cool deals i wish i had done


wall2I know what you are thinking.  I’m not talking about that wall.  I’m talking about this wall, the one Blue Buffalo, post-acquisition, seems hurtling towards.  Recently, we received further evidence that the risk of gravity catching up with the brand may be more likely than not.

General Mills released first quarter earnings (note: for GIS, fiscal 1Q aligns with calendar 3Q), which include a decline in North American sales, across all sources of revenue, of 2.1%.  While pet food sales rose 14% in quarter, sales at retailers (sell-in) increased only 9%.  These numbers are optically appealing, but represent a slowdown of Blue Buffalo’s growth rate pre-acquisition.  Also factoring into the equation was that the quarter had an extra selling week, which, when considered, means the business grew mid-single-digits.  Adding to the woes was reported input cost inflation as well as continued expenses associated with the new production plant.

To rewind, prior to the acquisition Blue was growing at a healthy clip, delivering quarterly sales growth of 18.4% in 3Q17 and 14.2% in 4Q17, the two quarters immediately preceding the acquisition. The company had effectively explained away the performance malaise that it is experienced in 1H2018 (7.9% in 1Q and 2.8% in 2Q), as a failure on behalf of major pet specialty to execute and leveraged that narrative to move a subset of their product line into FDM. The size and timing of the FDM rollout masked issues with the company’s business in several ways.  Of greatest significance, it gave the company a greenfield revenue opportunity which juiced their comps, making comparisons between historical and current periods to be akin to comparing apples and oranges.  However, the size and scope of the rollout, in combination, with the stealth nature of the lead-up to launch, obscured the fact that the initial velocity growth was heavily aided by promotions and discounts.  It’s quite common for this to be the case, but it was also not something Blue Buffalo drew out in its narrative to the street.  It’s notable, the brands data, as tracked by IRI in the weeks leading up to the deal dropped off the table, declining from 13.4% to 1.9%.

What was unknown at the time of the deal, was what impact, if any, retaliatory action taken by retailers would have on the business.  Petco and PetSmart sales and traffic, have continued to flag.  However, PetSmart has completed a major reset of its consumables aisle and its bond prices have appreciated materially, in part based on 22% sales growth at Chewy.com. Additionally, based on my store visits in various geographies ranging from major coastal cities to smaller towns in middle America (certainly not scientific by any means) there is some de-emphasizing of the brand in terms of placement, promotion, and mind share.

Further, post deal, Amazon launched its own private label pet food, Wag. While the Wag rollout, has not been seamless, the product generally enjoys 4-star reviews from an increasing number of verified purchases. Approximately 50% of customers have given the product 5-stars on both the 5-lb. and 30-lb. bags, though the 5-lb. bags experienced some problems with product delivery during the initial rollout, according to One Click Retail.  Amazon experienced 30% growth in pet products sales in the first half of 2018.

What the future holds here is unknown, but the bloom seems to be off the bull case. Analysts have taken their estimates of Blue Buffalo organic sales down to mid-single-digits from low-double-digits, despite management re-affirming the sales guidance for the higher amount.  The brand starts to lap the initial FDM rollout in the back half of the year, so comps get tougher.  Further, management stressed that it sees opportunities to repair their relationships with Petco and PetSmart, enhance in-store execution, and increase visibility of channel exclusive innovation in pet specialty. Given that the leadership of major pet specialty chains learned about the FDM rollout just prior to the general public, I am not sure enough time has passed to heal those wounds, though both entities now have new CEOs. Finally, while the China trade war tariffs are not impacting food, they are touching a broad range of pet products, which may reduce store visits, especially in major pet specialty.  This should factor into the calculus.

While Blue Buffalo may have a softer landing than we expect, it is clear that the stakes for General Mills are already higher than anyone expected them to be. How high can a buffalo jump?

