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Pair combine efforts for pet food business

Nicole Porterfield and Kim Good have a word of advice for your value-add project. Whether it’s big or small, you’ve got to build a great team

“Have a goal for the first six months, the next year, and five years,” says Nicole Porterfield (left).

Whether you’re looking for a banker, accountant or lawyer, or whether you’re pursuing a new customer, what you’re actually doing is building a team that understands what you are trying to achieve, says Alberta’s Kim Good, co-owner with Nicole Porterfield of Farm Fresh Pet Foods based in Edmonton.

If they don’t have faith in you, they aren’t on the team.

“Don’t let other people make you feel that you’re not on track,” says Porterfield. “Analyze what they have to say but if you feel that you’ve got something, run with it, and if someone doesn’t have faith in you, or doesn’t believe that you can do it, they’re not the right fit. Go to someone else.”

One thing the two business partners have learned over the years is that this kind of persistence pays off. It’s helped them take a business begun by their cousins, Saskatchewan ranchers Matt and Crystal Fox, and build it into an enterprise that supplies major retail pet food chains across Canada and the United States.

From humble beginnings

In the early 2000s, after taking the Ranching for Profit program with the Allan Savory Institute, the Foxes had decided to sell high-end beef into restaurants but didn’t know what to do with the remaining, less popular cuts. They started looking at the dog food they were feeding their working dogs, and realized nothing in the stores at the time contained actual meat. Initially, they simply decided to make food for their own dogs, but quickly gained customers for their high-quality pet food and treats.

Good joined the company as Alberta distributor, and Porterfield as the Alberta sales representative, until in 2004 when, with a busy ranch and a growing family to manage, the Foxes opted to change direction.

So, the two sets of cousins got together, and despite having no formal business experience or training, Good and Porterfield took over.

“We knew we wanted to continue feeding good food to our own dogs, so it was for selfish reasons that we first decided to carry on with the business,” Good says.

Good didn’t grow up on a farm, but she has a degree in agriculture from the University of Saskatchewan, which is where she met husband Lindsey. The couple moved back to the Good family centennial farm at Carstairs, Alta., 13 years ago, which was initially a mixed farm, raising Limousin cattle, later converted to all crop.

Porterfield, meanwhile, was born and raised in Saskatchewan and attended the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology in Edmonton, where she took a diploma in biological sciences and stayed after meeting husband Jason, an architectural technologist.

Farm Fresh Pet Foods supplies major retail pet food chains across Canada and the U.S. photo: Farm Fresh Pet Foods

Jumping in feet first

Wanting to bring everything in-house, Porterfield took a LEAN manufacturing course through the Alberta government, and they started buying used equipment online and at auctions to set up their own production facility in Edmonton. Porterfield turned out to have a surprising aptitude for mechanics, and through a lot of trial and error — and with help from Jason — they started producing their own raw and cooked dog food, treats, and raw and smoked bones.

But they quickly learned what they didn’t know about manufacturing.

“We learned that our equipment wasn’t scaled to our production,” Good says. “We had bottlenecks from a production point of view, and because we weren’t efficient enough in our flow, some products were paying all of the cost, and it was challenging.”

They were also in danger of overextending themselves in just about every way.

“We really stretched ourselves financially and it was stressful because we were both doing other jobs, and Nicole had just had her second baby,” Good says. Porterfield’s husband was managing the actual production side, but he also had a full-time job.

It could have proved fatal. They might have decided to just give up, but Good’s chance visit to a pet store opened their eyes and provided the motivation they needed to change things up.

“We’d been feeding our dogs our own products for years, so I never shopped in a pet store, but when I picked up a new puppy, and stopped in on the way home to get her some treats, I realized how good our products were,” Good says. “Our treats were the only ones on the market at that time made with all-natural ingredients. They checked all the boxes for me as a pet owner, and nothing else on the shelf did.”

Changing the focus

So, the two got their heads together and decided they needed to focus on getting their products into more stores, and to make more retailers and pet owners aware of how good they were. 

