Putting Puppies First
For more than two decades, The Hunte Corporation has been striving to ensure that pet stores have access to a supply of happy, healthy puppies from reputable breeders.
Since he was seven years old, Andrew Hunte’s life has more or less revolved around puppies and dogs. It was at that age he began showing dogs—a passion he inherited from his parents. With that type of upbringing, it is no wonder that Hunte would grow up to become a pet store owner—and more specifically, an operator in the business of selling puppies.
In the early 1980s, Hunte owned and operated two Petland stores in Western Florida. But while his passion for canines carried over into his new vocation, the same could not be said for his access to well-bred puppies. “Show breeders simply did not sell to pet stores,” he recounts. Instead, Hunte had to buy from a network of farmers who were subsidizing their income by breeding dogs. This was far from an ideal situation, he says.
“As a retailer, I saw a lot of inconsistency in the quality and health of puppies I was getting, and these were problems that could be addressed,” says Hunte. So, he decided to tour of some of the farmer/breeders he worked with—most of whom were located in the Midwest—to see their operations first-hand.
It was during this trip that Hunte was inspired to start down the path to his current role as president and CEO of The Hunte Corporation, a leading supplier of purebred puppies to pet stores. “I found a lot of breeders who loved animals and were hungry for education,” he says. “They really wanted to advance husbandry and develop best practices for breeding dogs. They wanted to become more professional.”
Unfortunately, back then, there were not many resources available to provide motivated breeders with the education they craved or bring sub-standard breeders in line with accepted best practices. In fact, according to Hunte, even the USDA inspectors tasked with monitoring dog breeders were woefully unprepared for the growth resulting from such high consumer demand for healthy puppies.
Seeing that the industry was developing quickly and breeders were seeking to be educated and organized, Hunte decided to pull up his roots in Florida and get more directly involved. In 1988, he sold his two pet stores and moved to Missouri, where he managed a puppy supplier, Ozark Honeydew Farms. In 1991, he purchased Sundowner Kennels. These businesses served as the foundation of The Hunte Corporation in Goodman, Mo.
Starting with just seven employees, Hunte took on the challenge of improving the quality of puppies available to pet stores by not only helping breeders, but also reinventing the supply chain from top to bottom. For example, he says that the delivery process for getting puppies to retailers left a lot of room for improvement. “Early on, we looked at how puppies were handled in delivery, and we saw that they were mostly air-shipped,” Hunte explains. “This can be very hard on the animals, because every time a puppy is exposed to a change, it creates stress.”
Bucking the traditional mode of transporting puppies, The Hunte Corporation developed a delivery system that utilizes high-tech trucks and trailers that are designed to monitor and control a variety of environmental factors—including temperature, humidity and ammonia levels—to ensure that the puppies’ surroundings are comfortable and healthy. In addition, every delivery truck is piloted by drivers who are highly trained animal-care technicians. These drivers stop regularly to check on the health of their canine passengers, and have access to a network of veterinarians should any issues arise.
“We think it is the finest delivery system in the world,” says Hunte, noting that this is a reflection of his company’s commitment to excellence in everything it does—particularly when it comes to ensuring the health of its puppies.
That commitment to excellence actually begins before a puppy even leaves the breeder. The Hunte Corporation’s breeder-partners enroll all of the puppies they will be supplying to the company before they are even two weeks old, which Hunte says is critical in maintaining healthy animals. “We help the breeders provide the best possible care, including the right nutrition and health care, to ensure that every puppy we receive is in excellent health.”
According to Hunte, these efforts, combined with other initiatives that his company has developed to educate breeders on best practices—including a two-day breeder conference that the company hosts at its facility—have paid off. “As recently as 10 years ago, we couldn’t take up to 30 percent of the puppies that breeders made available to us,” he says. “Today, that number is below 10 percent, because of better education.”
While The Hunte Corporation has demonstrated an ability to raise the game of its breeder-partners, it still has to be careful about exactly who those partners are. To this end, the company employs a network of in-house and third-party inspectors who visit and monitor breeders’ facilities, and it monitors USDA inspection reports. “Our criteria have to be met,” he says. “Of course, the downside is that it limits the number of puppies we can take in, because we’re so picky.”
When puppies do come in to The Hunte Corporation’s facility, at eight to nine weeks old, they are immediately given a health exam—a process that is repeated before any puppy is allowed to leave the facility, which Hunte says is a first in the industry.
According to Ryan Boyle, vice president of sales and operations, puppies typically spend a total of about six days in the facility, a period during which they are groomed, micro-chipped and receive medical treatment for any minor health issues. Another important part of a puppy’s stay with The Hunte Corporation is the socialization, exercise and hands-on care that they receive daily. This includes being fed a probiotic nutritional supplement that aids with digestion and stimulates appetites.
“It is all about minimizing stress and maximizing their immune systems,” says Boyle. “An eight-week-old puppy’s immune system is not very strong, so we do what we can to build it up while making sure we follow heightened cross-contamination protocols.”
Whether they concern the sourcing, intake, in-house care or delivery of the puppies, Boyle says that all of The Hunte Corporation’s processes are designed to ensure that the company only delivers healthy, well-bred puppies to retailers. To back this up, the company offers a five-year warranty for genetic and congenital health issues, which Boyle calls the most extensive guarantee in the business.
In addition, The Hunte Corporation provides a limited-liability warranty against other health issues. “As far as I know, we’re the only supplier that is willing to pay vet bills,” says Hunte.
Further evidence of the company’s commitment to supplying happy, healthy pets can be found in the fact that its interest in its puppies does not end once they find loving homes. According to Boyle, The Hunte Corporation is the only puppy supplier that tracks hereditary health problems at the consumer level. This information, combined with health-related data from other areas of the company’s operations, is used not only to help breeders improve their practices, but also to help Hunte identify potential issues in breeding lines.
Of course, as Hunte says, being so selective about the puppies the company brings to pet stores does limit its supply from breeders. In fact, the supply is so limited that The Hunte Corporation’s facilities are only operating at about half capacity, he says. But Hunte would not have it any other way, if increasing the supply meant lowering the company’s standards just to improve the bottom line.
“Staying in business for the long haul means it’s not just about money,” he says. “Our puppies are meant to become part of someone’s family for life. We take that responsibility very seriously.”