In an industry undergoing a wave of consolidation, Whitebridge Pet Brands aims to preserve and support the ingenuity of small companies.
To the casual observer, the acquisition of Cloud Star and Petropics by Whitebridge Pet Brands might have seemed like just another example of smaller brands being swallowed up by a larger entity in the pet industry. But in reality, Whitebridge was operating with the goal of offering its brands the best of both worlds—the resources and efficiency of a big corporation, as well as the room for innovation and individuality enjoyed by small, independent manufacturers.
Olivier Amice, CEO of Whitebridge, and the rest of the company’s leadership, had seen an industry-wide trend toward consolidation. They believed this process could drown out smaller companies and dampen creativity and sought to combat it with a new approach.
“In the pet industry, a lot of the innovation is being done by smaller companies. For example, the grain-free, the raw, the freeze-dried trends, all of that was started by smaller brands,” Amice says. ““As a small innovative brand today it is harder to be heard when your competitors or your customers are getting bigger and bigger through consolidation.”
With Whitebridge’s model, smaller businesses can maintain their independent character and unique products while benefiting from the resources wielded by a larger company. The company merges functions like warehousing and distribution of the brands they acquire, allowing those brands to expand faster within a streamlined operation.
“What we’re trying to do is partner with some smaller brands in one way or another so that we can accelerate their growth by providing more resources than what they would have on their own,” Amice says. “The limitations of smaller companies are that they each have their own warehouse, they don’t ship full truckloads, they all have their own office. By centralizing some of these functions, you create efficiency, and this efficiency can be reinvested in sales and marketing.”
In 2014, Whitebridge acquired Cloud Star, whose founder, Jennifer Melton, had invested 15 years in building the brand and was looking for a good steward to continue growing her company as she moved on to new projects. Then, Christine and Robert Hackett, founders of Petropics, makers of the Tiki brand, passed the future of their company on to Whitebridge as well.
The companies represented exactly what Whitebridge was seeking—brands that embody the principles of natural, minimally processed pet food, focusing on quality ingredients and carefully crafted recipes to produce a nutritious product. A little more than a year since Tiki and Cloud Star became the first brands under the Whitebridge umbrella, Amice says both have retained their individual character while reaping the rewards of the merger.
“In the last year or so, we focused on combining and training the team, and today we have a merged organization with the back office in St. Louis, Missouri, and centralized distribution and the warehousing of all the products in the same place,” Amice says. “It has been a good year, and we’re starting to see the benefits of a merged organization. It is early still, but we’re very happy with what we have done so far.”
Aside from the usual trials involved in moving offices and centralizing two companies’ operations, the first year has had minimal hiccups, which Amice attributes to the complementary cultures and philosophies of the brands.
“Both have a passion for pets and a desire to do the right thing for pets and people in general,” he says. “Because of that culture and the mutual respect that each brand has for the other, it has been a fairly smooth transition.”
Whitebridge has also maintained continuity by working with the former owners on a consultant basis. Both Melton and the Hacketts remain involved in preserving the ideals of the brands they founded within the framework of the new organization.
“When we acquire brands, what is very critical to us is to preserve the sense and the soul of these brands,” he says. “We want to keep the identity of Tiki and Cloud Star as they were, so it’s invisible to the consumer that these two brands are part of the same company.”
In July 2015, Whitebridge expanded with the acquisition of Petite Cuisine, a small brand of gourmet cat food and treats. The company is looking to further grow its portfolio in the coming year, but plans to stay committed to the natural, minimally processed pet food category and will seek out brands with cultures that will fit well with Whitebridge’s current holdings.
“There are great supply brands out there, but that is not for us, we want to stay focused on food,” Amice says. “The consumer wants to feed real food to their pets, so brands that are in the so-called alternative pet food category are very intriguing to us, and we would welcome an opportunity to partner with some of them.”
For the Cloud Star, Tiki and Petite Cuisine brands, further growth and several new product introductions are in the works. The Tiki cat food label will expand from solely canned offerings to a new pouch format, and Amice says a few more lines are being developed for the company’s other brands as well, with more information on those coming soon. Whitebridge is also working on a new merchandising program designed to make it easier for pet parents to find what they’re looking for when selecting treats.
“When it comes to the treat category, very often all the treats are on a wall, and it’s very hard for consumers to find what they need,” Amice says. “Some may want training treats, or functional treats to supplement the pet food they give to their pet. We’re working on new ways to merchandise treats to help consumers select exactly what they need.
“We think that this will only help grow the treat category in those retailers that work with us on this,” he says. “We’re very excited about this new merchandising program.”
In 2016, the pet industry can expect to see an expanded portfolio under the Whitebridge name, as well as a continued focus on innovation and growth for their current brands. Driving that commitment is a longstanding love for pets throughout the company and a desire to do what is best for those loyal companions.
“We started with a group of people that have been in the industry for a while, people that understand that pets make you happier and healthier people,” Amice says. “We want to return the favor and make pets happier and healthier through natural and minimally processed nutrition.”