/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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freddieThe fate of Champion Pet Foods has long been a source of speculation among industry insiders.  While most deal rumors in the industry spread like wildfire, over the past three years rumors about Champion have been without peer. Not a show goes by without speculation. We’ve heard, and have bought into at some level, various iterations — IPO, Canadian pension fund buyouts, Blue Buffalo/Mars/Nestle acquisition.  Knowledgeable people, including myself, have been hoodwinked many a time.  As such, when acquisition rumors hit the media in early July, the reaction was met by many with a shrug of the shoulders – “oh good, now we know.” However, should an acquisition of Champion by Nestle Purina PetCare in fact be consummated, it feels like there will be no winners.

Shortly after the Nestle rumor hit with pages of the Wall Street Journal, Champion issued a statement that could only be characterized as a “non-denial denial”.  There was no, “we are not for sale” but rather a “of course people should want to buy us.” If the rumor needed any credence, it was received.  What is most notable to me is that while a deal might happen, I am not sure anyone, even those on both sides of the transaction, want it to. To better assess this statement, let’s consider the transaction from all sides.

From Champion’s perspective, and those of its primary backers, a sale to Nestle would bring a financial windfall; of that, we can be certain. With a potential $2 billion price tag, we can only assume that Champion would be selling for a multiple that is aligned to recent sales of Blue Buffalo and Ainsworth.  While industry websites report Champion’s sales in 2017 at $170 million, we believe it to be significantly higher.  If you sell pet food in 80 countries, and are in the process of building a $200 million production facility (see details here) you better be selling a lot more kibble than that.  However, or greater importance is that historically Champion has pursued a moral high ground with respect to its formulation and production (see here) and its channel strategy.  When Pet360 and, later, Chewy were acquired by PetSmart, Champion exited both platforms, supporting the independent retailers in their battle with major pet specialty and leading online sites they control.  Champion grew on the backs of independent pet retail, greatly benefiting from this channel’s reduction in exposure to Blue Buffalo through various brand dilutive events.  As such, a sale to Nestle would seem antithetical to much that Champion stands for.  Further, a financial windfall for the sellers seems available through a myriad of other avenues that don’t involve a perceived selling out.

On the other side of the coin is Nestle’s pet food subsidiary.  If you have been following closely, Nestle’s core food business, like many of its peers, has been under siege.  Large food companies, as a class of competitors, have been struggling to adapt to changing demographics and consumer preferences and the associated evolving channel dynamics.  Activist investors are pressuring these companies to evolve their brand portfolios faster and seek mergers to rationalize costs.  Against this backdrop, Purina has been performing.  If you dig deep in the back of Nestle’s Half-Yearly Report 2018 (page 28), you will notice Purina was a top performing segment, generating 3.8% growth in the first half of the year.  Now consider what handcuffs Champion as a premium seller might extract in a transaction — No PetSmart, Petco or Chewy? No FDM? No formulation changes? No management changes?  If you are Purina management, you are likely to inherit a business at very high price tag that is unlikely to realize the necessary return profile to be attractive in the near to medium term.  The deal appears to be a Daniel Loeb pet food aisle clean-up special, as opposed to a good organic M&A idea.  For Purina management, you can sense the apathy from afar, especially if the deal curtails your ability to pursue transactions for which you have a higher degree of conviction.

Finally, let’s consider the independent retailers. Many operators in this class of retail have benefited greatly from the growth of Orijen, Acanca, and, to a lesser extent, Heritage, as well as Champion’s conviction to this channel, at the expense of growth.  Champion provides these retailers a recurring high price point sale opportunity.  Many of them have become reliant on the company’s product offerings at multiple premium price points, and, in turn, Champion benefited from these retailers recommending their product and scaling back on Blue Buffalo considering its politics.  While we don’t know what constraints might be a byproduct of any deal negotiation, these retailers could potentially lose exclusivity to one of the backbones in their pet food merchandising mix.  A blow of this magnitude will reverberate across the channel.

