Over the last 23 years, Wagg Foods has established Britain’s largest dry dog food manufacturing base on the site of a former RAF station used by Bomber Command during the Second World War.
The company, which counts Tesco and Asda among its customers, is also considering opening a manufacturing base overseas, and plans to develop a giant storage shed close to its HQ in the Dalton Airfield industrial estate, near Thirsk, North Yorkshire.
The firm’s growth is due to the vision of entrepreneur Bill Page, who founded the company during a recession in the early 1990s, and remains a shareholder, along with his sons Richard, Tom and George.
Richard Page, the company’s managing director, said his father’s decision to focus on the grocery market, and invest in top class manufacturing equipment, had formed the foundations for its current growth.
Mr Page added: “I have always felt that the hardest yards in business are taking the first steps – doubling the first pound. Building on this vision has its own problems, but somehow they seem easier.”
Initially, the company had just six staff, and the turnover in 1990 was £500,000.
Last year, Wagg achieved a turnover of £56m, a 15 per cent increase on the year before. Exports have been an area of growth – they have gone from zero in 2009 to £1.75m today. The growth has also created jobs. The company has 120 staff altogether, with around 100 in Dalton, and 20 at a site in Wales.
According to Mr Page, the business has boomed because of an early decision to focus on supermarkets and groceries, instead of pet shops.
He added: “We were in the grocers by the late 1980s. Asda and Morrisons were the first customers, almost simultaneously.”
Today, Wagg has got an eight to nine per cent market share of the total pet food market by volume. The company’s share of the dry dog food market is around 30 per cent, and it is one of the three largest manufacturers of smaller animal foods in Britain.
The company has committed to invest £6.5m over this financial year to install a fourth piece of extruding equipment at its base in Dalton.
“It will then become one of the largest extruder plants in Europe,”said Mr Page.
“The new extruder will allow Wagg to grow sales to around £80m-90m. The new strategic target for the business is to focus on taking sales to £100m, by focusing on relatively new areas such as dry cat, treats, exports and premium dog, as well as supporting the core Wagg brand. We don’t want to place a timescale on when we might want to achieve this – but by setting such an ambitious target, it leaves plenty of reasons to get up and worry every day on how to get there!
“Providing great value to consumers is a key goal – Wagg dog is typically in the bottom quartile from a price perspective, but offers substantially better nutritional benefits than many higher priced products.”
In 2008, the company launched Harringtons in an attempt to make premium dog foods affordable to the general consumer.
Mr Page added: “Harringtons is the fastest growing dog food brand within the supermarket channel.”
Harringtons is also packed in compostable bags, so it becomes biodegradeable once a consumer has used the product.
Mr Page added: “At some stage we may establish a manufacturing base overseas, but the location has yet to be fixed.
“One of the possibilities is Canada, which is currently our largest export market.
“Having secured new listings in Carrefour, Intermarche, Woolworths, in New Zealand, and Auchan in Poland during the last six months, we are now hoping to take Harringtons to Russia and Scandinavia.”
Wagg has bought a 10-acre site near its headquarters, and hopes to secure planning permission to build a 100,000 sq ft shed in order to store finished products. The company is in talks with Hambleton Council about the proposal.
Mr Page said the company was working with specialist advisers on “more focused remuneration packages”, and longer term incentive plans for senior management.
A new lease of life for base
During the Second World War, RAF Dalton, near Thirsk, was the home of 102 Squadron, which carried out bombing raids on targets such as Cherbourg, in occupied France.
In the 1980s, the disused base was turned into an industrial park, and its occupants today include Wagg Foods, which is probably best known as Britain’s largest dry dog food manufacturer.
Wagg brought gas on to the industrial estate in 2011, to help reduces its carbon footprint.
Wagg also hopes to create 12 to 15 jobs by opening a new warehouse close to its HQ.