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Industry Profile: Burgess Pet Care
15th January 2015

By Sandra Pearce

Burgess Pet Care revealed its new brand identity at PATS Harrogate, with its entire product range now under the Burgess banner. We visit to learn more about the direction the family company is heading…  




One in two people who walk into a pet shop have more than one pet, says Justin Heaton, commercial director at Burgess Pet Care. Yet how many of these customers buy everything they need for all their pets from the same shop? The reality is probably very few, he suggests.

“There is a huge opportunity for retailers to target owners of multi-pet households,” he said, explaining how the business is planning a major national campaign next year targeting these owners and driving them into independents. “This very engaged pet owner who spends more per head will be directed into retailers’ stores.”

Driving this campaign is the company’s recent re-brand, in which all its products were brought under the Burgess master brand for a unified new look, with the family name playing the lead role across the range. Burgess manufactures food for the top nine pets, and their coming under one umbrella means the company can more effectively deliver its main messages to pet owners, he said. These messages being that it is a British family company with a long history in food production, and totally passionate about animals; each of its 85 staff has an average of two pets!

He added: “Having one brand has many benefits, not only to the trade, but for us as well, we can give more support to a single brand whether that be POS, trade advertising or consumer campaigns.



“For the trade there are very strong commercial messages.” Before there was Burgess Excel, Sensitive, Supacat, Supadog… the list goes on. Retailers can now strike up conversations with owners who come in to buy, say, their rabbit food and direct them to Burgess products for dogs and cats. “It’s therefore a brand these owners are already using and trust.”

The aim is to drive distribution throughout the trade into dog, cat and small animal by offering training to retailers and a loyalty scheme for customers, all backed up with a strong POS offering. Retailers will be able to capitalise and showcase their specialist status. “It’s all about offering choice, expertise and specialisation.”

Although the first pet food produced at Burgess was Supa Dog Number 1 and Supa Dog Number 3 (it still sells a lot of dog food today, says Justin), the company has a much higher profile in the small animal arena, which was launched later in 1999. Its initial offering, Burgess Supa Rabbit Excel, was the brainchild of technical director Ken Stirk and specialist rabbit vet Frances Harcourt-Brown, and is today a household name for many rabbit owners.

The company’s efforts in small animals are all about building a positive cycle of ownership; for many families, a small animal is the first pet. Explained Justin: “This is the start of the pet chain. If Flopsy has fly strike, high vet bills, or perhaps bites little Tommy, this is a bad experience, and chances are, that family won’t move on from that experience to take on another pet like a cat or a dog. This is bad for the trade.

“However, if we can empower people with the correct information, we get off on the right foot and it then becomes a positive experience. We always say, if it’s good for the pet, it’s good for the owner, and that’s good for the retailer. If a pet owner gets more out of this relationship, then ultimately the trade wins. That’s why from a commercial point we invest so heavily here. It’s a very nice way of underpinning the commercial approach of our business.”

Actions speak volumes, so Burgess attends all pet shows, sponsoring their small animal sections, and sponsors the specialist Burgess Premier Small Animal Show in Harrogate. “We do not sell products at shows… it’s all about being there and talking to owners about best practice. Every show gives us the chance to promote the values of the business and responsible pet ownership.”



Firm foundations
The Burgess family can trace their history back to 1649; they started as flour millers in Yorkshire, picking up awards in the later decades. Seeking to add value and diversify, the business switched to animal feeds in 1963. Then in 1987, it launched into pet food as Burgess Supafeeds, consolidating the business at Victory Mill in Thornton le-Dale and the Cherry Tree Mill in Pollington. The group expanded into other pet areas like mobile MRI scanners and payment plans for veterinary practices, and in 2008, to reflect its focus on pets, the name Burgess Pet Care was introduced.

“We have gone from strength to strength, making wholesome, good quality food but at a reasonable price, and this reflects the Burgess family’s strong Yorkshire roots,” said Justin.     