When a brand seeks to take the moral high ground in a product category, it is lauded, and it often should be.  However, capitalism never stops calling, and when you take outsiders money you eventually take the next call. I’m not privy to Champion’s financials, but it would seem they possess a myriad of options outside of this contemplated transaction. If consummated, its repercussions, mostly negative, will be felt by all directly and indirectly involved.  In turn, consumers will get more jaded about what we expect from the companies we rely on to keep our companion animals healthy and happy.  Emerging brands will in turn inherit those expectations and the cycle will begin anew.

/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.

 

 

 

blue bffThese things always happen when you are on vacation.

Just prior to my departure on family vacation, I got a call from a reporter passing along a rumor that Blue Buffalo was going to be acquired.  I hear about non-existent pet food M&A rumors week in and week out.  The past month has been no exception.  Most of it is smoke, without the fire.  My response to the reporter — who has $8 billion to spend? On the plus side, I had the price pegged.  Kudos to her for getting the beat correct.

In reality, there are many large corporations with access to those sorts of funds.  Mars had recently doled out $9 billion for VCA after all, and Nestle has a little over $8 billion in cash on its balance sheet.  Apple has $77 billion of cash on its balance sheet, but they tend to favor in house innovation.  The key point is that major pet consumables acquirors have focused largely on product acquisitions to fill portfolio gaps as opposed to transformational M&A.  After all, Purina could have easily acquired Blue Buffalo for $3 – $4 billion prior to its public offering and the two sides could have avoided a lot of subsequent legal fees (further evidence that lawyers always win). I don’t see any of them coming in with a topping bid — Blue in the hands of General Mills is less formidable than Blue in the hands on a proven competitor.  That said, Blue in the hands of General Mills might make General Mills a more attractive takeout target for Nestle.  After all we are likely going to see more mega food M&A as these players grapple with changing operating dynamics for global food companies.

Food companies buying into the pet space is not unprecedented.  The J.M. Smucker Company acquired Big Heart Brands for nearly $6 billion back in 2015.  When Merrick Pet Food was sold, a major food company was the cover bid when Nestle acquired the business.  That said, I don’t see this as establishing a pattern whereby food companies quickly seek to align themselves with pet food brands in an effort to top one another.  Rather, I expect food companies will be more open to kicking the tires in auction processes but that acquisitions are likely to be focused only on true market leaders, consistent with what we have seen thus far.  That said, major food companies could offer pet food leaders unprecedented valuations, given their propensity to pay 5.0x – 6.0x revenue for the growth associated with disruptive brands (e.g., Rx Bar, Daiya, Krave, Suja, to name a few).

Finally, we have to give Blue Buffalo kudos.  They very effectively ran the business into a highly attractive exit (6.3 x Revenue / 25.5x EBITDA).  Twelve months ago, the company seemed stalled.  Growth was clearly flattening due to performance malaise in PetSmart and Petco, who were both undergoing inventory deleveraging, consistent with what was happening in broader retail, at a time when traffic and transaction metrics in these boxes were sagging.  The launch of their veterinary product line, while conceptually interesting, would have a long lead times in terms of sales – veterinarians seem to enjoy the status quo.  Thus, the jump to FDM, made possible by the weakness in major pet specialty, breathed life into the equity.  The company’s stock climbed 40% during the past six months, despite the fact that the FDM roll-out lagged expectations and sales were highly incentivized through discounts and promotions.  All we can say is well played and congratulations to the Bishop family and the Invus Group.

What will surely follow this acquisition is a public airing of grievances about a brand selling out and trip down memory lane for the industry recalling times where brands had values.  This will not be the last time this record is played.  However, the pet industry has been professionalized over the past 10 years and operates with a profit motive, we should have no expectations that capitalistic intentions will be subjugated in an effort to adhere to historical edicts. Rather mourn the transparency again lost through a publicly traded pet company gone private or having been acquired.

