Nov 5, 201302:04 PMBlog
Wulffs find success in pet food biz
Photo courtesy of Mud Bay
Mud Bay's first store opened on Mud Bay Road in Olympia in 1988. Since then, the family-owned company has outgrown the old blue house and opened more than two dozen locations in Washington and Oregon.
Being a one-stop-shop isn’t the key to success, or at least it hasn’t been for Mud Bay.
Owners of the pet supply store learned this firsthand.
The company, which opened in an 80-year-old building on Mud Bay Road in Olympia 1988, began as a combination of a corner grocer and farm store. It sold everything from locally grown oysters and pop tarts to folk art and hog feed.
“It was quite a mish-mash, but it had character and people enjoyed shopping there,” recalled Marisa Wulff, current co-CEO of Mud Bay and daughter of its founder Elsa Wulff.
There’s a difference between popularity and profit though — at the end of its first full year of operation, Mud Bay lost $46,000 on sales of $277,000.
Giving up, though, wasn’t an option for Elsa Wulff.
Her son Lars Wulff left a mountain cabin and a half-finished first novel to help with the business in 1989, and her youngest daughter Marisa returned from Holland — where she had just finished an MBA — and joined the company in 1993.
Together, they realized they needed to find a focus if they wanted to stay in business.
“We discovered that the most interesting part of the business was helping people solve everyday problems with their dogs and cats. The more we focused on learning about animal nutrition and sharing that knowledge with our customers, the more the interesting the business became and the more people came into our stores,” explained Marisa Wulff.
“Although we spent many years selling a little bit of everything, we realized that it’s impossible to become experts in the nutrition of all animals. We narrowed our focus to the nutrition and behavior of dogs and cats. Everything we do from product selection, to training, to touring the manufacturing facilities of every food we sell, is oriented around that core focus.”
So, they stopped stocking snacks and cigarettes and started researching dog and cat food — well before many of their industry peers.
“We weren’t the first pet retailer to focus on dog and cat nutrition, but we were among the first,” Wulff said. “We are one of the primary retailers that put the category of healthy dog and cat on the map. We’ve been told that our retail staff are the most knowledgeable in the industry. That’s our been goal and I believe it could be true.”
They outgrew the old house on Mud Bay Road — which is now occupied by a second hand store — and, with equity from friends and a SBA loan, the Wulffs purchased the assets of a failing pet store chain in Seattle called Bosley Pet Food Marts in 2000.
“We chose their eight best locations, negotiated leases with the landlords and opened the stores with the remaining Bosley’s staff that were willing to give us a try,” Wulff said. “There was barely any stock left on the shelves and customers had mostly given up and gone elsewhere. For longer than I care to say, we had the truly terrifying experience of losing up to $100,000 a month. Lars, mom and I didn’t sleep much during that time. It very nearly tanked the company, but we managed to grow our way out of the hole.”
By 2002, they were profitable again, and, in 2004, they purchased a pet store in Seattle's capitol hill neighborhood and opened a small distribution center.
“Since then, we have been opening stores opportunistically,” Wulff said. “We are committed to only growing as fast as we can grow well. We’ll have 29 stores by first quarter next year, with three more on the way later in 2014.”
They officially expanded beyond the Evergreen state last month, when they opened a store in Lake Oswego. Their first Portland store will open in March.
The plan for 2014 and 2015 is to add another eight stores or so in western Washington and Oregon.
The company currently has about 250 employees, but it will add between seven and 10 staff members with each store it opens.
Beyond finding their focus, Marisa Wulff attributes her company’s success to its open-book policy and its commitment to education and research.
“We’ve been an open-book company for more than a decade. Open-book can mean different things to different companies, but, for Mud Bay, it means we do our best to be open and honest about our business with our employees. We share everything from sales, to profits or losses, to company planning,” she said. “We believe that the more we can empower staff with knowledge of the business, the more they’ll contribute to both Mud Bay’s success as well as their own success. “
“From early on our focus has been on research and education. Our staff spend more hours training than the vast majority of retail staff in other businesses. With the education our staff receive on dog and cat nutrition and behavior, they are able to work with customers to solve a wide spectrum of common, yet troubling, animal issues.”