“We did a bunch of spreadsheets and talked about it from a functional point of view, and that’s where we really got planning,” Good says. “Up until that point, we had a plan, but I don’t think that we had been strategic about it.”

That changed. They closed the production facility and went back to the original processor, who had been making the products for their cousins to do their production. Realizing that dog treats were their most profitable product, they focused on making them shelf-stable, with help from Alberta Agriculture scientists, so more stores were able to stock them without the need to keep them frozen, which had been one of their major limitations to expansion.

They attended major pet industry shows, where they learned more about how the retail industry works. Then they began to knock on doors, physically as well as figuratively, knowing that they could now expand to sell right across Canada, instead of just locally in Alberta.

“We had the best products on the market and we needed to get into stores, especially the pet specialty niche market,” says Porterfield. “Our target, off the hop, was independent stores because we could connect with the owners and tell them why our products were amazing, that we use all-Canadian ingredients. Then we were able to get into some of the smaller chains, who were just starting to expand, so we grew with them.”

Photo: Farm Fresh Pet Foods.

With a quality product and by cultivating personal relationships with their customers, plus some fortuitous timing, the business began to build a track record that allowed them to set their sights on bigger players in the industry, and that was when patience and persistence truly paid off. 

“One chain in particular was a tough nut to crack, and we had to get approved by head office to do a trial run in Alberta,” Porterfield says. When the person she had been dealing with went on maternity leave she found her replacement not as accommodating. “She would give me the brush- off and say, call me back in two weeks, and I would call to the day. Every time I called, she would brush me off, and I would call her every day that she told me to.”

Eventually, Porterfield was granted a meeting and their products are now being sold by that retail chain and many others. That’s not to say, adds Good, that they aren’t respectful of people’s time. 

“We recognize that they’re busy and are bombarded with requests all the time,” she says. “So, even though we keep calling, we’re very respectful. We do it when they tell us to ... it’s persistence with kindness.”

Whether they are dealing with a small, independent store or a large retail chain, building a personal connection is always the most important thing, says Porterfield.

“With one customer, I sat in the lady’s office for two hours just talking before I even showed her our products. It really mattered to her that we had a relationship before selling her anything,” Porterfield says.

Going full-time

Another major change happened in 2017 when the women arrived at a point in their lives and in the business where they could focus full-time on the company. Good’s two boys were 15 and 13, respectively, and Porterfield’s girls — eight and five — were now both in school.

“We both worked part-time on the business, so a lot of the time we had been running the business between putting kids down for naps, or after supper, or around the kids’ sports, or before they woke up in the morning,” Good says. “Until 2017, we were exhausted, but once we started getting into larger chains, it gave us enough that we could pay our bills and work on expansion.”

Which is when Porterfield said they should go into the U.S. Both agree Porterfield is the one who jumps in, while Good is the voice of caution. The combination works.

“We think exactly the same, and there’s very few things that we’ve not been on the same page for, and we have never fought,” Porterfield says. “I’m the one that takes leaps of faith, and Kim is the one that says, slow down Nicole. Do we have a budget and a plan for that? We’ve come a long way on figuring that out and together it works well.”

A different ball game

When it came to the U.S., they had yet more lessons to learn, the first being that they needed an export permit, a process that was so long and complicated, taking just about a year, that they ended up losing a potential large account there. Eventually, they possibly found one that panned out at a Canadian trade show, but it was when they attended the SuperZoo trade show (the size of nine football fields) in Las Vegas that their eyes opened wide.

“It was such a great learning experience, and I made contacts there that gave me some information on different distributors that were great to work with in the U.S., and I just started phoning people,” Porterfield says.

Shortly after, they got some grant funding through Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada that allowed them to do market research in Los Angeles, Seattle and New York. True to style, they did it their way.

“We literally took bags of treats and rode the subway around New York,” Porterfield says. “We went on Google and found all of the independent customers, mapped them out, and just walked and walked.”