/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.

m8bA common refrain in the pet industry is that to predict the future of the consumables category, you need only to look back on the prevailing human trends three years prior. Today, I would argue that this rule-of-thumb applies more broadly, to a cross section of pet industry categories, than previously appreciated. As an example, the rise of ecommerce in the pet industry follows a similar trajectory to a number of human categories that were thought to be “Amazon proof”.  This is why I think pet industry participants should be paying attention to recent funding deals for Freshly, Inc., whose $77 million Series D was led by Nestle, USA, and Chef’d, LLC, whose $17.6 million Series B was led by Campbell Soup Company.

Both Freshly and Chef’d are in the business of delivering fresh food to your door step.  In the case of Freshly, these are fresh prepared meals, which require minimal intervention to get them from the packaging to the plate.  Chef’d delivers personalized meal-kits, which you then prepare at home, in as little as 10 minutes.  As a side note, I’ve never completed a meal kit from any company in under an hour, but maybe that says more about my cooking skills than anything else. Notably Chef’d partners with culinary and media personalities to create menu inspirations.  That said, what these companies deliver is less interesting than who is financing the growth of their business.

Large human food companies have significantly increased their investment activity in emerging food brands over the past 24 months.  Major industry players have set up dedicated investing units to source and evaluate opportunities.  The human food industry has largely outsourced its research and development function to start-ups who are seeking to capitalize on emerging consumer trends.  These companies become investment or acquisition targets if their solution set demonstrates the ability to resonate with a large enough audience and if their production processes can scale.  However, this pattern has, to-date, largely been confined to product companies.  Freshly and Chef’d are direct-to-consumer distribution companies cloaked in a product orientation.

The pet industry has its Freshly and Chef’d corollaries.  Companies like JustFoodForDogs and The Farmer’s Dog, have both recently received major cash infusions from financial players.  There are numerous others competing for this emerging space — Ollie Pet, NomNomNow, PetPlate, to name a few.  Yet, I believe the investment trend illustrated by the Freshly and Chef’d transactions tells us more about the real value of scale direct-to-consumer businesses such as A Place for Rover and Bark & Co., than the potential for fresh food delivery in the pet category, whose future we also think is bright.

What the pet food and products manufacturers have in common with their human counterparts is their core means of distribution are under siege by small retailers who provide better service and/or in-store experience as well as by the internet.  As such, any opportunity to get directly to the end customer is highly coveted, and therefore of great value. Within the pet category, there are a very limited set of players that have proven their ability to directly access a critical mass of pet owners.  Therefore, as large manufacturers look for direct-to-consumer exposure they will be left with a choice of ascribing a very high value to an asset with breadth or taking a calculated risk on an upstart.

What these large strategics are looking for is the ability to build a relationship directly with a consumer that is tied solely to the product or offering, and that exists outside of that buyer’s relationship with any retailer, physical or digital. If they own the customer they can look to monetize him or her in a variety of ways, capturing more the the margin along the way. We believe this trend to be applicable to both product and service providers in the pet category.

The question then becomes what would a tie-up between a Mars/Purina/J.M. Smucker Company and a Rover/Bark & Co. mean for the acquired entity.  Would consumers have the same affinity for their Bark Box if it only included treats from the buyer organization, or is the lack of affiliation that part of the value proposition?  We don’t know the answer to that question, but if we follow the story of Freshly and Chef’d going forward, we may well find out.

/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.

 

blue dog 2Over the past five years, interest in the potential and performance of the online channel for pet products has become an increasingly hot topic.  The narrative around pet ecommerce has been fueled, in part, by a change in ownership demographics, but more significantly by the lack of transparent data regarding the size of and growth rate in the channel.  Quite simply, no one knows how much pet food is sold online or how fast the channel is actually growing, and therefore everyone is free to speculate.  The loss of PetSmart as a public reporting entity only further exacerbated this reality.

