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John Burns - 25 Years Interview

Published: Wednesday, July 18, 2018

In celebration of our 25th anniversary, John Burns shares career highlights, business lessons, amusing anecdotes and predictions for the future of pet food.

I first thought of the idea for Burns Pet Nutrition in the early 80s, it took 10 years of hard work and perseverance for that idea to become a reality.

An amusing career moment came while working as a builder… I was a trained Acupuncturist and Veterinary Surgeon, but had chosen to sell my practice and invest in property. I was listening to Radio 1 one day and the topic on the radio station was jobs in California. They said, “the two highest earning professions areVeterinarians and Acupuncturists.” Meanwhile, I was mixing cement and doing up a wreck of a house! I had to laugh.

Although being a vet can be quite an uncomfortable and stressful job in many ways, I can’t think of another occupation I would have preferred to study or practice.

I was told “You haven’t got a snowball’s chance here,” when seeking advice on starting the business from the Professor of Animal Husbandry at Liverpool University. His name was Ron Anderson and he had helped Marks and Spencer manufacture their pet food. Finding somebody willing to formulate my recipe of healthy pet food was a huge challenge. The reaction I got from countless manufacturers was, “we’re willing to take what we’re already making and package it in your branding, but that’s it.” Nobody wanted the hassle of re-tooling the production line to use my recipe. It took years of determination.

Sweden and America all said no to manufacturing my food. Ironically, it was a company in Llandovery (40 miles away) that eventually agreed. The first thing I did was take the food to Ron Anderson. I plonked it on his desk and he said “Wow- I never thought you would do this. The fact that you have is a tribute to your perseverance and dedication and I take my hat off to you.” Several years later, Ron wrote to me and said, “I’m still buying your food.” I’ll never forget it.

In the beginning, it was just me and a car full of pet food. I worked from home and would use my friends fax machine.I’d make deliveries to local vets and pet shops, eventually using the services of a local courier. It was local connections and minimal overheads that helped me get established enough to say, “I’ve got a business here.”

My brother once said to me, “When you sell ten bags a day, that’s it, you’ve made it. Today, we export to countries all over the world and I have a team of 130 staff. It’s hard to believe sometimes.

The phone really started ringing when the editor of Dogs Today, Beverley Cuddy published an article on my food titled, Back to Basics. It was this article that moved the business out of West Wales and allowed Burns to go national.

The best piece of advice I’d give to someone starting their business is start slowly, start small and keep the overheads low. Develop contacts around you, build a small, low-cost base and establish yourself in the local area. You can have the best product in the world and the hunger to conquer the world, but if people don’t know who you are, you’ll have a hard time making it.

There’s a funny saying in business it goes, “it took me a lifetime to become an overnight success.”

Despite running Burns for the last 25 year, I’m still motivated to come to work and continue growing the business. I could be sitting on the beach, or on a yacht in the Bahamas, but this is my baby.

My greatest achievement apart from the business is my family.

I believe that local, ethical, healthy food is the pet food of the future. That is what we have achieved with our moist food range, Penlan Farm which is made and produced in Wales using free-range eggs and seasonal vegetables from our farm and meat from suppliers in Wales. If we could grow brown rice in West Wales, that would be local too!

Obesity is a growing issue in pets, there needs to be more education on feeding quality, nutritious food and avoiding overfeeding. In addition to manufacturers changing their ways and creating better quality food, pet owners have a responsibility to feed the right amount of it. Unfortunately, part of the human condition is eating things we shouldn’t, and too much of it…

The greatest threat to the future of the pet food business is a lack of availability of raw ingredients. We’ve had to cut product lines in the past because the Chinese economy had bought all the raw ingredients up for that particular product. As the population swells, food shortages rise. Droughts, bad harvests and climate change could also affect this.

My dream for the future of the business is for our animal charity – The Burns Pet Nutrition Foundation - to be an important part of the business. We are in a fortunate position compared to some charities because the money coming in from the business is invested back into the charity. We are currently expanding the charity in Ireland and I have high hopes for the future.

 

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