Groomed for suc­cess

Money Magazine Australia - - INTERVIEW - STORY ALAN DEANS

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.

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