Groomed for success
Anneke van den Broek’s first pet, at age five or six, was a mouse. Her mother had a favourite cat, so her companion was kept in a cage outside. The mouse soon bred, of course, which provided an opportunity for her owner who now is one of Australia’s leading pet care entrepreneurs with her Rufus & Coco business. She went to the local pet shop and asked if they would buy her mice. They had unusual markings on their fur, and soon were in hot demand. Van den Broek pocketed 50c each and tasted her first business success.
The incurable animal lover has since owned 40 pets, give or take. Cats, dogs and turtles followed the mice. “We had Boris, an eastern long-neck turtle, who should have been called Doris, and Doris who should have been called Boris,” van den Broek explains. “We found them crossing the highway. We even had a chicken turned rooster that we had to give to a farm because it kept the neighbourhood awake. It was a menagerie. In my household, if you didn’t get to the couch before the dog then you lost your spot.”
RSPCA Australia reckons we have one of the highest rates of pet ownership in the world, with 62% of households having a bundle of feathers or fur of some sort. That adds up to 24 million animals, with some 38% of households owning dogs and 29% cats. Pets are regarded as a normal part of life for 83% of children. Of the few kids that don’t have one, 59% would like to in the future. Clearly, there is big demand for pet pampering.
Van den Broek, now 46, has been selling up-market pet products, such as collars, litter, tray liners and grooming products, for 10 years and has access to valuable
shelving space in Coles, Woolworths and scores of pet stores around Australia. Her company exports to eight other countries, the most notable being a recent deal to supply grooming products to 1459 stores owned by the world’s largest pet chain, Pet Smart in the US.
But her success started with small retailers. “I put together selling material and started knocking on the doors of independent pet stores. When we went into supermarkets in 2010, we had over 500 independent customers that I had built up by calling and knocking on doors. I targeted stores in Adelaide, Queensland – all around.” At that time, she met distributors at a Hong Kong trade show and they quickly became her largest single customer by opening access for Rufus & Coco in Asia.
Her first real indication that a pet supplies might be a goer came 20 years ago when van den Broek was director of marketing for health supplements maker Blackmores. “I used to run the customer service team. They were all trained naturopaths. I would look at the reports that came through and noticed a substantial number of enquiries on issues like: ‘can I give this arthritis product to my dog?’ We wrote new protocols for animals so that my team could respond to those enquiries in a credible way.
Parallel to that, I used to attend the largest human natural health expo at Anaheim in the US. The space that was devoted to pets grew from being a little corner to a whole hall. I took the idea back to the business and said that we needed to get into this. That was at the same time as the Pan
Pharmaceuticals crisis, a huge consumer goods recall. Then was not the time for Blackmores to launch new ventures.
“The idea never really left my mind. My father Tao, being Dutch, was orientated to natural care. People from northern Europe often are. Herbal medicine is much more mainstream than it is in this country. When I fell over as a kid, he used to put apple cider vinegar and honey on my skinned knee. So, I have a preference for natural products.”
It took her about 14 months to start the business. There was no blueprint, but experience told her to start by articulating what the brand would stand for and what its vision and values would be. It needed a personality. The brand name was workshopped with a group of close girlfriends.
“I wanted a name that was masculine-feminine, and when you said it out loud sounded like a pet’s name. It was emotionally engaging, knowing that what we were trying to do was to emotionally engage people. It certainly sounds better than Anneke’s Pet Shop.
“What we have done as Australia’s largest brand in the pet accessories category, is to leverage the humanisation trend in the market. Pet products are about a $12 billion category, and retailers generally have a good, better, best strategy. We sit in their best part. It’s about offering affordable, better products for people who love their pets.”
By setting up a clear strategy at the outset, van den Broek boosted her chances down the track. She displayed lofty aspirations from a young age and worked hard to achieve them. After reading an article about successful businesswomen, she opted to study fashion design.
“One of my first jobs was at Carla Zampatti, doing everything from sending orders to running to get her coffee. Then I took on a role at David Jones, part of which was organising fashion shows around Australia. When I was only 23, they gave me a $4 million budget and we ran 365 events a year.”
Her boss at David Jones, Patty Akopiantz, who is now a high-flying director of companies like AMP and Ramsay Health Care, advised her to do an MBA. Van den Broek signed up at the University of NSW.
“I always knew that I wanted to run my own business, and I thought doing that would give me enough knowledge to be able to ask the dumb questions without feeling dumb. It did do that.”
Her early career, the MBA and subsequent senior positions at Blackmores and Pacific Brands’ Bonds clothing division provided solid grounding in marketing and consumer products. They also gave her valuable insights into cracking a critical goal for many small businesses – placing products onto supermarket shelves.
“More than 50% of the market value in pet accessories is sold through grocery retailers. Australia is unique in that. In other parts of the world where we operate, our category does not exist in grocery supermarkets. All they sell is food. We have opened this space and extended it. The supermarkets want to do this because food represents the largest part of their business. If people switch out of food because they need other basic needs, it means they might lose their food purchases.
“Getting into supermarkets was really hard. I presented four times over a series of years before I got in.” The first pitch to Coles was made in 2007, but they didn’t come on board until 2012. “More than anything, it has to do with the person you are selling to. (The buyer who) put us into Woolworths really understood the customer. When I went to her and said: ‘This is what people are looking for’, she got it. A lot of time when you present to buyers, they will say: ‘Oh, it’s a flea shampoo’. It’s a big risk for them. You need someone who is willing to take that risk.”
In any business, there will be setbacks. Van den Broek says she has countered quality issues with products and distribution. That led her to focus more on the finances, terms, and production, and to optimise every aspect of the business to maximise returns. Margins and trading terms are constantly being squeezed, so her response is to constantly re-engineer.
There are important initiatives in the pipeline too. Rufus & Coco is moving into the first office it has ever owned, ditching rented digs above an IGA supermarket. There are plans to open the company’s first retail store and, perhaps, its first grooming boutique. In time, that idea could be franchised.
Van den Broek also finds time to engage closely with like-minded people through Entrepreneurs’ Organization. She leads a group of budding women entrepreneurs, who swap ideas and experiences.
“It is partly them that has got me buying my first office. They have given me a reference point, which is entrepreneurs who get their business to a certain point and have families, then I feel that if they can do that then I can. That has inspired me.”
“When I was only 23, David Jones gave me a $4 million budget and we ran 365 events a year”
Furry friends ... van den Broek turned her love of animals into a thriving business.