News Industry Profile Rob Harvey Specialist Feeds



Industry Profile: Rob Harvey Specialist Feeds
2nd September 2014

By Sandra Pearce

If you want to know about anything bird related, Rob Harvey’s your man. Apart from a wide range of bird food, Rob Harvey Specialist Feeds supplies everything the pet retailer and professional breeder could ever want…

It’s not often you walk into someone’s office to see a huge, stuffed Condor staring balefully down at you. But Connie the Condor provides a clue to a previous chapter in Rob Harvey’s life, when he was curator of Birdworld, the UK’s biggest bird park located a mere stone’s throw away in Farnham, Surrey.

His parents had set up the attraction in 1968, and for 20 years Rob was curator. When Birdworld was sold in 1996, he carried on as consultant as well as advising avian clients and designing and landscaping new parks around the world for two years. All this travel was not, however, for him as he had three young children and was missing them terribly. “My kids are my priority,” he says.

Spotting an untapped niche, he set up Rob Harvey Specialist Feeds, manufacturing and selling specialist foods for zoos and birds parks. Realising one cannot make a living supplying this sector exclusively (he now supplies more than 50 zoos with foods ranging from sunbird nectars to ostrich diets), he also launched parrot and other caged bird foods and started selling these via mail-order to owners.

Over the years his business evolved to become a one-stop shop with absolutely everything the bird keeper could need or want, from food to vitamins and supplements to pest control, cages and aviaries, electrical products, nesting boxes, incubators, feeders, drinkers, lamps, heaters or nest box cameras… a seemingly endless list of over 1,000 products sourced from around the world.

His business has continued to evolve, and he is now also a wholesaler and welcomes new retailers every week. The advantage his trade and consumer clients have is that they can call up and speak to Rob himself if they have any bird or product queries. 

A rollercoaster ride
With such a long history in the bird scene, Rob has seen the industry change immeasurably. The biggest impact was, of course, bird flu, which almost overnight saw the face of UK birdkeeping inexorably altered forever.

The numbers of bird enthusiasts plummeted as newcomers steered clear, and many gave up their hobby. He recalls: “The trade in bird sales absolutely collapsed when Pets at Home and so many others pulled out.” This had a knock-on effect in that a number of food manufacturers stopped making specialist bird food, and wholesalers scaled down their bird offering to the minimum, if at all. Not surprisingly, many pet shops also reduced or pulled their bird product ranges altogether in reaction to this transformation in the supply and demand landscape.

The result, ironically, meant Rob started picking up sales as the remaining bird owners found it increasingly difficult to locate a one-stop supplier of bird feed, products and accessories. He recalls: “We kept going, mopping up and becoming the point of call for bird owners who were facing fewer and fewer outlets for products. It was pure accident that selling just bird products helped us, because there was no other place to get them.”

But change is afoot and the last few years has witnessed the combination of amnesia and growing confidence working collaboratively to trigger the green shoots of growth. Retailers are returning to the market as more and more of their customers start asking for bird products. “There is definitely a resurgence, and we are picking up trade clients every week,” he said.

Mail-order has long since been replaced by online sales, but the latter is very hard work – there will always be cowboys who think they can make a quick buck and are willing to sell products for 50p profit. Then there are the big boys like eBay and Amazon, and the online retail scene is suddenly very crowded. “The only reason we can compete online is because of the large variety of products we sell,” he reflects.

Yet many of his online customers would much prefer to walk into a pet shop to buy their products and food – apart from anything else, doing so would save them delivery charges, he says.

Taking to the skies
This renewed interest in birds and the growing confidence among retailers has propelled Rob to the next chapter, that of growing his trade base. “The independent pet retailer is my target now,” he said. “That is where the growth is.”

At the moment, his business processes 10,000 orders or so every year for bird enthusiasts and retailers; some orders are for £10, others run to several thousand pounds. Each is pretty much guaranteed a 24-hour delivery service. An average pet retailer order comprises half a mixed pallet including seeds, plastic items (feeders, drinkers, rings, etc), pest control or even nest boxes – there is a minimum order of £150 for free delivery.

Being a specialist wholesaler with the largest range of bird products and foods in the country gives retailers the advantage of not having to deal with different suppliers. Not to forget that Rob is only too happy to directly answer any query or problem retailers or their customers may have.
This year’s Interzoo was one of the better, if not the best, for him as he managed to locate a
number of growers of seed straights, cutting out the middle man. He also made contact with suppliers of plastic products who are happy to deal direct with a wholesaler; in previous years, such deals had to brokered through agents. The route to market has certainly changed over these past 15 years, he says. Previously, it was taken as understood that suppliers were expected to sell one brand and one brand only, an attitude that has thankfully relaxed, so Rob now supplies his own brand and dozens of others, including Witte Molen, Quiko and Avi-Plus.

For retailers who are looking to enter the market, Rob can advise how to start and what the best-selling lines are, and has an online catalogue which is updated regularly. “The best advice is to not stock a lot of any one thing but to carry a nice variety,” he said. “Trade may initially start off slow, but it will pick up. We see this all the time. Once customers buy a pack of our parrot food and then buy from another, they can see the difference and will return – generally parrot owners want the best for their birds.”

His own-brand parrot food (all his own-brand foods are made in Europe) is the best seller. Another strong seller is frozen palm nuts, a parrot’s staple food in the wild and of which he sells several tonnes every year, all of which are obtained from sustainable sources.

Focusing now on the independent, Rob has several plans that are about to go into action.

The most immediate is that for the first time in his company’s history, there will be a sales rep on the road. This ties in nicely as the wholesaler has recently become a distributor of the Quiko range of bird and small animal food, and has taken over the UK retailer accounts of the German manufacturer. Rob is also taking on a PA to help with the trade accounts, which will free him up to visit retailers. “I am looking forward to this,” he says, “as I’ve not been able to do this for some time. I need to talk to pet shops… that is my strength as I can give the retailer good advice.”

Looking slightly further ahead, he hopes to relocate to a bespoke warehouse facility within the next 12 months. His current facility has served him well, but he needs more space and operating from an industrial estate or similar will present advantages, certainly in terms of a transportation network.

If this isn’t enough on his plate, Rob is also in partnership with a distributor and his nephew hand-rearing parrots on a farm in Devon. “My nephew and his wife were looking for a business, and it all fell into place,” he explains.

Rob’s involvement is strictly on the expertise and advice front as said nephew and wife are the ones who are hand-rearing the birds, which have to be fed eight times a day from the age of two weeks until they are seven weeks’ old, resulting in a totally tame bird. Some of their parrots have already made their way into pet shops, and within a couple of years, the new business should be able to supply over 100 African Greys and Conures each year.

It’s like someone has pressed the fast-forward button for Rob. But as he says, the trade market is where growth is going to be, and being a specialist supplier, he’s got to remain on top of his game and ensure there is always something new and exciting around the corner.

Watch this space!