News Industry Profile Supreme Petfoods



Industry Profile: Supreme Petfoods
10th September 2014

By Sandra Pearce

From its base in Suffolk, Supreme Petfoods exports to 22 countries – but the interests of the UK independents remain a key priority for this global player

Muesli rabbit food has been the traditional choice for pet owners for years, and if current trends at Supreme Petfoods are anything to go by, its popularity remains strong despite publicity and campaigns to encourage pet owners to switch to mono-component foods.

“We are seeing growth in muesli,” says the company’s marketing manager Claire Hamblion. “It’s about meeting the needs of the consumer, and for now, muesli remains a mainstream product.” Having said this, she says that mono-component foods present a good opportunity for growth, and the company is steadily growing its share in this sector with its Selective range.

Supreme Petfoods has been making small animal food for about 20 years – the company’s roots can be traced to a Suffolk farm producing hay and straw, which then diversified into making food for small animals. Today, the company operates from three sites in Hadleigh and Acton, manufacturing and packaging its pet food, treats hay and bedding.

It has also branched into totally new territory with the launch of its Stone Snack Bars for dogs, branded as ‘a revolutionary tasty and convenient way’ to feed dogs, either as part of a pet’s daily diet or as a
convenient meal on the go. Yes, the bars were a bit of a risk and certainly pushed the team out of its comfort zone, said Claire, but that’s what the company is all about – pushing boundaries, and this explains why the company is doing so well: turnover is currently up 10% on last year.

With the snack bars, Supreme saw a ‘big opportunity’, she explains. “We had this concept of a cereal bar for dogs, like a human cereal bar… a snack on the go. We thought it would be a good idea for dog walkers. You could put a few in your pack and not have to worry about a bowl and food.”

Uptake has been encouraging, she says. Apparently one retailer thought his sample was, in fact, a human snack and ate it. She hastens to add that the dog bars are made on a dedicated manufacturing site to ensure no cross-contamination with its rabbit food. “We are good like that,” she states simply. Well, you need to be, especially when you are exporting to countries like America.

Far-flung corners of the earth
Supreme Petfoods currently exports to 22 countries, and it is interesting to see how the UK compares to others in its attitudes and knowledge of small animals. In Japan, for instance, rabbits are held in high regard, on much the same footing as cats and dogs, she says. Their popularity is being driven due to housing space constraints and the fact that rabbits make ideal house-trained, indoor pets.

The Japanese are very clued-up on nutrition and fibre, and you do not see muesli products on the shelves, she says – it is the Supreme Fibafirst range which is in Japanese stores.

The company has also launched into the US, where muesli diets are in vogue as it is a ‘fairly new product’. Despite the short period of time, the brand is showing positive growth, and has secured a footing with the 1,200-strong national pet chain Petco. Then there is Holland, the company’s biggest (and first) export market and in which the Supreme brand is market leader – it’s had a presence there since the mid-’90s.

Markets are changing all the time, and they are all at different stages, which makes exports challenging, she observes.

“It’s taken lots of work and effort,” said MD Chris Childs of their export market. “And we invested heavily. Exporting is not a great panacea and not easy. And it’s always harder than the home market.”

There is, however, a golden side to exporting to several countries, and that’s if one market is not performing well, chances are another one is. There are still many big opportunities to be explored, he says. “We are in America, Canada, Europe and Japan – all four continents.” The business is split roughly 50/50 at the moment between the UK and export markets.

For now, though, Supreme is not looking to open up new export markets and concentrate instead on growing the brand’s penetration in its existing markets. “We’re having a bit of a pause on new markets now,” says Chris, “because there is so much opportunity that we want to explore.”

Developing the export market is not for the impatient, he adds, explaining: “You enter a market, and then ten years later you can say they are doing very well. It’s all long term. You do not just arrive in a country with a product and expect it to do well.” As a case in point, Supreme is now stocked with major French retailers, but it’s taken close to three years of investment and hard graft to get to that stage.

He reflects: “Sometimes it can look quite dark, but you have to keep at it, have a clear idea about what you are doing and stick at it.”

