Meet the entrepreneur who built a £20m pet food business

Eddie Milbourne's Canagan brand is exported all over the world.

by Jack Torrance
Last Updated: 21 Apr 2017

People spend a lot of money on their pets nowadays, as I discovered putting together this feature for MT’s print edition last year. Whether it’s designer dog beds or ‘gourmet’ cat food, some pet owners are lavishing rover and fifi with all the attention and a good chunk of the cash that some parents would give to their children.

The pet food giants Mars and Nestle Purina have done their best to capitalise on this trend, but the top end of the market is dominated by independent brands that go that little bit further. One of those is Canagan (which is Celtic for ‘baby wolf’), a brand of grain free food for cats and dogs.

Eddie Milbourne, who used to be a distributor of pet food in the UK, founded Canagan’s parent company Symply Pet Foods in 2008 after the brand he was distributing was bought out by Mars. Less than a decade later it’s turning over around £20m and employs 22 people. As well as Canagan the company makes its eponymous Symply brand as well as Piccolo, an ‘exclusive’ variety for tiny toy breed dogs, but Canagan ‘is the one that’s really taken the world by storm,’ says Milbourne, accounting for around 80% of sales.

He launched the brand in 2012 after spotting a trend for grain-free pet food in the US. It’s not because pets have developed a fashionable antipathy to gluten in line with their chi-chi owners. ‘Cats and dogs are carnivores,’ says Milbourne, ‘yet most of the mass produced dog and cat foods are full of cereals which they simply can’t digest. That’s why you tend to feed them a lot, and you get a lot coming out the other end as well.’

So he hopped on a plane to America to do some homework. ‘I travelled to around 120 pet stores, three plants and two trade expos and I came back with half a suitcase full of literature about grain-free. From all of that I deciphered what kind of ingredient profile I’d like Canagan to look like, and then took it to the nutritionists and scientists at the plant that makes it and the final formula was put together between us.’

Now the brand includes a range of dried and wet foods, and its ingredients include everything from boring old chicken and beef to green-lipped mussels, seaweed, fenugreek and alfalfa. Of course all this comes at a cost.

‘[With dried food], the grocery-type low end ones are probably £30 for a large 12-kilo bag, the so-called mass produced super premium ones, which are still probably 80% cereal would be up to £55-£60, and Canagan starts at £65, so we’re only a few pounds more expensive than the mainstream super-premium’ (prices vary – Pets at Home will sell you a 15kg bag of Pedigree Adult Complete for £13). Plus you don’t need to feed pets as much Canagan, says Milbourne, because it’s more nutritious.

Read more: The pampered pooch - why pets have never had it so good

The company is self-funded and in the UK only distributes its products via independent bricks and mortar pet shops. ‘We like working with independents because our products are different, they need explaining to customer,’ says Milbourne, who used to run his own pet shop. ‘We try to look after the independent of their threats is online discounters, so we don’t supply online-only vendors.’

That’s a noble approach but it also limits Canagan’s route to market. So it has looked beyond the UK and is now available in 35 different countries. Though Milbourne says it was easy to attract clients, exporting meat products can be a faff. ‘To sell pet food to China is incredibly takes two years to get your product registered. But the marketplace there is colossal.’

Canagan had to find a local manufacturer to sell in the US because of the long-standing ban on imported British meats that followed the BSE crisis. ‘Everyone we spoke to over there suggested putting a USA flag and ‘Made in the USA’ on the packaging,’ says Milbourne. ‘But around the rest of the world I’d say ‘Made in the UK’ is fantastic for business, they really respect us.’

Exporting to the EU has been a lot more straightforward, but there’s a risk businesses could face similar bureaucracy on the continent post-Brexit. ‘The EU is a really easy place to export to. Whether that lasts or not, who knows.’

The plan now is to continue breaking into new markets including Russia, where the company has just signed a new partnership. Milbourne says he’s had approaches from private equity investors ‘but I’m not really interested to be honest,’ and he wouldn’t be so keen on selling to Mars or Purina either.

‘Certainly not the first one because they’re the ones who took my world away in 2008. I quite like being a tiny thorn in their sides, which is why my son James came on board and he will take the business forward.’

‘I’ve done every aspect of running this company,’ says Milbourne, whose seed money was a cash withdrawal from a credit card. ‘I love my staff and I like to take as many people with me on the journey as I can. That’s where I think some owners go wrong – they think they’re of a different breed to the people that work there, whereas I look on us all as a united team.’


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