Jonathan Lane is managing director) are working to ensure Ancol is as future-proof as possible. For one, though Ancol has always had a policy to source products as locally as possible, they are convinced it is inevitable that this will reach new heights as more and more manufacturing will eventually return to the UK.

As it stands, apart from leather products, beds are made in the West Midlands and shampoos in Scotland. Though the other products are made in China, increasing labour costs in the Far East and rising sea freight charges mean the price differential to making products in the UK is closing fast. “If we can bring more manufacturing back, we would like to,” said Simon. Besides, Chinese consumers are growing more affluent, and they prefer products made in Britain. China, for example, is Ancol’s biggest customer for shampoos, and when the directors suggested adding Mandarin to the packaging, they were told not to as English packaging is preferred.

With an eye to the future, three years ago, Ancol purchased a neighbouring unit. “We have more than enough capacity here now to increase our manufacturing output. But at the moment, people are still buying on price,” said Sarah.

It’s all about evolution rather than revolution, says Simon – the gently, gently approach is by far the favoured tactic, which means there is a stability and consistency, guaranteed. They take pride in how so many of their relationships with suppliers and customers are long-standing. For example, they are now dealing with the grandson of an original customer whom their parents first made contact with at Germany’s Interzoo some 30 years ago.

It must be incredibly challenging coming up with new ideas the whole time, but Sarah explains that inspiration comes from customer feedback and retailers via their sales reps. “It’s all market led, but we also look at trends,” she said. 

Simon added: “When we see products in stores, we think about how that could be adapted to the pet market. We know what works.”

Over the years, they’ve found that what works best is for a core group to sit down and discuss all ideas. “Sometimes we have a great product, but it can be down to timing and we know it will not work immediately, and so we will revisit that in a couple of years,” said Simon. It’s all about evolution and moving with the times rather than trying to force a product when people are not ready for it.

They also play around with colours and patterns to create interest, even though the core sellers are blue, black and red. “Retailers need this variety for an interesting display, and customers like having the choice,” said Sarah.

To keep things fresh, Ancol has a trusted team of experts it calls on for input, such as when it looked critically at its small dog offering and relaunched it as Small Bite. You need to get this contribution, says Simon, because otherwise you could fall into the trap of being insular looking, and how can you then progress, he asks.

And speaking of not being insular, about a year ago, Ancol launched into China with a Chinese trading company, selling dog products. It’s going well, said Simon. Again, this tie-up was the result of a long-established relationship. “You cannot go into a country and then find somebody to work with; you need to have that relationship first,” Sarah explained. “And with this partner, we communicate very well and share the same ethics,” added Simon.

Though Ancol China is in its infancy, contributing about 5% to Ancol’s total turnover, it’s got potential, he said. “The plan was always to get in early. It’s still early days yet, but some of the Chinese pet shops are getting quite good, and we are now in a better position to develop the Ancol brand there.”

Apart from China, Ancol exports to Europe, Antigua, Canada, the Middle East, New Zealand and Singapore. Its big push is at Germany’s Interzoo, but apart from that, it does not actively pursue foreign markets. Interestingly, the bulk of export enquiries now arrive as a result of its website, a sign of the changing times; in the past, the Chamber of Commerce and trade shows were the usual routes.

Putting people first
Every Christmas, Ancol donates food to several different rescue charities. “We will buy food to give away,” said Sarah. “We do not give money; we give food.  Every month we have a certain budget, and though we support the big charities such as Birmingham Dogs Home, Battersea and the RSPCA, we also support smaller charities, some of which might just be an individual.”

Added Simon: “It’s very humbling at Christmas to give away the food; they really devote their lives to the dogs.”

Between Sarah, Simon and Jonathan, they own eight dogs, four cats and two ponies, the majority being rescues, including one dog who turned up unannounced at the factory one Friday evening! They bring their dogs into work, and have a fenced-off grassed area out front for them to have a run around. “We understand what it means to be a pet owner,” she said.

Ancol is also proud that it pays a living wage, which is higher than the national minimum wage and which refers to a pay rate needed to let workers live a decent life. “Yes, it adds cost,” said Simon, “but we are an ethical family company.”

Staff tend to stay for a long time – last year a 13th staff member received a gold watch for long service of 25 years. No staff member has ever been made redundant, said Sarah, and when plans were made to bring in new machinery, thus reducing the need for manpower, this was timed to coincide with retirements.

Adds Simon: “Many staff remember us growing up. They are comfortable here and they know their jobs are safe, that there’s longevity. But we like this continuity.”

This continuity extends to retailers, and Sarah says the independent retailer is their priority. “Everything we do is geared to the bricks-and-mortar retailer.

Take packaging, that does not mean anything to the online customer. All they want to see is a picture of a product. But for the independent, packaging is important as it’s what customers see. We put a lot of thought and investment into our packaging to create that look specifically for retailers. Our packaging is all thought of along the lines of what retailers need.”

Simon also suspects that Halloween in this country is bound to grow with successive years, and so Ancol is looking more and more at this seasonal market. “It’s gives retailers the chance to grab more sales; it’s all more business,” he explained – yet retailers can be assured that whatever is launched, it’s been thought about long and hard.

Sarah added: “Ancol means stability, a good, strong, business base. For both our customers and suppliers. Everyone knows we are there for the long run.”