Peter Atkins is the CEO of SquarePet, the pet food company he founded in January 2018 in Austin, Texas.
Q What motivated you to return to the pet industry with SquarePet?
A Three things:
1) As co-founder and co-owner of Natura Pet Products, it was always my dream to be able to have my sons become involved in the business. Our exit in 2010 ended this dream. Starting SquarePet gives all three of us the opportunity to create something new and special together.
2) Since Natura’s exit in 2010, it has been my belief that there has been a void in the development of innovative products and a lack of any sort of pioneering energy among the larger pet food specialty companies. It is my commitment to make a significant investment in R&D to bring new, innovative and industry-changing products to market. Being the world’s leading pet food innovator is SquarePet’s stated mission.
3) My belief in the independent channel and a strong personal desire to rebuild the special culture and sense of family that we had at Natura. Since 2010 the consolidation in distribution in the pet specialty channel has been significant, but a few independent distributors have held their ground and have become stronger and more diversified. All these years I’ve kept contact with former Natura associates and have been continually amazed that the independent retailer has remained resilient and continues to find ways to add value in the face of strong competition from big box stores, mass and the internet. Independent retailers are the lifeblood of the industry and are critical in bringing innovative new products to market. Creating SquarePet has given me the opportunity to do business with these great people again.
Q What did you learn from your time at Ralston-Purina and Natura Pet Products?
A Purina: In 1980 I started my career straight out of college with Purina’s Chow Division, which was instrumental in preparing me for the opportunities to come. Throughout my career and to this day I am still inspired by the book “I Dare You” written by Purina’s founder William H. Danforth, which was given to me as a new Purina employee. Danforth saw life as a type of checkerboard and believed that four key components (or “squares”)—the mental, the physical, the social and the spiritual—needed to be in balance in order to achieve fulfillment and success in life. Purina’s excellent training programs and people development focus, which was the best in the industry at the time, had a hugely positive effect on my career trajectory. During my 10 years at Purina, I was fortunate to have been given a variety of challenges and responsibilities, the most valuable of which was learning the ropes of working with independent stores and understanding their needs and priorities. This experience served me well at Natura and will certainly again with SquarePet.
Natura: Pet Age would need to publish a “Special Edition” for me to be able to do justice to describing the Natura experience, but I’ll focus on just four things: 1) Building relationships that stand the test of time. For those of us that were part of the 18-year existence of Natura Pet Products, we understand the meaning of the “Natura Family”—which, even after nine years since Natura was sold, still exists today. I have been humbled by the warm and welcoming way that former Natura distributors, retailers and sales professionals have welcomed me back to the industry—a true testament to the strength of these relationships. 2) Lead, don’t follow. Natura Pet Products was a bona fide trailblazer that caused an entire industry to shift toward using higher-quality ingredients, creating higher meat formulas and establishing a focus on nutrition and health beyond meeting minimum nutritional requirements. SquarePet stands ready to take up the baton and carry on this legacy. 3) Just make good food. Shortly after commissioning our beautiful new Natura plant in Fremont, Nebraska, John Rademakers and I were in a planning meeting with our VP of manufacturing, Don Scott, to go over budgets, personnel and future plans for the plant. Don and his team had worked overtime preparing binders of information for our review. At the start of the meeting, Don shared the binders with us and was prepared to do a page-by-page presentation to John and me. Before Don could even get started, John closed the first binder, looked Don in the eyes and said, “Don, I don’t care what it costs, just make good food.” He handed him back the binders, declared the meeting over and took the entire office staff to lunch. This left an indelible impression on Don and me, and served to create the mission of the plant and the entire manufacturing team from day one—just make good food. 4) Don’t take yourself too seriously and have fun with your work. When John Rademakers and I started Natura back in 1992, we established three rules for the company:
- We don’t wear ties.
- We eat good food and drink good wine.
- We only deal with nice people.
These rules, especially #3, made it a joy to come to work every day and became a huge motivator for all of us to do the important work necessary to create healthful products for dogs and cats, and to help our distributors and retailers be successful in the market. I’m happy to report that SquarePet has officially adopted these same three rules!
Q How would you describe the four products that make up the SquarePet lineup?
A SquarePet Turkey & Chicken Formula for dogs is a return to what the original high-meat, low-carb, grain-free dog food, EVO Dog, was intended to achieve—supplying the nutritional benefits of feeding a raw diet in a safe and convenient manner. SquarePet T&C Dog is a veterinarian formulated, high-meat, ultra-low carbohydrate diet, which contains less than 14 percent net carbohydrates. Among the highest in the industry, SquarePet T&C Dog features 96 percent of protein from cage-free turkey, chicken, whole eggs and salmon meal and does not contain peas, potatoes or legumes.
SquarePet Turkey & Chicken Formula for cats is a return to what the original high-meat, low-carb, grain-free cat food, EVO Cat, was intended to achieve—supplying the nutritional benefits of feeding a raw diet in a safe and convenient manner. SquarePet T&C Dog is a veterinarian formulated, high-meat, ultra-low carbohydrate diet which contains less than 11 percent net carbohydrates. Among the highest in the industry, SquarePet T&C Cat features 98 percent of protein from cage-free turkey, chicken, whole eggs and salmon meal and does not contain peas, potatoes or legumes.
Square Egg Meat Free food for dogs is an industry first. Our secret is pure and simple—eggs and whey. This veterinarian-created formula features these perfect protein powerhouse ingredients in the No. 1 and No. 2 positions, which contain all the essential amino acids required by dogs and rank highest in protein bioavailability. Plus great taste!
SquarePet VFS Skin & Digestive Support formula is a new option for dogs that may have food sensitivities. This veterinarian-formulated, limited-ingredient diet is made with hydrolyzed pork, an exceptionally digestible protein that may be beneficial for dogs sensitive to certain ingredients. SquarePet VFS supplies high-quality, complete and balanced nutrition for any adult dog.
Q Why are you making SquarePet only available to independent pet retailers?
A Everything I own, my success in life and the richness of my life’s experiences are in large part due to my associations with independent retail businesses. For as long as I am alive, it is my mission to stay loyal to independent pet retailers. Period.
Q What does it mean to you to have your sons, Travis and Tyler, working with you at SquarePet?
A It is the dream of every good parent to have their children grow up and become successful in both their personal and professional lives. Nancy and I have been blessed that Travis and Tyler have become great husbands, great fathers and have both built exceptional professional careers—Travis as a veterinarian and Tyler in medical device sales. Both have made a significant sacrifice in leaving their respective positions in California to join me in Austin, Texas, to start SquarePet. Having them as business partners and co-founders is a dream come true—finally fulfilling the original dream of having them become a part of Natura. Nancy and I couldn’t be prouder.