April 2016


phoenisThe pet industry stands at the precipice of a tactical sea change.  The industry entered into this transitional phase in 2014 and is expected to remain there through 2017.  The industry entered into this state as a result of slowing growth and macroeconomic headwinds.  The historical catalysts for growth — Baby Boomers as the driver of industry spend, pet food upgrade cycle, premise based retail — have waned.  However, the future change drivers — pet ownership among Millennials, grain-free and alternative form factor pet food, ecommerce, connected pet — are individually not yet sufficient to resurface the landscape. Yet we expect, after another year of gestation, these trends, will set of the next phase of industry growth, market share shift, and strategic acquisitions.

As we muddle through the tail end of this transitional phased, here are trends we are keeping an eye on in 2016:

  • Industry Offers More Upside Opportunity than Downside Risk. Despite the slowing sequential growth rate for the industry and the limited innovation in consumables, we believe the industry stands poised to outperform in 2016. Our premise relies on three factors. First, the acceleration in pet adoptions experienced in the 2H2015 will have a knock-on effect on pet spending in 2016 as these new owners generate a full year of expenditures and trade up to premium solutions. This adoption spike is consistent with the 2012 – 2013 period where growth was 4.5%, albeit from a smaller base. Second, while the pet food upgrade cycle may be running on fumes, a proliferation in food additives, convenience offerings, and premium cat solutions will provide the industry with a growth impetus. Finally, we view the macro economic stability for employment, wage growth, and consumer sentiment as remaining favorable through the balance of 2016.
  • Expect Transaction Velocity to Remain High. 2015 was a return to normalized transaction velocity levels for the industry after a two year hiatus. We expect transaction velocity will remain high in 2016 as consolidation themes continue and sellers try to take advantage of the tail end of the capital markets cycle. What will change is the types of deals that are getting done. In 2014 and 2015, the industry was the subject of a large number of headline grabbing transactions involving key industry names – Big Heart Brands, PetSmart, Petco, MWI Veterinary Supply.  Absent a sale of Champion Petfoods, we expect most of the velocity to be among companies valued at less than $250 million. Notably, the M&A rumor mill was at peak decibel levels at Global Pet Expo. However, the number of companies pursuing deals pursuant to organized processes appears lower, meaning the number of potential deals that could get done pursuant to one-off dialogs is elevated.
  • Consumables Lines Blurring in New Ways. Five years ago, the thought of a pet treat business being able to bridge into pet food was unthinkable. Today there exist a myriad of treat brands which have developed a trusted connection with consumers in the pet specialty channel that might allow them to make that leap. Notably, several of these brands launched food solutions at Global Pet Expo to very favorable retailer response. While it is unclear if and how quickly these solutions can scale, it speaks to the fact that the delineation between food and treat brands continues to decrease.  As premium pet food companies find market share gains harder to come by, we expect they will seek to expand sales volume through increased treat offerings and acquisitions of treat companies. Further, treat company valuations will benefit from buyers factoring in potential product line extensions into food, though not all brands will benefit.
  • Ecommerce Landscape Changes Ahead. Sales of pet products continues to grow online fueled by price based competition and increased convenience. The impact of growing online sales can been seen acutely in the comps of Petco and PetSmart prior to their representative transactions. However, the pain has spread to the independent channel as well, as more brands have embraced ecommerce as a driver of growth and customer acquisition. In response, retailers are putting pressure on manufacturers to enforce MAP policies or, in some cases, choose sides. However, many of the brands caught in the battle among retail formats are not well equipped to do either. Assuming that Chewy.com continues to find fuel for its growth, and that Jet.com continues to find brands willing to embrace its platform, this problem will grow. Pressuring brands will not solve the problem. Rather, the winners in retail will be those who deliver the best consumer service experience as measured by selection, price, and convenience. Independent retailers will need to develop capabilities that enable their customers to shop online and get accelerated delivery, presenting an opportunity for distributors to fill this void.

 

As always, a complete copy of our 2016 industry report is available by email.

/bryan

Note: This blog is for informational purposes only. The opinions expressed reflect my view as of the publishing date, which are subject to change.  While this post utilizes data sources I consider reliable, I cannot guarantee the accuracy of any third party cited herein.

