Best known for its natural ingredients-based Webbox brand providing creature comforts for dogs and cats and the Bob Martin healthcare label, the independent manufacturer’s catering ranges from dogs to ducks, plus many happy hedgehogs along the way too. With a 40 percent year-on-year growth, and boosted by the Bob Martin’s purchase last year, the business expects a £70 million turnover for 2020 and to expand exports that currently go to 40 countries.
Pets have long played a precious role in human lives, but lockdown has brought this to the fore with surges in ownership reported as people working from home and struggling with isolation have turned to them as a lifeline.
For Pets Choice, currently employing 250 across three sites and with headquarters in Blackburn, there has been a rapid rise in online sales, vindicating chief executive and co-owner Tony Raeburn’s three-tier strategy.
“We control our own manufacturing, new product development and pursue acquisitions,” he explains.
“Being a challenger brand will always be at our core. We endeavour to bring expertise in-house as much as possible, which now means digital marketing, design and social media management so we control our own destiny.
“The aim is to strengthen the digital side of the business and more job creation.”
Strength has also come from the company developing a diverse portfolio and among the 11 brands is its iconic Spike’s Hedgehog Food.
Despite being known as hibernators, the critically endangered beauties seek and need nourishment throughout the year and Pets Choice’s donations help support charities such as the Harper Asprey Wildlife Rescue in Surrey and the Amazing Grace Hedgehog campaign.
Other star performers in the company’s portfolio include play toys and Queen’s Award winner TastyBone and Felight cat litter as well as a white label manufacturing service.
“We’ve seen most of our competitors sell out to other businesses or private equity while we remain proudly a private company. We don’t let fear of a product flopping hold us back, but selecting the right one is critical to investment,” says Raeburn, who has turned Pets Choice into the force it is today with business partner Hans Jurgen Deuerer.
The company has its ups and downs to say the least, with first success coming from its Chub sausage. But in 2002 it teetered on the brink of bankruptcy, then Raeburn led two management buy-outs in 2006 and 2013 before taking over completely with Deuerer.
Investment, heavily in manufacturing, has been in-house with long-term support from its bank, NatWest in Manchester. Recently Pets Choice opened new production and distribution facilities in Blackburn and customers span the full gamut from grocery and pet multiples to discounters and wholesalers. The fourth factory, set to open in 2022, will also be in the area.
Although Raeburn has built up a stock buffer, like many SME manufacturers the uncertainty of Brexit and potential tariffs continue to weigh on the business.
“But when faced with difficulties we go back to basics and stay focussed on producing high quality, affordable products and maintaining a motivated workforce,” he adds.
“We’ve seen and come through a lot of troubled times. My advice is don’t get too het up and think about what you can do tomorrow.”