News Industry Profile Fish4dogs It S Fish And Dogs Love It



Industry Profile: Fish4Dogs – It’s fish...and dogs love it!
12th December 2018

By Sandra Pearce

It’s fish...and dogs love it!

From treats to complete dog foods, Fish4Dogs offers customers a complete portfolio of products

It’s time to smash the myths around the feeding of fish to dogs and that Fish4Dogs is a ‘niche’ product, so the company is determined to change mindsets – especially in the UK

One of the biggest challenges Fish4Dogs faced was that it was selling…fish. And fish, well, fish smells. “We used to apologise for it in the past, but we are now very proud of it,” said CEO Graham Smith. “Yes, it smells, but it’s fish, dogs love the taste and it’s good for them too.”

The proof is in the pudding? More like the proof is in the sales. From three fish treats at its launch 14 years ago there are now 180 treat and food skus in dog alone.

When Graham took over as CEO in 2010, turnover was £2m; today, it’s posting £17m, all down to organic growth, and the firm is at the start of a five-year plan to double growth. Another indication you’re on to a good thing is when similar products start appearing in the market, and within four years of its launch, fish started appearing on the menus of other pet food and treats manufacturers.

Finance director Janice Laraway, who has been with Fish4Dogs from the start, recalls those early ‘cottage-industry’ days when they bought second-hand cutting tools to create the products, and if short-handed everyone would pitch in, including family. “I would be down there packing, my son came in during his holidays, and we were hand weighing from a little industrial unit we had near Dudley,” she said.
Fast forward to June this year and the company revealed its £100,000 refurbishment and expansion of its headquarters and warehouse in Rushock, Worcestershire. The new warehouse provides an additional 11,000sq ft for storage, packaging and stock management. And with more space, more staff can bring their dogs in to work, although this is restricted to one dog per person!

Early days
Fish4Dogs was started by entrepreneurial couple, the Angells, and at the time, Janice was with a chartered accountant in Birmingham and the newly formed Fish4Dogs was a client.  To cut a long story short, Janice eventually left her ‘safe’ finance role and took on the position as operations director at Fish4Dogs to help steer the company towards profitability.

“Maybe it was a mid-life crisis? It just took my interest and I remember talking to my two children, this is going to mean a big change in lifestyle. My son was going off to university and my daughter was doing her A-levels, and they said go for it. It would be a complete change from having a very successful partnership in a business in Birmingham to a business where at times we did not know if we had the money to pay the costs. If I knew what was going to happen in the next five years, I would not have done it. It was very hairy,” she said – even her house was ‘put on the line’.

The course of the business was however to change when Fish4Dogs met representatives from a Norwegian agricultural cooperative, Felleskjøpet Rogaland Agder (FKRA), at an Interzoo show – FKRA produced and sold feed, fertiliser and seed to its 8,000 Norwegian farmer members.  Crucially, it had a Norwegian fish processing plant and was looking to enter the pet market.

The Norwegians ended up investing in Fish4Dogs as they saw the massive potential in the concept of fish treats and food for dogs, and saw the proposition as a natural extension to its core business.

Come 2010 and it was crunch time at the loss-making Fish4Dogs and the Angells sold their remaining shares to FKRA.  By coincidence, Graham (who had been with Unilever for more than 20 years and another SME in Holland for five years) was looking for a new challenge. He was appointed CEO of Fish4Dogs because of his sales, marketing and distribution experience and was given three years to steer the business towards profitability. “I have always had an interest in animals; my original degree was in zoology but I never used it. When I came across Fish4Dogs, it was, why have I discovered this industry so late?” he said.

Fish4Dogs is proud of its Norwegian factory and environmental credentials, and takes customers across on tours of its facilities and its salmon grounds

Janice said: “We had a good infrastructure, and the right people were in place, but we did not have the sales. When Graham started, we were faced with choice of either slashing costs to let the infrastructure meet the income, really, become a smaller player, or give ourselves time to build the business while we grew into the infrastructure.”
“Growing the business was a much more exciting prospective,” adds Graham, taking up the narrative, “so I sat down with every person within the company and talked to them about what worked and what did not. My first priority was sales, especially as we were very weak in the UK.
“I was both excited by the pet industry and also terrified, but the Norwegians were good parents and I received a written guarantee of financial support for three years underwriting our then losses.”

Growing the home market
Fish4Dogs is in an unusual situation in that its exports form the majority (70%) of its business and it’s ‘extremely strong’ in the Asian markets such as Singapore (where it’s market leader), Japan and Malaysia. “They get fish, they understand it,” said Graham, “but we now have to become strong in our own country, so a lot of our efforts are being focussed on the UK. In the last 18 months, we have invested heavily into the UK.”

Though export sales continue to grow strongly – Fish4Dogs was awarded the Queen’s Award for Enterprise in International Trade 2017 and is experiencing high double-digit growth – it does not have a presence in South America and intends to move into the continent in the next two to three years.

