Chief executive interview: Nick Wood from Pets at Home
Nick Wood is a man who knows and loves the markets he operates in. A passionate golfer, he spent four-and-half years as chief executive of golfing equipment retailer American Golf. Then in April 2012, he took the helm at Pets at Home to work in a retail sector that he is equally passionate about as the owner of two Bichon Frise dogs.
And last week there was another reason to be happy – Pets at Home reached a milestone in its expansion strategy with the opening of its 350th store.
Founded in 1991, Pets at Home has grown steadily through organic growth and acquisition, and is now aiming to open an average of 30 stores per year, mostly in out-of-town locations. In addition, the company is expanding its offering to include more veterinary practices, grooming salons, micro-chipping and even re-homing centres as it looks to grow customer engagement.
In the year to end March 2012, Pets at Home grew its turnover by 7.1% to £544.3 million while underlying pre-tax profit edged up 0.5% to £91.7 million.
Wood puts much of this success down to the company’s dedicated staff and their shared passion for pets. With 92% of Pets at Home’s 6,000-strong team owning a pet, he says this gives them a head start when dealing with customers and growing loyalty. Added to this, an effective recruitment process, which involves a period of shadowing on the shop floor, ensures that new recruits have the right attributes to work in the business with sufficient knowledge about pets and how they should be cared for.
Wood says the management team works “extremely hard” to engage staff and ensure they share the vision of ultimately making Pets at Home “the best pet shop in the world”. This also helps to foster staff loyalty and gives Pet at Home a large pool of qualified staff from which they can develop managers through the management training programme.
With half of Pets at Home’s managers “home grown”, Wood says the company often takes a long-term approach in developing the managers of tomorrow. While many are chosen to follow a fast-track training programme after joining the business, others can be nurtured for up to eight or nine years before they feel ready to make the big move into management which Woods says is testament to the effectiveness of the Pets at Home staff engagement programmes.
Pets at Home has seen a significant amount of investment in the last year. This included the opening of a new distribution centre and developing the customer proposition both in-store and online. In addition, in April the company acquired the Vets4Pets veterinary practice in a deal which added a further 90 outlets to the retailer’s existing 116 in-store vets’ practices operating under the Companion Care brand.
Wood thinks veterinary practices will provide a “tremendous opportunity” for Pets at Home as they will enable the company to be represented in areas where it would not necessarily have a store. "In the future, the opportunity for Pets at Home is to have more vets, and potential vet locations than store locations," he says.
“It’s all about providing convenience for our customers,” adds Wood. “Our vets are open the same hours as our stores, from 9 in the morning until 8’oclock at night, six days a week, so the potential for pet owners to get specialist advice and treatment for their pets is tremendous.”
Wood says convenience is of prime importance to the typical Pets at Home customer. With most of the stores in out-of-town locations, he says that customers enjoy being able to park right outside the store and take their pets inside as they shop and get advice, whether it be on the right grooming products, diet or medicinal treatments. This and the company’s VIP Club has gone some way to fostering loyalty amongst customers and also offers them the opportunity to give something back by making a donation to a pet re-homing charity.
Wood says Pets at Home customers are a very caring lot, so much so that the company has recently introduced an RSPCA re-homing centre at its Friern Barnet store and is looking to open more in other locations. “We are working with some of the big rehoming charities and we how we support them and how we bring their proposition to our customers, “says Wood.
Looking ahead, Woods says the company will be investing for growth at a similar level to last year, although now that the new distribution centre is fully operational, the focus will be on the store expansion programme (around 30 new stores a year), and the opening of more grooming centres, veterinary practices and re-homing centres.
The multi-channel offer will also feature strongly in the company’s plans, particularly as a means of supporting the growth of the stores. Wood says: “We know our website is a market leader in terms of traffic and that it plays a strong role in driving our customers in-store to buy products or get advice.”
For Pets at Home customers the store is a big attraction says Wood. “Customers can visit our stores to choose their pet, then get all the advice they need on how to care for it. Add to this our extensive product range, cat and dog grooming services, free services such as fish water testing, and the advice our colleagues offer day-in-day-out, our stores are a great place to visit.”
And with the new store in Barnsley offering the full range of services and being the first store to feature a Vets4Pets branded veterinary practice, all eyes will be on how the format performs.
Meanwhile, Wood harbours no international ambitions at present, saying that he has seen too many retailers take the plunge and then retrench at a later date. He adds: “We really don’t want the distraction of international expansion at present – there are too many exciting opportunities in the UK to take advantage of first.”
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