An Interview with Tim Callahan, CEO, WellPet
Interview conducted by Sherri L. Collins
Pet Product News International recently had the opportunity to talk at length with Tim Callahan about WellPet (the Tewksbury, Mass.-based pet-food manufacturer), the natural pet-food industry and the company’s place within the marketplace today and in the future.
Tim Callahan, CEO of WellPet
Tim Callahan has been CEO of WellPet since October 2008. He moved over from his position at the investment management firm Berwind Corp. when it bought Eagle Pack and Wellness brands and placed them under the WellPet umbrella. Prior to Berwind, Callahan served as an executive for Kraft Foods, H.J. Heinz and PepsiCo, specializing in consumer packaged goods and foods.
PPNI: What brought you to WellPet?
Tim Callahan: I have a profound respect for companies with good brands and strong consumer business, qualities I found in abundance at WellPet.
PPNI: Now that WellPet has merged Eagle Pack with Wellness/Old Mother Hubbard, how will the brands be differentiated?
TC: By respecting the traditions of each brand. Both Old Mother Hubbard/Wellness and Eagle Pack were started by people who were passionate about business and about pets. The founders of these companies did the heavy lifting for WellPet by developing great products that were ahead of their time.
Both have extreme brand loyalty; they’re strong brands. WellPet’s goal isn’t necessarily to meld the brands into one cohesive unit, but to have them continue to complement each other. We are conducting intensive research with pet parents, pet retailers and pet industry players to help us do this.
PPNI: Still, the brands are all marketed as natural pet foods? How will you keep them distinct for new consumers?
TC: It’s more than marketing the all-natural brand. Wellness was one of the first to add significant levels of all-naturals supplements that replicate the necessary nutrients found in nature (if the goal is to boost lycopene, then why not add tomatoes instead of a "chemical” form of lycopene?).
Pet food is a very large market within which is a significant trend toward natural. More companies are moving in this direction. There is ample opportunity to evolve the markets while keeping WellPet’s brands relevant. It’s a dynamic marketplace.
PPNI: What are the significant challenges facing the natural pet-food industry?
TC: The prevention and/or reduction of nutrition and product confusion at the consumer (and retail) level. This is both a challenge and an opportunity.
PPNI: How is WellPet meeting this challenge?
TC: By refining the branding of Wellness and Eagle Pack. Both have a longer heritage of producing very high-quality foods. WellPet will build on and maintain that legacy of consumer trust. It’s not simply repositioning, but refocusing on the brands’ highest quality, purposed ingredients for naturally occurring nutrition.
We are also marketing by way of traditional and new venues (such as web 2.0), as well as working with the "indies” [independent retailers] to get the message out there.
PPNI: Would creating an industry (or national) standard on what natural means help reduce that confusion on both fronts?
TC: WellPet supports the concept. Such standards would support WellPet’s mission and those of the pet-food industry.
PPNI: What other challenge is the natural pet-food market facing?
TC: Maintaining a price to value balance. We need to communicate what the benefits of a natural diet are. Higher life quality, fewer veterinarian visits, better nutrition, these are all significant value points related to pricing.
PPNI: How is WellPet addressing this?
TC: This challenge is actually an opportunity for WellPet and the industry as a whole. With the ongoing humanization of pets, consumers are increasingly looking for high-quality standards. They’re better educated on their pets’ nutritional and health needs.
There is an emotional link between pet and owner that can be translated into better food, better health and better life for the pet. Word of mouth works: Consumers are eager to share their experiences regarding improved health of their pets by way of a better diet.
Premium natural brands also benefit from knowledgeable buyers; 75 percent of [Eagle Pack] Holistic Select buyers use the web for pet nutrition research. This is a big opportunity to engage groups of pet owners and product buyers. By delivering on a product’s promise and standards, we can help consumers make an informed purchasing decision.
The great thing about the industry is that it is a passionate one. Manufacturers, retailers and pet parents are passionate about their animals. Our research will bear this out.
PPNI: What are the greatest opportunities within the market?
TC: Creating a stronger partnership with independent retailers. We need to help them learn how to come to market [with natural products] and we can do this by sharing research.
Moreover, as it should be a true partnership, the knowledge transfer needs to go both ways. It’s a way of filling in the missing link. By sharing perspectives at all levels, we can better address the issues at hand.
PPNI: Are there other opportunities?
TC: Yes. We need to educate consumers and the industry as a whole that it’s more than just "natural.” Natural does not automatically equate with good. That sense of expectation needs to be balanced with common sense.
We (as a company and an industry) must move beyond the natural label to address quality of ingredients; sourcing of ingredients at all levels; quality control during processing (and all other levels) and the human-quality and palatability of the product. Promise then deliver.
Tests need to show (as ours do) that the ingredients’ nutrients don’t lose efficacy through processing. It takes a lot of a careful handling and a lot of effort, because at the end of the day it really comes down to "what’s in the bag.” It’s why WellPet has vets on staff so that our diets are thoughtfully and thoroughly developed, resulting in premium quality that holds to a higher standard from end to end. We devote a lot of care and attention to our products.
PPNI: What’s in the pipeline for WellPet?
TC: We are relaunching Holistic Select this fall to redirect the message effectively. We are working on how, as a manufacturer, we can better communicate the message of "holistic.”
PPNI: What do you believe is the key to WellPet’s success?
TC: We have an advantage over [mainstream] in that our foods are produced in smaller batches.This enables us to better control every step, from the back end forward to the processing goal of superior nutritional credentials. Every ingredient has a purpose; they are natural and carefully processed ingredients.
We insist that our nutritional labels hold true; it’s an enormous commitment from end to end, but worth it. The heritage holds and so do consumers’ trust.
This article first appeared in the October 2009 issue of Natural Pet Product Merchandiser<HOME>
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