Barking up the right tree: happy pets mean big business

Pet-treat maker Rondo has moved into Ireland where it enjoys the work ethic

Dirk Wellen, CEO of Gaines (Europe) Ltd: “The pet-treats segment is the fastest growing sector in the whole pet-food business.” photograph: leon farrell/photocall ireland

Dirk Wellen, CEO of Gaines (Europe) Ltd: “The pet-treats segment is the fastest growing sector in the whole pet-food business.” photograph: leon farrell/photocall ireland

 

To each dog his pleasure, be that a roll in the mud or a run in the park. And for the growing number of dogs whose pleasure happens to be a low-fat, multi-vitamin chew stick, they have Dirk Wellen to thank.

Wellen is managing partner of Rondo Food, a leading supplier of private-label dog treats in Europe.

This month he was in Arklow, Co Wicklow, for the official opening of a new production facility which he says will be “the starting point for our business outside Europe”.

Rondo started more than a century ago making baking mixes, pudding powder and other food stuffs.

About 20 years ago the family run company came into possession of a cooking extruder and decided to diversify into pet food. They quickly realised that they were on to a good thing.

“This business grew so quickly,” Wellen says.

Less than a decade later Rondo moved away from human food to concentrate solely on pet treats.

They developed two large factories in Germany and became one of Europe’s main pet-food producers. Strictly speaking, they make pet treats and snacks, so no large bags of dried dog feed and no cans of wet chicken and liver either. Think dental sticks and meaty strips.

Additional function
Then there are also products with “additional function”, as Wellen puts it.

“You have products for joint care, for better digestion, or with vitamins and minerals added.”

If the name, Rondo Food, is unfamiliar, that’s expected. “We don’t have our own label,” Wellen explains.

“We do 100 per cent private label products. We produce for the big European and American trade or retail chains under their brands. So we do it for Tesco in the UK and Ireland. Aldi is our biggest customer in Germany. We are not famous because you normally don’t find our company name on a pack.”

While the financial crisis spread misery across Europe, the recession has been surprisingly good for Rondo.

“We had this very interesting experience after the start of the big crisis in 2008,” Wellen says.

Instead of seeing profits decline as pet owners cut down on superfluous treats, the company has actually “grown enormously”.

He puts this down to the phenomenon of “cocooning”, which saw stressed-out workers seeking sanctuary in their homes and emotional comfort in their pets.

In such an environment, pet-owners are more inclined to treat their dog: give it little presents to keep it sweet.

It’s good news for pets and better news for pet-treat producers. “Our company has grown very strongly even in the recession,” Wellen says.

But the pet-snack boom began before the start of the downturn.

“The pet-treats segment is the fastest growing sector in the whole pet-food business,” Wellen says.

“We are quite happy that we entered this business in a time (the middle of the 1990s) when this wave started to develop. Over the years we have seen quite a lot of things developing.

“It started with quite simple products . . . just a meat strip. This developed over the years and you now have much more colours, for example. You have two- or three-colour products. We have developed them over the last years to underline the fun approach.”

From modest beginnings, with five employees, Rondo Food now has a turnover of some €120 million and more than 300 members of staff.

And it is looking at further growth. To that end Rondo acquired Irish producer Gaines Europe Ltd – a small competitor – in November 2011.

It has since spent €6 million bringing the Gaines factory in line with its other operations and now hopes that the Wicklow-based producer will be integral to the company’s expansion outside Europe.

These days Wellen travels to Ireland about once a month, and says he’s delighted the company set up production here.

“We admired the work ethic and the workforce we have met in Ireland,” he says.

“Over the last years, we have had the opportunities to buy factories in the Netherlands, in France, in Slovenia and we rejected all this.

“We are very happy with this decision to go to Ireland.”

The development in Arklow will create 15 jobs while retaining the 70 jobs at Gaines.

“We are on a growth path and we have some ideas to develop further,” Wellen says.

“We will see what happens over the next five years.”

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