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Behind the Scenes: Ainsworth Pet Nutrition

Posted: January 10, 2011, 3:40 p.m., EDT


Sean P. Lang
Sean P. Lang, Ainsworth Pet Nutrition’s CEO and great-great grandson of the company’s founder.
Knowledge is King

The 77-year-old company really knows pet food because it’s the only thing it does.

By Michael Ventre

Something old, something new, something delicious, something nutritious.

All right, so that’s not exactly how the old saying goes. But at Ainsworth Pet Nutrition, it seems apropos these days, given that so much is going on with a company that is fifth-generation family run, yet is pushing more challenging envelopes and exploring new territory.

"We know pet food,” said Sean P. Lang, the company’s CEO and great-great grandson of the company’s founder, "because it’s the only thing we do.”

That’s true. However, within that one, Ainsworth seems to be doing so many different things.
Take for instance the company’s expansion into specialty brands. In March 2011, the Back to Basics brand, which was acquired by Ainsworth about a year ago, will ship to stores after being "re-imagined and reformulated,” Lang said.

"It’s really the next evolution of grain-free diets,” Lang continued. "We’re pretty focused on a unique segment of the market here. It’s going to be a unique product in that it will have real organ meat first, which is the pet’s first preference instinctively because it is the most nutrient dense. We’re delivering on their most basic desires with food that contains turkey hearts and livers, or pork livers and kidneys.”

At-a-Glance Ainsworth
Locations:  Meadville, Pa.; Dumas, Ark.
Owner: Ainsworth Lang family
Number of Employees: Approximately 565
Years in Business: 77
Areas of Distribution/Business:  Retail chains and independent pet stores throughout North America.
Company Mission: "We believe that good people, working toward a common goal, can accomplish anything they set out to do. In this spirit, we set our goal to be the very best at serving the needs of pet parents and their furry kids."
Product/Business Categories: Ainsworth Specialty Brands, DAD'S Pet Care.
Product/Business Lines:  VF Complete; Enhance; Back to Basics; The Source; DAD'S; Rachael Ray Nutrish; Rachael Ray Nutrish Just 6 Treats; Kibble Select Complete; Better Than.
Back to Basics is targeted primarily for independent and specialty stores. It has three specialty siblings in Enhance (aimed at owners and trainers of sporting dogs), The Source (a line of premium treats) and VF Complete (all natural ingredients). Enhance and VF Complete came along in the February 2010 acquisition of ARKAT Animal Nutrition, which also brought new manufacturing facilities to Ainsworth.

"We designed the brands and made sure that they’re positioned uniquely and differently to address pet parents’ needs,” said Mark Miller, director of Ainsworth Specialty Brands and Innovation. "It’s been exciting. We had some great conversations at SuperZoo, which is where we made our formal announcement about Ainsworth’s specialty division.”

But the company’s news bulletins don’t stop there. Also in the mix is Dad’s Pet Care, which Ainsworth describes as "a full line of affordably priced dog and cat foods made with ingredients sourced from local farms.” Dad’s Pet Care is actually one-third of the company’s reorganization into three distinct business units, the other two being Ainsworth Specialty Brands and Ainsworth Custom.

Dad’s brands include Rachael Ray Nutrish and Nutrish Just 6 Treats (the cuisine queen donates her proceeds to animals in need; more than $1 million has been raised since the line launched in Fall 2008); Kibble Select Complete; and Better Than (treats).

All of these various Ainsworth endeavors have not only resulted in growth spurts for the pets who consume the chow, but also for the company itself.

"We have doubled our business since 2006,” Lang said. "We’re six times bigger than we were 10 years ago.”

That’s a lot of family members, 550 to be exact. They’re not all blood, but Ainsworth doesn’t make much of a distinction. Family is the dominant theme of the company--Ainsworth boasts it is the oldest privately owned pet food company in the United States--and Lang said everyone there refers to the 550 employees as family.

APN's line of Products
Ainsworth Pet Nutrition’s extensive line of products.
Lang has been working for Ainsworth in a full-time professional capacity for 15 years, the past four as CEO.
"But we all worked in the business during summers and vacations starting at age 14,” he said. "That continued on through college.”

Most teenagers think of summer and part-time work as drudgery for money and time that would be better spent with friends at the mall. Looking back, those aren’t the memories Lang has.

"It was fun,” he said. "It was intense because everyone said work hard, play hard. But our gang really lives it. The time around the business was fun. I can remember spending time with customers as I was growing up, which gave me a unique perspective on the business. Certainly, though, there were some mornings when you’re in the production facility at 3 a.m. swinging big chunks of beef. But all in all, it was great.”

Although Lang spent three years working in the finance industry after college, he gravitated back to the business that was created by George Ainsworth Lang Sr. and his father in 1933.

"The fathers and grandfathers were very encouraging for us to explore other options,” Lang said. "But I was pretty determined to come back into the business.

"It’s a unique culture. Working for a large corporation really helped me appreciate that. There’s no share price or quarterly earnings to catch up to. The decisions we make always focus on the long view, which is unique and fun, because we’re not making short-term knee jerk moves for the wrong reasons. Because it’s a family environment and the 550 family members here are part of one big family, we’re fortunate enough to have a tremendously dedicated group of people who flourish in a non-corporate environment.”

APN Aerial
A view from above: the Ainsworth Pet Nutrition complex in Dumas, Ark.
While it’s true that some extended families have a notorious reputation, those usually don’t last for five generations and experience rapid growth based on customer loyalty and positive word of mouth.

Ainsworth is where it is today, said Lang, because of the quality of its products.

"I would say our food safety and ingredient inspection programs are unsurpassed in the industry,” he said. "We make everything we sell, so we have our hands around the entire supply chain. Safety and inspection are our No. 1 priority.”

Miller, who has only been with the company for a year and a half but has been in the business world for 25 years, said Ainsworth’s push to expand its realm "really energizes me to come to work every day.”

"We have a big group,” he said, "and 24/7 we’re thinking about nothing but the pet channel and new brands.”

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