Success Through Efficiency & Innovation
TFH/Nylabone has grown by leaps and bounds during its 50-plus years in business, and the company’s success has largely been the result of refining and updating its offerings.
One of the pillars of the pet industry, TFH Publications Inc. was founded over a half-century ago in a small New York City storefront when Alan and Herbert Axelrod published the first issue of Tropical Fish Hobbyist magazine. Selling their magazine, as well as small aquarium hobbyist books out of an old station wagon, the two brothers quickly grew the business–which also included the importation and distribution of tropical fish. By the early 1960s, TFH Publications was the largest publisher of pet and animal books in the world, and its magazine was a must-read among serious aquarium hobbyists.
Fast forward to 1995. Herbert Axelrod was ready to sell the company–which, by this point, included the Nylabone division, a full-blown pet product manufacturer with approximately 5,000 SKUs–but first, he needed to build an effective management team to helm what had become a sprawling operation. So in 1996, Glen Axelrod (Alan’s son) joined the company to lead the management-building effort.
An ichthyologist who had spent a half-dozen years studying cichlids of the Great Lakes of Africa in the mid 1970s, Glen had briefly worked for his father and uncle over a decade earlier, but left to start his own business. Now back with TFH/ Nylabone, he was named CEO in mid 1997, just a few months before the company was sold to emerging pet industry powerhouse Central Garden & Pet in December 1997.
Under Glen Axelrod’s stewardship, and the Central Pet umbrella, TFH/Nylabone has continued its history of success into the 21st century. But while the company has grown larger, its list of product offerings has actually gotten smaller–going from approximately 4,800 SKUs to just about 800 SKUs over the 12 years since it was acquired by Central. While this may seem like a bit of a contradiction, Axelrod says that the shrinking list of SKUs has actually driven the company’s success through refinement. In fact, during this period, the company’s sales have multiplied several fold.
“We’ve been very disciplined,” he says. “To make room for winners, every time we add something to the top [of our selection], we remove something from the bottom. Companies that don’t turn over their product mix are missing an opportunity to innovate.”
With well over 150 domestic and foreign patents issued, and another 100-plus pending (75 percent of these patents were sole-authored by Axelrod, and the other 25 percent were co-authored by him), TFH/Nylabone is one of the most prolific pet industry innovators. “We try to lead, not follow, product trends,” says Mark E. Johnson, the company’s executive vice president. Johnson notes that because of pet owners’ tendency to humanize their companion animals, many emerging pet product trends can be predicted by watching the market for human products.
Johnson also says that TFH/Nylabone’s publishing activities also help in product development. “Being a publisher helps us to design products, because it provides a great deal of insight into the pets themselves,” he explains. “It allows us to see trends early.”
To make the most of this insight, the company regularly holds meetings between the publishing division’s editors and Nylabone’s product developers.
According to both Axelrod and Johnson, TFH/Nylabone successfully brings its ideas to market by maintaining tight control over the entire process– from writing its own intellectual property statements for new products to designing and engineering its packaging. The company also maintains strict oversight of its manufacturing activities, with 80 percent of its manufacturing taking place in Neptune City, N.J., where its headquarters are located.
While TFH/Nylabone has grown into a well-rounded manufacturer of pet products, the company also remains committed to its publishing roots. According to Axelrod, the books TFH Publications produces are just as important to pet specialty retailers as innovative products. “What sets pet specialty apart is the fact that customers expect to find expertise–they’re looking for a knowledge base,” he says. “Nothing supports this like books.”
On the publishing side, Axelrod points to the company’s Terra Nova and Animal Planet series as two particular standouts, noting that TFH’s editorial products have benefited greatly from the fact that the publisher is focused solely on pets.
Focused on Retail
Of course, producing industry-leading products and publications is only part of the equation when it comes to TFH/Nylabone’s success. The company also depends on its ability to provide pet specialty retailers with a high level of service. “Our success depends on success at the retail level,” notes Axelrod.
To achieve this success, TFH/Nylabone has maintained long-standing relationships with distributors that bring to the table a high level of expertise in areas such as pricing and plan-o-grams.
“It’s all about the store,” says Johnson. “We make a lot of resources available to our distributor partners to help them be successful. And they, in turn, accurately and efficiently convey those resources to the stores.”