Anneke van den Broek has built a globally successful business in the pet care industry. Rufus & Coco is Australia’s most awarded pet care brand, having received seven business awards for innovation, and winning the 2016 title of the NSW Telstra Business award.
Anneke’s mission has always been to support pet owners and give back to animal charities and not-for-profits. She had many business ideas, but decided on pets as she recognised this was where her passion would remain long-term.
Recognised as one of Australia’s 50 most influential women entrepreneurs by Rare Birds, Anneke’s career landed her in a position where she was prepared to launch her own business in 2008 – whilst pregnant with her first child. In our interview, she discusses how her background and her MBA assisted her in her entrepreneurial success.
With great passion and persistence, she has taken Rufus & Coco from a startup to the largest privately-owned pet business in the pet accessories category selling into grocery in Australia. The company’s products are stocked in Coles, Woolworths and IGA and the brand has recently expanded into the US market.
How did you know the time was right in 2008 to launch your business?
I was interested in business from a fairly young age and actually had a business breeding and selling mice to my local pet shop when I was six years old. Throughout my career I held senior management and marketing roles, many of which took me to trade shows around the globe where I saw countless businesses launching and presenting to buyers. I thought, I could do this! In 2008 I realised it was finally time to make the leap, so pregnant with my first child, I began planning a business.
Could you talk us through why you decided to go into the pet industry as opposed to any other?
At the time I had a number of ideas for businesses I would have loved to launch. Ultimately the decision came down to asking myself, which of these ideas will I still be passionate about in ten years time. Which spoke to me and my passions the most? I grew up in a family where our pets were equals and we owned everything from cats to rabbits (I’ve owned 40+ pets through my life) so it made sense to pursue a business in pet care.
At the time I also noticed a growing trend towards pet humanisation, with people treating their pets more and more like part of the family. At the time, there were no fashionable or really unique pet brands on the market, so timing was perfect to launch Rufus & Coco and we’ve been growing exponentially ever since.
What has been the key strategy in growing from a startup to the largest privately-owned pet company?
Innovation has been central to keeping our business fresh and adapting with the market.
We’ve Australia’s most awarded pet care brand with several innovation awards. We’ll never bring a product to market if it isn’t offering a new or better solution to pet owners problems. For example, rather than just a slicker brush for grooming – we have a self-cleaning slicker brush that makes it easy for pet owners to quickly get the fur off their brush. Or for cat owners, we brought out the first elasticised litter tray liners to solve the problem of kitty litter liners falling down at the edges. Simple things that make life easier for pet owners. Beyond innovating, a key strategy was to be stocked in major supermarkets in Australia.
It took us three years of pitching, but we’re now in Coles, Woolworths and select IGA stores and are constantly expanding into new markets. Last year we launched in the US.
You had a career in marketing, and studied an MBA before launching your own business – do you think these experiences were critical to your success?
Having a background in marketing and branding with global brands like Bonds and Blackmores certainly helped me when building a brand myself. I knew we had to create a distinct look and feel that would set our products apart from other pet brands on supermarket shelves, and developed our distinct bottles with pops of colour.
Having an MBA also meant that I went into Rufus & Coco with big-business thinking from the outset, mapping out our trajectory 1, 3 and 5 years in advance. I’ve always set big goals for the business and had the confidence that if we keep working towards those goals we can achieve them! From getting stocked in Coles and Woolworths to launching in 9 countries globally – we are unstoppable!
Going on from your marketing experience, what has been the method of attracting customers to your brand?
Having top quality, all-natural and majority Australian-made products has resulted in a lot of customer loyalty once people discover our brand. To attract customers we have a very busy marketing schedule, from presenting at trade shows to managing many social media accounts, sponsorship, promotions and PR… but most importantly always helping improve the lives of pet owners through all of our communications.
We want our customers to feel that they can turn to us for advice about their pets. We get it, we are pet people too! One of the ways we have tried to help pet owners recently was by creating a pet resume template that people can download from our website if they are applying for a rental and need some support to get paws over the line. We also support the Australian Pet Welfare Foundation with some proceeds from our ‘I give a wag’ toy range – helping them to lobby the government to make pets welcome in rentals across Australia so that we can all enjoy the health benefits that pets bring.
What were the initial challenges and do you still struggle with the same challenges today or are they different?
Finding the right team can be a challenge in the beginning, but when you find the right people who absolutely champion your business and live and breathe that journey with you, it is well worth it. Launching into new markets always brings some new challenges, but without those challenges we couldn’t continue to grow.
Finally, what is the one thing you are most proud of so far on your journey?
I’m so proud of the difference we’ve been able to make both to pet owners in their everyday lives, but also through supporting a number of foundations that look after pets and animals across Australia. One of my proudest moments was also winning a NSW Telstra Business award in 2016. I brought my beautiful daughter Saskia to the awards dinner and it was such a special moment to be able to share the journey together and inspire an entrepreneurial journey for a future generation.