People, it turned out, were excited to meet the actual Canadian owners of the company, using all-Canadian ingredients.

In retrospect, the partners have been hugely successful, and estimate the company has grown by about 10 times over the past decade. But neither, looking back, would wish they’d known from the beginning what they know now.

Says Good: “We wouldn’t have done it the same way. If we’d honestly known how hard some days and weeks were going to be, we might not have kept going.”

Tips for entrepreneurs

Based on their success with Farm Fresh Pet Foods, Kim Good and Nicole Porterfield have some hard-earned insider advice:

1. Get business education

Their number one tip is the value of business learning. They both attended the District Ventures business accelerator program in 2018, followed by the Trade Accelerator program the following year.

“Those helped us take everything we had learned by experience in the previous decade and put some structure to taking it forward,” Porterfield says. “It was an incredible source of information, and we gained mentors out of that. It formalized some of what we knew, added more knowledge, and gave us more confidence in what we were doing.”

2. Set near- and long-term goals

You need a strategic plan, Porterfield says. 

“Have a goal for the first six months, the next year and five years, and understand it’s not set in stone, it’s a working document, so things change,” she says. “But it’s important to have goals, a plan and to be realistic about it. You might want to get into that big chain, but how will you adjust if it doesn’t happen in two months.”

3. Identify your customer

The pair needed to wrestle with figuring out who their real customer is, Good says. “Is it the person who puts the treat in the dog’s bowl, or the retailer? We knew our target customer is somebody who’s genuinely interested in the value we offer and not just what’s on sale this week.”

It turns out it’s both. You need to target the retailer who attracts the right end-users.

“Know who your end-customer is, because if you’re trying to sell a premium product, but you’re attempting to get into discount stores, it won’t work,”Good says.

4. Get to know your banker

Develop a good relationship with your banker. Don’t be afraid to shop around if you have to and be prepared for financial meetings.

“If you go in with a back-of-a-napkin idea, they need more,” Good says. “If you have a great idea and you have a spreadsheet, that’s really helpful. Even if your numbers are not perfect, if you’re just projecting, they’ll help you, but you need to find a banker that works with you. Just because you’ve always banked at the bank on the corner doesn’t mean that that’s who is going to support your business. Interview people to work with you and build your team.”

5. Understand freight rates

If the plan is to ship a lot of product, talk to shipping companies to get better freight rates.

“There is lots of opportunity in direct sales, which is something that we don’t do, but the advice to people who want to do direct sales is figure out the shipping early,” Good says. “People think you just take the rate you get. Phone the shipping companies, and whoever you choose, talk to them because they will give you a rate, and a grace period for the year, based on your anticipated sales amount. If you don’t meet, or exceed, those amounts the following year, then things will change. Don’t go to the desk at Canada Post and say I need to ship this. Get a business account based on volumes.”

6. Make remote working a positive

Long before COVID-19, the team at Farm Fresh Pet Foods employed technology like chat groups, file-sharing and meeting apps to work remotely. Good works from the farm, Porterfield from her home in Edmonton, while they also have an office manager and a customer service/sales representative in Carstairs, and a logistics manager and order desk representative at the Edmonton warehouse.

Apart from being constantly on the phone, there’s no downside to working this way, both say. Porterfield takes her kids to school and picks them up every day, and Good has never missed a 4H show, basketball game or a track meet. For them, though, trying to initiate regular, Monday morning meetings with all the team just didn’t work out, so they are making an effort to communicate more strategically.

“We have started to be more focused,” Good says. “Nicole has a sales meeting with our sales representative on a regular basis, and the office manager and I meet regularly. We do have formal meetings, but we don’t have a formal schedule.”

As for the future — there are a lot of dogs out there, so Farm Fresh’s goals are to expand further into the U.S., add some new treat varieties and get into more grocery store chains on both sides of the border. The good news i, more stores are starting to knock on their door for a change. But, the pair know, it will still take planning.

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Angela Lovell

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