Showing its commitment to the trade, Burgess is investing a seven-figure sum into its Cherry Tree Mill factory over the next 18 months, to increase capacity and efficiency, along with new packaging formats for branded and own-label offerings. This equipment will be more energy efficient, helping to further reduce the company’s already-enviable carbon footprint.

In addition, the company has an on-going training programme for staff. “People stay here for a long time,” remarks Justin. “I’ve been here seven years and am still considered the ‘new boy’. We have brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, and even grandfathers who were working here in the original business.”

It’s about keeping things local, and the ‘Made in Britain’ banner is flown proudly, with products sourced as locally as possible – all products in the Burgess range are made with British proteins.

Staying ahead
Over a year ago, Burgess commissioned research to assess consumer insights, the strength of its brands and products. The pet industry has seen a lot of change over the last 18 months, said Justin, and there has been a huge shift towards the concept of ‘pet parenting’. This aspect was captured in the research, which identified that the pet-human bond is at the heart of the family. When the Burgess brands were scrutinised, researchers found there was ‘a real sense of warmth and great strength’ in Burgess, and trust in its Excel and Sensitive ranges’.

Burgess’s position has been that rabbits and guinea pigs should be fed nuggets (along with lots of hay and fresh greens) to avoid selective feeding associated with muesli diets. “For the last 15 years, we have been talking about feeding rabbits hay supplemented with nuggets and healthy snacks, and consumers in the research were coming back and telling us the same things. The functional message had been won,” he said. It was validation that rabbit owners knew about the nutritional requirements of their pets.

According to the PDSA Paw Report of 2013, there has been a significant decrease in the amount of rabbit muesli mix fed as a main type of food (34% from 44% in 2011) and an increase in the feeding of pellet food (68% from 55% in 2011).

Vets, he added, strongly recommend the Excel range – it remains the UK’s No.1 vet-recommended food for ‘fibrevores’, he said. Again, independent research was commissioned to verify this statement, even though Burgess has strong links with the veterinary community. The company attends all veterinary shows, hosts CPD training modules, and also publishes its research into small animals.

With pet welfare an uppermost priority, Burgess has an in-house veterinary adviser, Suzanne Moyes, who drives the company’s understanding of the veterinary field, nutritional knowledge and welfare education. “Suzanne has been instrumental in the development of our plans for the veterinary market and plays a key role ensuring all products are nutritionally appropriate. Further to this, we want to make sure we are at the forefront of ethical practice, and have the right tools and knowledge to educate our consumers on how best to look after their pets,” he explained.

Burgess is, of course, the architect of the term ‘fibrevore’, which is becoming more widely used in rabbit and guinea pig circles. “The industry was guilty of lumping all small animals together – you had ‘dog’, ‘cat’, and then ‘small animals’. But the term ‘small animal’ hides the fact that you have omnivores with carnivorous predispositions, omnivores and herbivores. And for animals like rabbits, it was commonly misunderstood that they need fibre, and that this is the most important part of their diet,” he explained.

So ‘fibrevore’ was born, stressing their need for hay. “It’s changed the mindset of how people view these pets,” he said.

The concept of the ‘fibrevore’ has now spread to 25 countries, shadowing the Excel (and Sensitive) export routes. Yet selling abroad was not top of the agenda – invariably, foreign distributors first approached Burgess, but the company now has an export team in place. “Many countries have a genuine love for products that are made in Britain,” observes Justin. “There’s still this idea of Cool Britannia.”

So things are looking good for the business, with exports and the domestic market showing growth, he says. But he notes how lately there has been a shift in economic rhetoric by the government, partly because of the slowdown, but also as the General Election looms. “Our question is how do we support our customers, and how do we as a member of the trade counteract what will inevitably be low single-digit growth for the next 10 years? The pet trade is seeing the grassroots of recovery from the recession, but the game has changed.”

Looking forward, it’s about how Burgess can help its customers with the challenges ahead. “Off the back of some strong consumer research, and our unswerving commitment to the trade, we have invested in the business in the way we feel will help our customers. Yet the fundamentals of this business have been the same for the last 200 years. The richness of a business is not just its business history and products, but its people.”