When Brent Weinmann graduated from Bowling Green State University in the mid-1980s, he wasn’t ready to settle into a full-time job, so he took a temporary position filling bags with bird seed at a local company called Sunseed.
Little did he know then, the company that gave him the flexibility at the time to earn some money, while being able to explore other interests, would also be the business he would eventually go on to purchase, sell and grow into what is now known as Vitakraft Sunseed, Inc.
“In those days, the pet industry was growing like crazy,” Weinmann, who serves as president and CEO of Vitakraft Sunseed, Inc., who is celebrating their 175th anniversary, said. “The bird business was very strong. It was a combiation of good timing and good fortune on my part.”
Weinmann eventually purchased Sunseed in 2001, and then made the decision to sell it in 2007 to Vitakraft – a family owned business in Germany whose roots go back five generations.
“That [it was a family owned business] was part of the appeal,” he explained. “At first, I wasn’t interested, but when I saw what they could offer and felt where we could take both brands, I got excited, and it’s been quite a good ride since.”
Weinmann shuns away from taking credit for having the vision to bring the company to where it is today. He says a major factor in what has helped make Vitakraft Sunseed, Inc. so successful is listening to, and working with, the retailers — which, he says, is why when they decided to mark their 175th anniversary with a year-long celebration, they focused on the retailers.
The sweepstakes, which was open to only pet industry retailers, had prizes that featured everything from full-store displays and t-shirts with the store’s logo, to the grand prize, which was a trip to Germany for the winners to visit the parent company, where they would meet with other European retailers to share ideas, best practices and see how business is done there.
“We are a manufacturer, and the retailers are our focus,” Weinmann said, explaining why they decided to limit the contest to those in the pet industry. “Let’s celebrate with the people who have helped build our business. We are nowhere without our distributors and retailers.”
Having a pet store background himself, Les Gonda founded Sunseed in part to help solve a problem retailers were dealing with for a very long time – bug infestation. He borrowed technology from human food manufacturing, and began safely injecting nitrogen gas, which displaced the oxygen and helped eliminate bug infestation, a technique that is commonplace today.
Gonda was also one of the first people to utilize the concept of putting bird seed behind glass and instead of just dumping it into large garbage cans and letting people scoop it out from there.
“I was fortunate that Les had big ideas and I enjoyed taking those ideas and making them commercially viable,” Weinmann said, who was quickly moved up to the front office, and eventually became part of Gonda’s vision for the company. “As he grew older, he was looking for a retirement plan, but he wanted to keep the company with the people who grew it.”
That same commitment to the business, and how the owner was very much still engaged and loved talking about product and innovation, was something he saw in Vitakraft’s leadership.
Sunseed was already doing private label packaging for Vitakraft when they approached Weinmann in late 2007 about selling the business, after realizing they needed a bigger U.S. facility if they really wanted to make a dent in the U.S. market.
“I went and saw their quality control measures, and was impressed it was family run even at 170 years into their business. The owner was a real pet product guy, and I felt that I could work with them. I wasn’t looking to sell the business, but after seeing what they could bring in terms of ideas and resources, I made the decision.”
Innovation and having a long-term vision has been critical to the success of the company.
“In the ‘80s it was easy to grow by just being in business, but the competition intensifies and you have to find ways to differentiate yourself from the competition,” Weinmann said. “You can do that through innovation and product packaging, marketing strategy and figuring out how to reach the consumer better by working with retailers to make it easier to sell to the consumer. It’s innovation that drives a business forward, and has been a driving factor behind our company.”
So after 175 years in business, what’s next for Vitakraft Sunseed, Inc.?
“The consumer’s expectation level is increasing more and more,” he said. “Just the fact that they are more knowledgeable and are reading more about hamster nutrition is an example. And, there is a lot of information being shared among hamster parents. We need to be the ones that are leading that charge when it comes to things like nutritional development and making longer lasting bedding so it makes it easier for pet owners.”