The Entrepreneur: Eddie Milbourne, Canagan

Co-founder of Canagan, the family-owned multi-million-pound pet food business, Milbourne talks passion, surviving amidst a banking crisis, and the struggles and successes of going multinational

Founder: Eddie Milbourne
Company: Canagan
Website: www.canagan.co.uk
Description in one line: Britain’s finest grain-free dog and cat food
Previous companies: UK distributor at Nutro
Turnover: Predicted turnover of £20m in 2017
Five-year target: To trade with 50 countries, increasing annual turnover to £50m

Business growth

Describe your business model and what makes your business unique:

  • We source only the finest ingredients to make all our foods, taking no shortcuts whatsoever. This means that all our products are completely natural and free from derivatives, by-products, chemicals, artificial flavourings or preservatives. They also contain up to 80% meat.
  • As a family owned business we are under no pressure from external influencers to cut corners or to reduce the quality of our products to drive up profit margins. This ethos is central to our business model and to selling a high quality product.
  • Finally, our business is built on the principal of only supplying to independent pet specialty retailers. We are one of the only companies who still only supply dedicated bricks and mortar pet specialty retailers without supplying supermarkets or online-only vendors.

What is your greatest business achievement to date?

Taking the business onto an international stage was an incredibly important step. To do this we targeted large-scale pet food exhibitions such as Zoomark Italy and Interzoo Germany to initiate international relationships.

We now stock over 5,000 pet stores in more than 35 countries over four continents, with a predicted turnover of £20m in 2017. Within the next six months we also hope to have completed arrangements with the Chinese government to sell to the Chinese market. We expect China to become our biggest market as the pet sector is booming out there, particularly for a high-end British brand like ours.

What numbers do you look at every day in your business?

The sales figure of course, followed by fully encompassing management information on a monthly basis to make sure everything is on track. No nasty surprises at the end of a quarter.

To what extent does your business trade internationally and what are your plans?

As mentioned, we trade with over 35 countries across four continents including some very big markets in Europe and Asia, including France, Norway, Malaysia and Thailand. We are also about to begin trading with Indonesia and Singapore. Our plan is to continue to expand, reaching 50 countries by 2021.

Describe your growth funding path:

It is difficult in the earlier years to gain sufficient funding from banks to support rapid growth, so I have always used friends and associates to lend money to the company at advantageous interest rates.

We are currently self-funding, although we are about to purchase a larger freehold site for £3.2m with £2.4m coming from NatWest.


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What technology has made the biggest difference to your business?

Email is the most wonderful way of communicating across different time zones; the sender and recipient are free to communicate at all hours with just a few hours wait for a response if geography dictates.

Where would you like your business to be in three years?

Our aim is to keep going forward in size and profitability. We have a five-year goal to trade with 50 countries, increasing our annual turnover to £50m.

Growth challenges

What is the hardest thing you have ever done in business?

Before I created Symply I enjoyed 16 wonderful years as the UK distributor for American pet food brand Nutro. In March 2008, a multinational company acquired Nutro Products and our distribution contract was ended in September with no financial compensation. This was in the heart of the banking crisis and I had three buildings on mortgage, a family to support and nothing to sell.

Therefore I almost immediately created Symply Ltd, the umbrella company for Canagan, and began trading in March 2009. Our Symply product line was every bit as good as our former brand and was a straight replacement for pet stores. Fortunately, through long-term relationships with many key accounts we managed to build a strong foothold from which we could grow.

What was your biggest business mistake?

It’s not a mistake, but it’s certainly one of the biggest risks we have taken so far, and that is entering the brand into the US market. It’s much more competitive than we anticipated as it is saturated with products.

In your opinion, what is the piece of Red Tape that hampers growth most?

In our field it is health regulations, as we sell a meat-based product and each and every country around the world has its own set of criteria to protect itself from potential health issues. This is why we will be very sorry to leave the EU, which is the one trading place we can send goods without an army of Health Certificates.

What is the most common serious mistake you see entrepreneurs make?

Failing to network. It is vital for any business attempting to sell its products abroad to network like there is no tomorrow. That is why at Canagan we endeavor to be seen at as many trade shows as possible in order to get to know prospective customers.

How will your market look in three years?

The premium pet food market is particularly niche and we predict that the biggest market developments will be on an international scale, particularly in Asia where pet ownership and household income is on the rise. Japan, for instance, is already one of our biggest markets.

Moreover, we are seeing a growing humanisation of pet foods, with many other niche or boutique companies using human food names – at Canagan we now even have a product resembling “Shepherd’s Pie”!

What is the single most important piece of advice you would offer to a less experienced entrepreneur?

Passion drives everything. It is contagious, creating positive energy and motivation. If you can be passionate about your product, creativity and innovation will follow!

Personal growth

Greatest luxuries:

Eating and drinking with a little golf and snooker thrown in. And time spent with my grandson of course – sometimes it’s the little things in life!

Executive education or learn it on the job?

Learn it on the job. If you have entrepreneurial spirit and you’re passionate about what you are doing, you can certainly achieve success irrespective of an executive education. It certainly has its merits, but there is nothing that will better prepare you for the world of business than hands-on experience.

What makes a good business leader?

Creating an atmosphere where staff can enjoy their work and thrive creatively. Everyone at Canagan has a lot of contact with senior management and we encourage everyone to come up with ideas for products or for things we should do differently. If the idea is good, we will run with it. This collaborative approach makes everyone feel valued.

We also have a company-wide bonus system, which rewards everyone when we meetfdsales targets; not just the sales team or managers. Every single person receives a bonus every time we have a record month (this includes all the warehouse and back office staff). There have been company holidays to Las Vegas, company go karting, golf and bowling.

What one thing do you wish you’d known when you started?

That my business would be closed down by a multinational following their accusation of the brand I had sold for 16 years. I could have launched my own brands earlier.

One business app and one personal app you can’t do without:

Skyscanner and Uber.

Business book:

Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. I ask all my staff to read it every year or so, as I do.

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