Export manager Samantha Randle says one-off orders procured at trade shows is not a strategy for the company. “We want to establish long-term relationships with the company. We want long-term business, as well as their investing in our brand.” Supreme’s vision is for a global brand, which means learning about the relevant market and what makes that market tick. The message is simple: Supreme Petfoods is so much more than ‘just another’ supplier of small animal food.

All hay is not equal
Over the last couple of years, the company has invested heavily in new product development, evident by the raft of new launches. One that the company is particularly excited about is the FibaFirst range, which contains Timothy Hay and alfalfa stalks, among other ingredients. Crucially, FibaFirst combines long fibre particles with vitamins and minerals to present a complete balanced diet for rabbits and guinea pigs, with a fibre content of up to 30%. The long fibres promote chewing and dental wear, which helps address the common dental problems vets see on a regular basis, explained Claire. Such a composition means the diet is very close to what an animal would eat in the wild, she added.

The diet – as with all Supreme foods – is highly palatable and crucially, features no added sugar or molasses. So how does Supreme make its high fibre foods so palatable without these sweet additions? “I can’t tell you how or I’d have to kill you,” she jokes.

The quality of ingredients used is a prime consideration, and to illustrate this perfectly is the company’s Selective Timothy Hay product. By its very nature, Timothy Hay is a superior hay because it is rich in fibre and highly palatable with just the right protein balance. Its abrasive texture helps grind down an animal’s teeth, keeping both the teeth and jaw in good order. Although it has a slightly higher price tag, it is growing in popularity among small animal owners.

Supreme Petfood’s Selective Timothy Hay is grown in Yorkshire (fields are reserved on a yearly basis), but to ensure its hay has the highest nutrient profile, the seeds are sown slightly further apart so the sun’s rays can penetrate to the base of the stems. That’s not all. At harvest, the hay is not simply left on the field to dry but is machine dried to lock in the nutrients. Then it is delivered to Supreme, where five dedicated hand packers bag it up all year round.

Always striving to better meet the needs of small animals, about three years ago the company created a veterinary line, which is now available to pet stores with SQPs. Although the foods do not contain medicines, their nutritional profile has been adjusted to meet certain conditions, so for example a product to support urinary health has increased cranberry, reduced calcium and added vitamin C.

Support for the independent
The independent pet retailer is an important focus for Supreme, with its Happy Hoppers Club having attracted over 10,000 small animal owners and over 500 retailers. “It’s been really, really successful,” Claire says. “Membership is growing all the time – it’s just a bit more interesting than standard loyalty cards.”

The way it works is that retailers sign up their customers to the scheme, and Supreme drives them directly back to that same store regularly to redeem vouchers and collect gifts. Club members also receive advice on pet care. In terms of advice on animal care, Supreme also has oodles of literature that retailers can hand out to customers on the best care for their pets.

Continuing its ethos for pushing boundaries and working out of its comfort zone, when research revealed retailers felt they were not getting enough contact time with their reps, Supreme did the unthinkable and pulled its sales reps from the road.

“We decided to restructure… we did the maths and it did not add up,” Claire explained. Now office based and with a telesales team, there is far more contact with retailers. Any appointments are pre-arranged, so there are no cold calls, and the shop owner or manager in question has set aside time to spend with the rep. “Through the combined efforts of telesales and marketing, it’s working much better. We now have more meaningful contacts, and we have seen growth.

“Just because that’s how we have always done something, does not make it the right way or the best way. We definitely went out of our comfort zone that time… most of the time we like a challenge!” she says with a laugh.

Along similar lines, no one trade show is a must, and each show is evaluated on an individual basis. So for example this year Supreme did not exhibit at Germany’s Interzoo, even though it had done so for the past ten years. “We do not do something year in and year out just for the sake of doing it,” she affirms.

The company estimates it is in about 95% of all pet retailers in the country, but Claire acknowledges that small animal is a difficult sector. “Think about it, you have cat, dog, then small animal, which is this huge range of different animals with different care requirements. It is very difficult for retailers to merchandise this properly. Yet when you realise that quite often small animal offers bigger margins, it becomes more lucrative and well worth your time.”