 

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dwarfEarlier this week it was announced that Mars Petcare had acquired Whistle Labs, designer and marketer of activity monitoring and asset tracking solutions for small companion animals.  The deal was valued at $117 million (or $119 million depending on the source of information).  Whistle had raised $25 million in outside capital, including $21 million in two institutional rounds, including a $15 million Series B round in January 2015, led by Nokia Growth Partners.  The Series B also including participation from, among others,  Melo7 Tech Ventures (the equity fund of Carmelo Anthony, NBA superstar) and QueensBridge Venture Partner (the equity fund of Nasir Jones, world famous rapper).  The post-money on the Series B was reported to be $26.65 million, meaning these investors made a ~ 4.5x cash-on-cash return on the sale and triple digit internal rate of return based on the short duration.

When Whistle launched its solution set the market was bifurcated between activity monitoring and asset tracking.  The asset tracking side was being addressed largely by companies that were re-purposing technology that had been deployed in more traditional markets, such as logistics, automobile tracking, or human tracking (yes these do exist).  However, these companies did not necessarily recognize the emotional engagement aspects of the pet space, and did little to build community.  The network costs of these businesses were high, and the user base was small.  Given that the initial hardware purchase was subsidized, these businesses lost money, sometimes large amounts of it.  Further, there was no effective retail channel for this class of products as the major pet specialty retailers were not well situated to sell a $200 device with a monthly subscription attached thereto or explain the value proposition effectively to customers, and therefore the market was slow to emerge. Traditional channels, such as consumer electronics and mobile phone centers, were no more effective at attracting pet owners let alone articulating the purchase rationale.  It did not help that most of these solutions had large form factors and minimal visual appeal.

In contrast, Whistle brought to market an activity tracker with a high level of aesthetic appeal at a much lower cost.  Of significance, gone were the monthly subscriptions.  The problem was the market wanted asset tracking as the linkage between the activity monitor and the benefits use case was just not obvious to pet owners.  In short, there was data but not much to do with it and sharing it was cumbersome.  Much like the early human activity tracking sector, the real value of these devices did not emerge until the ecosystem and community aspect developed. Whistle would use part of its Series B financing to acquire Snaptracs, the Qualcomm based asset tracking solution that it spun out in 2013.  Using their industrial engineering acumen, Whistle combined the two solution sets into a best of breed offering and the business began to accelerate.

About the time of the Series B, Whistle began collaborating with Mars on the use cases of its device.  The challenge became how do you balance the venture capitalists agenda — drive brand, drive sales, drive community — with the Mars agenda around linking the data to wellness outcomes and product sales.  In the end, we believe Mars acquired Whistle to enable its agenda to become central to the future of the business.  Given that the lifetime value of a subscriber was high as the revenue was recurring, shareholder value increased exponentially.

While the acquisition and the prevailing purchase price will certainly give momentum to the connected pet space, the perceived rationale is somewhat vexing to rationalize.  Connected pet solutions that have been funded and launched into the market over the past few years have focused more on emotive connections (remote viewing, remote treating, automated feeding) than wellness outcomes, and here we have an acquisition rationale that we believe is tied more to healthcare outcomes than humanization. That is not to say the deal won’t be effective in catalyzing more investment and further M&A; the return profile will ensure that happens.

This deal very much validates the space, and we have been on record suggesting more large consolidators get into connected pet since 2013, when we marketed the Snaptracs business for sale.  We believe other large players will have to take notice and find avenues to take a position in connected pet. Further, we think the Mars acquisition rationale is specific to them and does not require a pivot by other operators to enhance their focus on wellness.  Mars is unique in that it is the only enterprise that has both veterinary hospitals and branded companion animal consumables, and therefore could view Whistle in a unique way and justify the purchase price as a result. It does help that they are a very large private enterprise and do not have to kowtow to outside shareholders.

One of the key themes we witnessed at the most recent Global Pet Expo was a proliferation of solutions aimed at connecting owners to their pets wherever they were resident at the time — the home, the grooming salon, the daycare or dog walker, the boarding facility. etc.  Expect the Whistle deal to give them all more conviction and attract a host of new entrants seeking to capitalize on the market opportunity. Ultimately, pet owners stand to benefit most.

/bryan

Note: This blog is for informational purposes only. The opinions expressed reflect my view as of the publishing date, which are subject to change.  While this post utilizes data sources I consider reliable, I cannot guarantee the accuracy of any third party cited herein.