A Passion for Pets & People
Mud Bay's focus on doing what is best not only for pets, but also for its employees, has helped it become the Pacific Northwest's premier independent pet retail chain. And Pet Business' 2015 Retailer of the Year.
Mud Bay’s business plan is pretty simple. In fact, Lars Wulff, co-CEO of the 33-unit Tumwater, Wash.-based pet store chain, says it all comes down to three basic things.
The first is making sure the company’s stores, which are located in Washington state and Oregon, offer merchandise that will contribute to the health of dogs and cats. The second is that the experience of shopping in a Mud Bay store contributes to the happiness of the pet owners, and the third is that the company operates in a way that he—and all of Mud Bay’s 320 employees—are proud of.
The company has emerged as a major player in the Pacific Northwest, carving out a niche with customers who are looking for a more pleasant, intimate and rewarding experience when shopping for their pet needs, especially natural and solution-oriented products. Privately owned, Mud Bay does not give out its financial data, other than to say that sales have grown at an average annual rate of about 16 percent over the past five years. For these reasons, Pet Business has selected Mud Bay as its 2015 Retailer of the Year.
“I think it is fair to say that all of us—store staff and home office alike—are obsessed with identifying dog and cat owners’ real needs and coming up with solutions to their issues,” Lars says. “Our job is to give dog and cat owners useful, accurate information and well-researched products that address their real needs.”
This is not your average pet store chain. From its earliest days as a one-store, 1,000-sq.-ft. operation in Olympia, Mud Bay’s leaders have run the company according to their own beat. Today, they are even taking steps to expand ownership to employees through an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP), while still keeping the family involved both as operators and as owners.
Mud Bay is one of the largest and most respected retailers in the Pacific Northwest. They have a continual focus on nutrition and a determined spirit to provide the best solution for the pet parent. Mud Bay is admirable for the degree to which they take customer care seriously and they differentiate themselves by going the extra mile, reading scientific studies, interviewing veterinary nutritionists, visiting the manufacturing facilities and collecting anecdotal data about how well a food feeds. Their focus is to serve the pet and their parents in a way that is about teaching their consumers about good nutrition for their pets, not just selling pet food.
— Wade Nilson, Vice President of Sales, Independent Sales Division, Natural Balance Pet Foods
Although Mud Bay has already perfected the essentials desired by customers, they place great emphasis on continuously evolving their business to ensure a superior shopping experience. We value their unwavering commitment to customer satisfaction, knowledgeable and trusted staff, and selection of quality products. Successful partnerships are built on trust, integrity and teamwork; the entire team at Mud Bay exemplifies these important qualities each and every day.
— Marie Moody, Founder and Chairman, Stella & Chewy’s
“We’ve always focused on building a great company that is sustainable and can go on without us,” says Marisa Wulff, Mud Bay’s other co-CEO. “We aren’t there yet, but together we’ve made a lot of progress. We want the entire team to carry it forward and be rewarded for their efforts too. We don’t look at Mud Bay’s staff as an expense line. We see them as the center of the company.”
The company’s start may have something to do with the attitude of its five-person executive team, which includes Lars and Marisa (brother and sister), CFO Michael Becker, COO Tracy L. Yamane and chief merchandising officer Al Puntillo.
Lars and Marisa’s mother and sister (Elsa and Yolanka) got the whole thing going in 1988 when they purchased a down-on-its-luck farm store in Olympia. Lars joined the company in 1989, and Marisa came aboard in 1993. Lars, Marisa and Elsa, plus an ever-growing group of staff, developed a business model that grew sales out of the run-down facility to more than $1,000 per square foot.
“It was addition by subtraction,” Marisa says. “We phased out of categories like farm feed and fencing that no longer made sense, and we focused on offering our customers healthy foods for their animals. Plus, we started to put a big emphasis on educating our customers. We were offering less but selling more.”
Mud Bay has been an excellent partner with WellPet and all our brands. Their highly trained, professional staff always puts the health and wellbeing of pets first. Mud Bay truly understands every product they sell in their stores; they only recommend products their team would feed to their own pets. Their level of integrity as it relates to trying new products before offering to their customers is second to none. We couldn’t ask for a better partner. We’d like to congratulate Mud Bay on this honor, and thank them for many successful years of partnership and look forward to more great years to come.
— Monica Sami, Key Account Manager, WellPet
Mud Bay is passionate about pets—you know that the minute you walk into their stores. The look and design of their stores clearly communicate their niche in the marketplace. To help ensure their customers have healthy pets, Mud Bay carries a full range of healthy food and supplements. The pet supplies they stock are well-made and provide value.
— Rick Foster, Vice President of Sales, Cardinal Pet Care
The company, according to its online history, also made the decision to focus on dogs and cats—with some small-animal and bird products in the mix—leaving the care of other animals to the competition.
But Mud Bay may have stayed a one-store operation if not for a fateful series of events. In 2000, the Seattle-area’s largest independent pet chain, Bosley’s Pet Food Marts, went bankrupt and fell into the hands of a financial receiver. “I had just climbed Mt. Rainier and came back to the office and heard that this business was available,” Lars says. “They held an auction, we won and bought the assets. Marisa and I hired 60 people and executed eight leases in just 48 hours. That quickly, we went from a profitable one-store operation to an unprofitable nine-store business.”
