Driven by Devotion
By Seth Mendelson
Published: January 1, 2014
Having built Cardinal Laboratories on a foundation of innovation, Tony de Vos has created a company “devoted to pets, people and the planet.”

 

 

Tony de Vos

 

As far as Tony de Vos is concerned, the defining moment for Cardinal Laboratories—the company he has been involved with for more than 40 years—came in 1991. That year, the company’s warehouse and factory burned down, and there was no way of knowing whether Cardinal could stay in business.


But, thanks to a yeoman effort by his employees, as well as some strong support from vendors and retailers, Cardinal was able to stay afloat. The rest, as they say, is history. Today, Cardinal sells products in 53 countries and counting, and it offers about 215 SKUs in such segments as grooming, OTC drugs, first aid, treats, dog food rolls and dry dog food.


“That should have been the end of us,” says de Vos, now the CEO/president of the Azusa, Calif.-based company. “Our employees stepped up, and within a week, we were manufacturing product in the parking lot with machinery that we salvaged from the building. Our vendors got us the products and ingredients we needed for manufacturing, and our retail and wholesale partners understood our problem and worked with us. One company actually sent us $50,000 as an advance on future business to help us through those tough days.”


In its second life, Cardinal has risen to the top of its industry. The company’s broad range of products, sound reputation throughout the pet industry and commitment to innovation has helped it stand out in an extremely crowded marketplace. “We think more about survival than making money,” de Vos says. “I’m usually the smaller guy in this business, and I keep asking myself, ‘How do I manage to survive in this very competitive market?’”


Of course, standing in the middle of all this is de Vos himself. Cardinal was founded in 1948, and while that may be a little before de Vos’ time, he has worked at the company in some capacity or another since the very early 1970s. Later in that decade, with the help of his father-in-law, de Vos started building Cardinal into a freestanding operation, opening his own factory and later expanding into larger quarters in the mid-1980s.


Around the same time, de Vos started Westwood Laboratories, which became the manufacturing arm for Cardinal, as well as the source for many types of branded and private-label products in categories such as skin care, hair care, sun care and pet care items for other companies.


“We started as a West Coast company with a big emphasis on the grooming business, which was our core,” de Vos notes. “Eventually we expanded into veterinarian products and healthcare products for pets. Now, we look for opportunities that can help continue our growth.”


De Vos says the company’s winning streak is all about the Cardinal employees. “The success of this company is based on the fact that I have managed to surround myself with people who are smarter than I am,” de Vos says. “When I interview a person for a job, I tell them that this should be their last job, that they should retire from this company because I want them to take ownership.”


He is also a forward-looking leader. Cardinal prides itself on becoming the first 100-percent solar-powered manufacturing facility in Azusa when it retrofitted its old factory. Its newest factory became the second facility to earn that honor. He says the company’s mission, “Devoted to Pets, People and the Planet” serves as a daily guideline for the company. “We’re serious about being green and reducing our impact on the planet, from our energy efficiency, to our sustainable building materials and practices, right down to our solar-powered web servers and email,” de Vos says.


Westwood and Cardinal became stand-alone companies in 2004. But the relationship between the two is credited by de Vos as another reason for Cardinal’s success. “We are the primary manufacturer of our products, and how many other pet companies can say that?” he notes. “Our own research and development is available to us, and that also gives us a big edge.”


There is more. The company’s longevity is helping it deal with retailers and wholesalers better, de Vos notes. “As we grow, we learn more about this industry and get a better idea what retailers are asking for,” he says. “It allows us to be more creative and look for those unique items that will build incremental sales for retailers and us. There are so many ‘me-too’ items on the shelves, and that hurts business for everyone. We want to come up with the unique concepts and ideas, and find the holes in the marketplace.”


He points to the boutique items in the Viva La Dog Spa line and the training treat segment as two examples of how Cardinal either introduced unique merchandise into the segment or actually created new categories into the industry. “There was no such thing as a training treat category,” de Vos says. “We studied the market to see if there was a need, developed the proper packaging and made sure we met the demand of those who trained dogs. It takes a couple of specific ingredients to get a dog to focus on tasks.


“Knowing our retailers well also presents opportunities. That’s how we got into the recovery-collar business and dog food rolls. We were asked to develop something we didn’t have. Now the food business has developed in to a full blown line with dry, rolls, biscuits and treats.”


For the future, de Vos points to slow and steady growth to keep Cardinal in good shape. He says that growth should come in all categories that Cardinal currently operates in, but that introducing items will take a back seat to maintaining an emphasis on quality products.


“We learn something every day, and some of that is to make sure that the products that get shipped out of here are the best they can be,” he notes. “This company has never been in better shape, and we know how to tackle things for the future. We will work hard with our retail partners to make sure we have the right equation for future growth. Most of all, we will continue to be flexible for them.”