Barking up the right tree: How Chris Essex grew $6.4 million pet food company Big Dog

Barking up the right tree: How Chris Essex grew $6.4 million pet food company Big Dog

 

Chris Essex founded Big Dog Pet Foods in 2000 after deciding he wanted to step out of corporate life and start his own business. 

After receiving seed funding from his father, Chris grew the company to 22 employees and snapped up suppliers in Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong – while at the same time keeping the family business 100% Australian-owned.

Today, Big Dog produces 30 tonnes of raw pet food a week. Last year the business turned over $6.4 million, and this financial year the company hopes to achieve more than $7 million in turnover.

 

My background is food science. I studied food science at university and upon completion was asked to work in a small goods company, which was a division of Woolworths at the time. While I was there I was introduced to the pet food industry in a roundabout way.

I was talking to a pet shop owner who had a number of stores and there had been a number of books written about raw feeding by a well-known Australian vet. They were looking for someone to manufacture the products talked about in the books. I loved it because it was all natural and made sense to me for animals to have a diet that mimics a wild dog’s diet. We set up a factory and 15 years later here we are.

I love the industry. The testimonials we get coming back to us from people who have changed over to our diets and the health it’s promoted in their pets has been fantastic. We love hearing about that and I’ve always been about natural food for myself and my family.

I think some sort of food science course or nutritional course is certainly beneficial in this industry. There is more information out there now for the user through the internet, so when the consumer wants to know something you better know the answer and have a justification for what you’re saying.

We’re talking about people’s pets and pets are part of the family – especially in the Australian market and the overseas market too.

There were a lot of mistakes made by us, but you learn to pick yourself up from it and maintain that cash flow. That’s always the biggest struggle.

We are in most of the major corporate franchises now – Pet Stock, City Farmers but also a number of independent groups as well.

It takes time, it’s never just you see this corporation and they say you’re in. There is a lot of relationship building and they need to build trust in the product.

We also export to a number of Asian countries, so it’s always exciting to find another distributor in another country.

We always have a direction for the next 12 months and where we want to see the business. But you need to be flexible in this industry; things change all the time.

Deals are going down from a corporate level, from an independent level and we need to listen to our customers to find out exactly what we can be doing to make their lives easier.

Over the next 12 months we want to get our systems right internally to make them more efficient, more cost-effective. These are the things we want to look at this year and fine tune.

 

At the moment we produce 30 tonnes of pet food a week. We want to double that, but the only way to achieve that is through good systems and efficiencies in the business. If we can tighten those things up we’ll get some nice growth through our distributor chains and customers overseas.

I’ve managed to sleep through earthquakes so there’s nothing that really keeps me awake at night with the business. But I am constantly trying to ensure our team – our family of 25 staff – continue to grow.

That is my biggest fear: not ensuring what we want to achieve around our staff having that security and personal growth through the business.

The biggest challenge we have as a business is educating our end users and potential customers. But you just have to go back and tell the story – that our product mimics the wild dog’s diet.

Dogs have been around for millions of years and nature doesn’t get it wrong.

We want to be recognised as an honest company, that it’s high-quality food and good for your dog. Our biggest challenge is just getting out and telling the story of raw diets. But once we get the opportunity to talk to people they say it just makes perfect sense.

Three months ago we hired a full-time social media manager. It’s so important nowadays and a terrific vessel for us to get more information out to people about this diet and their animals. It’s so useful for us to really communicate with our end users.

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