What we have known for some time is that online is taking share and its growth is a key driver of malaise within major pet specialty.  Whether you source your information from Packaged Facts, IBISWorld, or Euromonitor, all three entities have online pet products sales in the U.S. growing at between 10% – 15%.  Further, according to Packaged Facts 2016 National Pet Owner Survey, 46% of pet owners buy products online, an increase of 5% from 2015. Thus, the intent from a consumer perspective continues to rise.  Additionally, Blue Buffalo, widely believed to be the top selling pet food brand online, CEO Billy Bishop commented, in the company’s most recent earnings call, that the shift to online is occurring much faster than anyone at Blue Buffalo anticipated.  Couple this with the fact that during FY16, Blue Buffalo’s share of sales outside of major pet specialty increased from 33% in Q1 to 41% by Q4 primarily behind the sharp increase in ecommerce.

No entity has been more responsible for shaking up the pet retail world than Chewy.com.  In November 2016, we got our first real glimpse into the organization when a Bloomberg article detailed that the company anticipated that it would generate $880 million in sales for the calendar year.  Further, it projected 70% growth in 2017, bringing the company’s topline to $1.5 billion.  A recent Miami Herald article pushed that number to $2 billion. According to a recent survey by 1010data, Chewy.com has approximately 51% share of the online pet products market including autoship revenues.  This contrasts with Amazon at 35%, also inclusive of autoship.  Chewy also leads in subscription pet food sales at 10.2% versus 7.6% for Amazon.  PetSmart garners 7.9% of the market when you consolidate its own banner (2.2%) with sales of its Pet360 (5.7%) acquisition.  Petco clocks in at 3.1%, while Wal Mart (< 1%) barely registers. Finally, Chewy employs 200 full time portrait artists who churn out 700 oil paintings a week for unsuspecting customers.

Chewy, which has never turned a profit and has been funded by $261 million of equity, raised over five rounds, and $90 million of debt, is in the process of upping the table stakes.  The company recently launched its American Journey house brand of dry kibble.  American Journey, which comes in seven flavors, currently costs $39.99 for a 25-lb. bag before autoship discount.  This is $8 – $10 less than a comparable sized bag of Blue Buffalo on the site.  Notably, American Journey is made by one of Blue Buffalo’s co-packers. Additionally, Chewy launched Tylee’s, their human grade fresh/frozen pet food brand aimed squarely at the increasing band of upstarts seeking to deliver human meal equivalents for your pet. The company is also said to be working on a public offering slated for 2018.

The question of whether Chewy.com can be stopped has been answered. It’s most recent financings ($75 million of equity from BlackRock and $90 million in debt from Wells Fargo) suggest that investors are looking past the profitability profile and instead focusing on the growth history and the potential IPO valuation.  Mutual funds targeting a pre-IPO stake are likely accessible should the company need additional funding. The more intriguing question is whether there is a transaction alternative that might be more attractive to Chewy shareholders than a public offering.  As Chewy.com Chairman Mark Vadon, who co-founded Zulily, can attest, being a public company without earnings is not all that it is cracked up to be.  We rule out an Amazon combination for a myriad of reasons.  This leads us to Petco or PetSmart as the most logical destination.  While somewhat counter-intuitive on the surface, if Chewy.com could extract more value in a combination than an IPO, why not consider it?  Given the weak comps we have been hearing coming out of Petco and PetSmart, a combination with Chewy.com would solve a myriad of problems.  Chewy would gain access to cash flow and hundreds of local warehouses, while Petco or PetSmart would be able to rationalize its store base and gain the pole position in pet omni-channel.  It might not be as far-fetched as we think.

/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.

 

 

thAnxiety about ecommerce in the pet industry is not a new phenomenon.  I’ve had it for a while; it seems to come in waves.  Often the “worry” is overcome through the most limited acceptable response from a market participant, just sufficient enough to satisfy my concerns. Most recently, my unease related to the future of Chewy.com, the leading independent ecommerce player in the industry.  My fear was that should Chewy be cut off from the capital markets, it could lead to a meltdown given its operating profile and cash burn, setting the online component of the industry back for a decade, from which it may not recover.  Thankfully, for the moment, my concern has been assuaged with the announcement of the company’s most recent funding, a $75 million investment from investment management firm Blackrock.