It took two more years of hard work to make the greatly expanded company profitable again. “We worked seven days a week—I think Marisa and I probably took just six or seven days off in those first two years. We also had a lot of help from our distributors, our staff and even from Mud Bay alumni,” he adds. “We had a lot to learn. We had to transition full-line pet stores into natural dog and cat stores. We had to transform an unhealthy culture into a healthy one. And we had to learn the disciplines of multi-unit retail.”
In 2004, Marisa opened Mud Bay’s first distribution center, which was significantly expanded in 2007 to handle the growing number of suppliers the company does business with. In that year, the company also started opening more stores. Mud Bay began by taking over the locations of pre-existing pet stores, but in 2005, it opened its first completely new locations. Then, in 2013, the company made the jump to Portland, Ore., about 200 miles south of its original territory in Washington’s Puget Sound area.
Mud Bay and Animal Supply have been partners since both companies started in the 1980s. A winning team is the result of a consistent stubborn strategy. Lars and Marisa have been consistently stubborn in leading Mud Bay from a small feed store in Olympia, Wash., to this award as the best retailer in the USA. They have pioneered the “healthy pet” category with the utmost respect for the pet in every endeavor. They are very deserving of this award, as is the entire team at Mud Bay. We congratulate Mud Bay on their success and look forward to many more years of growth and partnership.
— Jeff Sutherland, President - Western Region, Animal Supply Company
Mud Bay is a great retail partner that really has its finger on the pulse of what’s important and drives the independent pet specialty market. They excel in providing the best in natural products and services to meet the needs of all consumers and their four-legged family members.
— Louie Nasuta, Northwest U.S. District Sales Manager, CANIDAE Natural Pet Food Co.
“We wanted to make this move for years, but we were just not ready,” notes Lars. “Finally, we felt we had the confidence and the leadership to make this work, and we took the plunge.”
Marisa says that the company’s merchandising strategy sets it apart from the competition. One will not see a lot of traditional linear shelving at these stores. “We merchandise with tables,” she says. “I came upon a farm stand that used tables to display its products and it reminded me of how we used to merchandise in our original store. We decided to move to tables in our stores, because it really emphasizes the products and also takes us back to our roots.”
Educating shoppers seems to be at the forefront of all of Mud Bay’s efforts. For example, company-created brochures on such subjects as skin allergies, urinary tract infections and ways to calm a dog’s stomach issues are available in every store. Signage also helps to educate consumers, and the staff is trained to make sure they have the answer shoppers may need. “It is all about creating a great experience for our customers,” Al adds. “Our job is to provide knowledge and value, not to try to sell dog and cat owners something they don’t really need or want. We want our staff to be confident in our products and focus on fulfilling customers’ real needs.”
Again, the store employees are vital to this effort. Marisa notes that the needs of dogs and cats change as they age, therefore making it that much more important that store staff know as much as possible about products for animals of different ages. “Our job is to help with solutions,” she says.
Interestingly, Mud Bay has built a loyal following without the assistance of much traditional advertising. The company’s top executives make a big point of noting that they rely on word-of-mouth advertising to attract shoppers. At the same time, they admit that this puts more pressure on making sure that everything is near perfect at the stores. “We need dog and cat owners to leave our stores after their first visit thinking, ‘Wow, that’s an amazing store,’” Lars notes.
Mud Bay is truly deserving of being honored as Retailer of the Year. For a long time they have provided consumers with a unique and interesting place to find the best products for their pets and manufacturers with a strong and trustworthy partner. The culture of Mud Bay is one of “true believers,” people who are in this industry with a passion beyond profit.
Living in Seattle right near their Capitol Hill and Belltown locations, I personally see the appeal of their stores and the warm interaction of their staff with consumers. Mud Bay represents a lot of what is great about the Pacific Northwest, and the Healthy Pet team is proud to call them neighbors.
— Samuel Cohen, Vice President of Marketing & Sales, Healthy Pet
Mud Bay is a perfect example of an intentional retailer. As an organization, they intentionally chose what they want to sell and who they want to sell it to. Their thoughtful approach to selecting products and companies they want to partner with, combined with their strong emphasis on education, has created a very effective and successful retail model.
— Dana Singleton, Director of Sales, Northwest Naturals
The company partners with shelters and veterinarians in Washington and Oregon, who help spread Mud Bay’s name by handing out its materials and coupons. Leadership also counts on store and district managers to become part of the fabric of their communities by participating in local events and creating in-store events.
With things going so well, the executive team sees no reason to slow down. Mud Bay plans to continue growing its store count by about 15 percent per year—about six new stores annually for the next few years. The Wulffs say the immediate plan is to fill in locations within the existing territories of Washington and Oregon, with stores averaging about 4,000 sq. ft.
“There are a lot of things we look for when determining the location of a new store,” Marisa says. “One is population density. Another is determining areas with higher levels of education. A third is to be in a convenient place for customers as they make their way home from work.”
Being associated with Mud Bay is most certainly a feather in Charming’s cap. People know how discerning Mud Bay is when selecting which products make placement on their shelves. It’s very rare that we are asked by a customer if safety magnets were used in production, what is the rubber composition of a toy or which stitching technique was used on a particular plush toy. Mud Bay cares enough to ask about all of these elements and more.
— Nick Watts, Owner, Charming Pet Products
In the end, Mud Bay’s leadership team keeps coming back to the importance it places on employees. “We won’t grow faster than we can grow well, and the pace of our growth depends on Mud Bay’s ability to develop great leaders,” Lars says. “It’s store managers and staff who create the Mud Bay Experience and connect with our customers. For Mud Bay to succeed, our whole team has to be in the same boat, rowing in the same direction and loving what they’re doing.”