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Geared for growth: pet food firm boss eyes new markets

PUBLISHED: 09:52 11 March 2019 | UPDATED: 09:52 11 March 2019

Matthew Peters, Operations Manager, right with Des Smith, Managing Director, left, at the Skinner's pet foods factory in Stradbroke, Eye. PICTURE: Jamie Honeywood

Matthew Peters, Operations Manager, right with Des Smith, Managing Director, left, at the Skinner's pet foods factory in Stradbroke, Eye. PICTURE: Jamie Honeywood

Jamie Honeywood Archant Norwich Norfolk

The export opportunities for one of Suffolk’s most prized brands is “huge”, its boss believes.

Skinner's pet foods factory in Stradbroke, Eye. PICTURE: Jamie HoneywoodSkinner's pet foods factory in Stradbroke, Eye. PICTURE: Jamie Honeywood

Des Smith took over the reins at Stradbroke-based petfood firm Skinner’s in January 2018, following the retirement of its previous managing director, Greg Panter.

He believes that the brand, aimed primarily at working dogs, while highly successful, still has untapped potential. He is ramping up production – as there is spare capacity at the plant – increasing brand awareness, and looking to new markets at home and abroad.

MORE – East Anglian firms dig in, stock up and brace themselves against hard Brexit

Des enjoyed a successful run as managing director of Debenham-based Aspall Cyder, where he remained for 10 years, before it was sold to American drinks giant Molson Coors in January 2018. Before joining Aspall, he had been part of a group of people involved in forming ready meals firm Rannoch Food Group in Lincolnshire, which was launched in 2002 and grew to a £150m turnover before it was sold to Icelandic firm Bakkavör in 2007.During his time at Aspall, the business grew from a turnover of £11m to £40m.

Skinner’s turnover was £16.7m in 2018, compared to £15.8m in 2017, with last year’s profit before tax standing at £3m. In the year 2017/2018, the mill produced 14,700 tonnes of its specialist dried dog food products, prepared and cooked to a set of bespoke company recipes, and that figure will rise by 6% in 2018/19 to 15,500 tonnes - a 6% increase.Like Aspall, Skinner’s is a strong, generations-old family-run business. Still under the aegis of company chair Roger Skinner, its ‘crown jewel’ is its ‘Field and Trial’ range, with its bagged dogfoods made in a range of flavours such as chicken, duck, turkey, lamb, and including a niche grain-free product.

Skinner's pet foods factory in Stradbroke, Eye. PICTURE: Jamie HoneywoodSkinner's pet foods factory in Stradbroke, Eye. PICTURE: Jamie Honeywood

These recipes are key to its success, says Des.“I’m lucky because I have inherited a really good team. The previous MD was very well respected and built a great business,” says Des.Skinner’s Mill, which dates back to 1688, has belonged to the Skinner family for seven generations. Roger Skinner decided to branch out into complete dry dog foods in the early 1970s, becoming an early pioneer.

“We are 4% of the dry dog food market in the UK, but 35% of the working dog food market,” explains Des. “It’s quite interesting actually – there are a lot of similarities with this industry and the food industry and drink industry. You are making a premium product. You are creating a blend. You are working to a specific recipe that has been designed for the welfare and health of the dog, so it’s a good product,” he says. “Obviously the proof is in the wellbeing of the dog.”Des, who grew up in Stradbroke close to the historic Skinner’s Mill before going on to enjoy considerable career success in the food and drink sector, said he felt “privileged” to have been given the opportunity to lead the business on to the next stage of its development.

Since joining, he has been struck by the high esteem in which the brand is held by those involved in canine care, and the numerous dog-related events which it supports.

“There are 9m dogs in the UK at the moment, which is an incredible number – 26% of households own a dog. That shows the customer base we can go after.“It’s a brand and it’s a product that’s well thought of with a lot of loyal customers, and great customer service. We do a lot of things that probably a lot of companies would not think of. We do a lot of local deliveries ourselves so we can look after our customers.”His overall impression on arriving last year was that there was spare capacity, and there was not a lot of need for capital spend as the plant was well-maintained.

Des Smith, Managing Director, at the Skinner's pet foods factory in Stradbroke, Eye. PICTURE: Jamie HoneywoodDes Smith, Managing Director, at the Skinner's pet foods factory in Stradbroke, Eye. PICTURE: Jamie Honeywood

“The export opportunities are huge. We are not really in the domestic dog food market, then there’s the opportunity to move into other foods which we will look at - we can do cat food for example. A number of our export customers are asking us about cat foods so we’ll look at that.”

Des set in motion a Brexit plan almost immediately on joining in order to protect the firm from any turbulence.Although exports make up just 3% of turnover, and the firm does not envisage a lot of issues, there were some ingredients it had to import such as rice. It is looking to source more ingredients more locally, and is also planning to increase its bulk ingredients storage capacity at the plant.

About four years ago, the company bought 20 acres of land by the mill to aid its expansion and grows some of its ingredients – linseed last year, barley this year – on it.

At the moment, Skinner’s products are sold to wholesalers and local independents, selling to around 2,000 retailers nationally. Des is hoping to open up to new domestic market through the supermarkets. To this end, the firm has improved its technical standards in the factory and is seeking British Retail Consortium (BRC) approval this year.

Skinner's pet foods factory in Stradbroke, Eye. PICTURE: Jamie HoneywoodSkinner's pet foods factory in Stradbroke, Eye. PICTURE: Jamie Honeywood

“What we don’t really play in much is the domestic pet market so we are not in the supermarkets so we are looking at how we get a supermarket brand and it’s something we are looking at quite seriously because that’s an opportunity,” he says.

“My five year plan since I have been here is to try and double the turnover within the existing factory we have here. The other thing we are trying to do here is to create more brand awareness because I don’t think people realise what we do.”

With the factory at 60% capacity, he sees great potential for growth.

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