Pet ecommerce is a bit of an enigma, wrapped inside a riddle, wrapped inside a conundrum.  The conundrum — the perceived potential for cannibalization of four wall retail revenue — started it all in my opinion (others will quibble here, but to do so would merely be a digression).  For years, Petco and PetSmart buried their head in the sand about the potential for ecommerce in the pet industry. As the dominant retailers in the category, their view was akin to “why promote it, if you don’t want it to happen?”. The number three and four retail players possess a limited to non-existent ecommerce capability set as well.  The riddle was how to get a 25 – 40 lb. bag of dog food to a customer’s door without going broke in the process.  The failures of those who tried to solve the riddle, before the needs of customers were sufficient to want it or the infrastructure was available to make it happen, only served to reinforce the conundrum.  The cost problem has been addressed in a variety of ways ranging from infrastructure partnerships, to rising consumer demand, to subscription services, to more effective cross selling of higher margin products to online consumers.  The enigma remains how much ecommerce is influencing the pet industry and the trajectory of its largest retail players.

Depending on what you believe, online sales of pet products accounts for 6% – 10% of industry sales, or $4 – $6 billion.  Again, depending on your source, online sales for pet products is growing at 12% – 20% and enjoys the highest sales penetration of any home care category in the U.S.  However, the U.S. trails both the UK and China in terms of sales penetration of pet food online.  Of these estimated sales, we now know Chewy.com makes up $880 million of them, according to a Bloomberg article where the notoriously secret company disclosed details of it’s most recent funding, a $75 million equity financing from Blackrock.

To date, Chewy.com has raised $236 million (or $248 million depending on your source) in equity from a variety of institutional investors.  There is no complete data source that can reconcile that number — mapping the who, the when, and the how much.  However, we do know investors have migrated from traditional venture capitalist (Volition Capital and Greenspring Associates) to mutual funds whose investments often are a precursor to an IPO (T. Rowe Price and Blackrock). These fund have been necessary to fuel the company’s hyper growth, which has been driven by aggressive customer acquisition and rock bottom pricing for customers.  You don’t go from $0 to $880 million in online revenue in five years without a significant war chest and a willingness to buy customers at essentially whatever cost is required

However, on the way to becoming a pet industry unicorn, Chewy.com’s world began to morph.  First, Jet.com added the category and began to compete aggressively for customers driving up acquisition costs for all the major players and driving down profits for price matching entities as Jet sought to undercut the market when possible. With Jet’s acquisition by Wal-Mart, this issue may abate over time in the name of its parent company’s earnings and ROI requirements. Second, the major physical retailers began to quietly fight back, threatening punitive action for brands that would not enforce MAP online.  While MAP would be a net positive of Chewy’s margin profile, it would likely have come at the cost of growth, a necessity to access the capital markets.  Finally, was the issue of the most recent election cycle.  As Chewy sought to fund its business it was likely going to be pushed towards foreign markets or an IPO, as a trade sale at an attractive price appears unlikely unless you view the business as a capability acquisition and not a category play. Based on the trade and capital markets forecasts for the incoming political regime, there are concerns about slowing foreign investment in U.S. companies against a back drop of changing trade policies and the potential for the IPO window to close as a result of a market contraction.  While neither of these may come to pass, the concerns are real.  This makes the most recent announcement by Chewy to be welcome news, in my opinion, for all independent pet ecommerce players.

Should the public capital markets continue to be inviting, expect an S-1 sometime in 2017 for Chewy.com.  Further, cross off another of our anticipated transitional events for the pet industry in 2016 – 2017 (see here).

/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.

 

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.

 

 

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