But the UK is a strategic focus for now, and Fish4Dogs has three full-time sales staff dedicated to servicing the domestic market and appointed Sarah Fowler as sales director to drive sales in the UK and Europe. Its multi-pronged strategy includes a brand refresh to introduce improved shelf appeal. “We want to keep our heritage but want the packaging to have more shelf appeal and be appealing to more consumers,” he said.

There is also a dedicated move to reach out to new customers, the ‘family dog owner’ who is not aware of the brand. “We have good interaction with dog enthusiasts…those who show or breed dogs, and we do really well there,” he said. “But not so much with the family dog owner. Once we’ve refreshed the brand, we will really start to build brand visibility and showcase our products to a much wider audience.” 
Naturally, new product development is also a high priority, especially when the team realised that lapsed customers had stopped buying over the last six months not because of pricing, quality or customer service, but because ‘owners think their dogs are getting bored with the food’.

Every day is a Bring Your Dog to Work Day as staff members can bring one dog to work daily – the cap was necessary as some staff have more than one four-legged pet!

“It’s not the dogs who are bored,” said Graham, “the dogs do not need more choice; they are quite happy, but owners do! Although we already use three fish in our range, we want to bring in further varieties that demonstrate the rich variety that fish can offer.”

Consumer demand fuels the continued premiumisation of pet food and treats. “This is a key drive for us,” he added. “We are seeing a drive to increase moisture content and fish content, and we have to respond to this.”

Leap of faith
When Graham took the reins at Fish4Dogs, the company’s web manager said he wanted to recruit a full-time social media manager. ‘It was a leap of faith,’ said Graham as there was no way of judging any tangible returns. “We were at the birth of social media, and it’s called social media for a reason. People come on to social media in their leisure time, so it’s got to be engaging and fun.

“We are very careful that we do not push our products or hard sell. We wanted to create a safe environment for people to post pictures of their dogs, generate content and ask questions. It’s about genuine dog lovers interacting with us, it’s about dogs on holidays, but we will work to a different theme every two to three months, for example, dental hygiene, puppy development. We try and make it a fun space with user-generated content.”

One message that the team constantly reinforces is that fish is a perfect food for everyday feeding, and there is no basis to the popular belief that fish and rice is only for a poorly or convalescing dog. One soft-sell tactic is to upload videos of happy, healthy dogs tucking into their Fish4Dogs dinner.

Change in the air
The independent pet retailer is a linchpin in the company’s plans to grow its presence in the UK, and a main reason for its upcoming brand refresh. “We were having conversations with retailers at shows, but they were not making the purchase decision based on the bag. The bag really needs to sell itself, which is why we are working hard on both design and functional messaging, so it has much more appeal in the retail space,” said Graham.

The pet food manufacturer offers a range of instore merchandising solutions to retailers

To strengthen this proposition, the company has already unveiled a new range of Point of Sale material and shelf merchandising. He added: “Also, because we are good on social media, we will be helping independent retail businesses be good on social media. If you can find ways of helping the retailer, you are also engaging with their customers.
“We are big on sampling. Someone once said, and to paraphrase, the closer you get your food to a dog’s mouth, the closer you are to a sale. So we have a huge investment in samples.”

At the end of the day, it’s about getting the brand in front of people, and it’s got to be a brand that people can trust.  “One of our clear mantras is that nothing is hidden,” he said. “There are brands that have a salmon and potato recipe, but their protein is 5% salmon and the rest is chicken.
“We are what we say we are, and we are very evangelical about it. This gives us that competitive edge.  We are taking waste from the human food chain, and I am very proud of the fact that this is exactly what we do. People ask us ‘When are you going to do chicken?’. We’re not. Our focus is on fish. We have complete faith and belief in the product and the business, and what it does for the dog.

“Too often people think Fish4Dogs is a niche product, but it can be fed every day and it’s not just for dogs that have allergies or specific problems.
“People are starting to notice that this is a company that has been around for 10 years, but it now feels different. Yes, we know there are a lot of brands competing, and a lot of retailers have the attitude ‘I need another brand like I need a hole in the head’.
“But we know we can answer that – we are unique and have a unique product, we just need to give them the tools to sell it and help them get to their customers. Seeing customer testimonials, we know we have a brand that sells itself.” 

Nothing added
“We are very proud of our natural story,” said Graham. “We take whole loads of customers across to Norway and show our factory to them, and then we go out on a boat and take them to our salmon areas.”

The vast majority of the fish used in its recipes comes from Norway, though it also has a Cornish supplier of sardines. Norway has an unrivalled reputation for its sustainable credentials, clean waters and its well-regulated, controlled fisheries. Additionally, the use of antibiotics and growth hormones is banned.

Cats like fish, too!
Initially, Fish4Dogs was hesitant to enter the cat market, reluctant to ‘dilute our message’ and erode that sense of ‘what made us special’. “It was one of the few areas where there was not a unanimous decision, but we did and Fish4Cats was launched two years ago,” said Graham. “To date, we have sold 5.5-million tins, and that puts it into perspective.”

At PATS Telford, its six new flavours in its Finest Wet Cat Range went on to win the Cat Product Category, with the judges describing it as ‘luxury for under £1’. Graham said:  “It’s good to have a foot in both camps.”