Lockdown saw the country’s appreciation of nature and wildlife increase. As one of the UK’s largest independent suppliers of garden wildlife products this trend shows no sign of stopping …
Sean began Ark Wildlife 16 years ago when he found problems with the bird food market’s quality and service. His company has continued to grow, despatching over 400 products every day across the country to keen enthusiasts. He talks to Business Matters about his journey …
What products or services do you provide?
We supply carefully selected wild bird and wildlife foods, extremely high-quality habitats along with a comprehensive range of garden wildlife accessories via our e-commerce website and mail order catalogues. We are a specialist retailer promoting wildlife gardening across the UK by offering our expertise to answer all the common questions our customers have.
Our strength lies in the quality of our customer service backing up the range of products we supply. Experience has taught us many wildlife friendly products go ignored in gardens because the needs of the animals are not understood, rather than the product being inappropriate. Therefore we supply the right products backed up with the expert advice needed to ensure our customers and their wildlife get the maximum value from everything in our range.
What type of businesses do you work with?
We work with a diverse range of businesses from global corporations to sole traders. We have a long-standing policy to ‘trade local’ supporting as many independent local businesses as possible. In fact, many of our suppliers have been with us for 20-years or more and have grown with us. On the other hand, we also necessarily work with international manufacturers and import from China, USA, Europe, as well as the UK.
On our customer side, while we are predominantly a B2C business selling online to the retail sector, we are also one of the UK’s largest suppliers of environmental mitigation products. This means we count among our customer base all the leading house builders such as Persimmon, Barrett Homes, etc. Along with leading builders’ merchants such as Travis Perkins and Jewson’s. We also support and supply local authorities and national charities including The Wildlife Trusts, WWT and The National Trust.
We believe the success we’ve had attracting and maintaining such leading organisations lies in our belief as experts in our field. We feel it’s our responsibility to ensure our customer, regardless of size, gets the same high-quality service as well as the right products for their needs. For example, we have set up a separate customer service team to deal specifically with the building industry, due to the very different requirements they have compared to that of creating a wildlife friendly garden.
What problem does your company solve?
Very simply, we reconnect people with real nature. The modern world, marketing and human nature likes to use anthropomorphisation to sell. This is the human instinct to attribute human emotions, traits and intentions to that of animals. This is largely harmless when it comes to pets such as cats and dogs but is a hindrance to successful wildlife gardening.
We strive to help people create rich habitats and then leave nature to fill them. Birds and flying insects are easy to help because they are actively mobile. However, most of nature does not have access to an Uber and therefore, patience and consistency is required. We help understand and manage these requirements.
Increasing public knowledge and awareness is key, and we support several charities with public campaigns, along with what we as individuals can do to help. For example, when asked about bees most people can describe a honeybee or bumblebee, but these are in the minority. There are ten times as many solitary bee species visiting our gardens, largely going about their business unnoticed, all of whom could benefit from a little more help.
What is your USP?
Our gardening for wildlife expertise is key but we also have a number of USPs that sets us apart from our competitors. Key among these is our product selection and packaging policies. Our industry is dominated by industrial scale operators, running hundreds of tonnes of food daily using advanced manufacturing processes to reduce cost. However, these necessarily reduce range. We on the other hand take the needs of wildlife first and build our business around this. It results in a boutique approach. We uniquely can offer a broad range of species-specific foods in multiple size options. In nature, one size does not suit all.
By explaining to our customers the differing dietary requirements of different species of birds and animals, we then cater for each. This means we offer many more food lines than other businesses, in different pack sizes to suit individual requirements.
What are your company values? Have you ever had them challenged and if so how have you dealt with it?
The business reflects my own personal values. Key among these is ‘Don’t rob Peter to pay Paul’, or ‘we all share one Earth’. In my mind it is simply wrong to chop down trees in one nation to build bird nest boxes to replace chopped down trees in another! We work hard to make our business sustainable. A couple of examples are our use of plastic packaging made from sugar cane (a waste material from the human food chain) rather than oil. Or our polypropylene return and reuse scheme.
We take a similar line with respect for our people as we do for the environment. We treat all our suppliers, staff, contacts, and customers as if they were family. After all, we are! We’re all the same species, floating in a dark universe on a small blue planet. We must respect each other, or we will all suffer the consequences.
As a small business the explanation of our values and their beliefs are straightforward. However, social media does like to spread unpleasant accusations and falsehoods. We don’t engage with social outbursts and simply stick to doing what we know is right.
How do you ensure that you recruit a team that reflects your company values?
Recruitment has always been the toughest challenge for our business. Apart from screening candidates, we first need to explain what we do. Many applicants think we’re a petting zoo or equivalent or think we’re a farm industry. The reality is we’re a fast paced, extremely busy 21st century online retailer / manufacturer requiring exceptional IT skills, extremely knowledgeable customer service teams, methodical and organised warehouse operations, all supported by a creative and innovative management team.
Once we grew beyond the point I could recruit from my own known talent pool, recruitment proved a difficult nut to crack and we’re not there yet! We’ve advertised direct, employed recruitment agencies and even outsourced to an HR recruitment consultancy but none have proved totally satisfactory.
We’re now embarking on a permanent recruitment policy, rather than a vacancy filling policy. The thought being talent will always pay for itself whenever it arrives, whereas finding talent at the point of need is unlikely to happen. This non-urgent approach also means we have considerably more time for screening and checks before either party needs to commit, helping avoid errors by both parties.
Are you happy to offer a hybrid working model of home/office post-covid?
Ark Wildlife is an odd combination of agricultural production and high-tech e-commerce industry. Just prior to COVID we had already embarked on a programme of upgrading all our technology to cloud based platforms. These were proving a mixed blessing with game changing advances but frustrating at times with flaky mobile and wi-fi speed.
By the time COVID hit we’d already gone through most of the pain and could quickly adapt to hybrid working. It took just a few days to convert to a distance and home working model and continue to do so. We now offer a combination of office and home working and can seamlessly conduct training and meetings whether staff are present or not. We have enjoyed a number of birthdays and presentations outdoors for social spacing with a number of the team appearing on laptops in the yard.
Production is now split over two sites so that any future outbreaks, and isolation requirements would be contained to individual work pods and not impact the business as a whole. This creates new challenges in terms of internal brand identity and company unity and we are currently exploring new ways to keep remote workers and individual pods in contact with one another via screens during breaks in common areas.
Do you have any tips for managing suppliers and customers effectively?
The philosophy at Ark Wildlife is to treat suppliers like customers and customers like family. Relationships grow through contact and trust. We speak to suppliers on a regular basis, not only on business matters but also on a personal level. After all, all work and no play make Jack a dull boy. Building up trust relationships creates more business opportunities and makes the more difficult discussions less uncomfortable for both.
In our market we generally have greater knowledge than our customers and we therefore need to take a responsible position. We approach customer service more like a pharmacist than a retailer, giving the customer time to explain their needs before offering a solution. We then encourage our customer service team to visualise a close relative or friend before responding Offering the product, advice, or solution to a complaint as if the customer were their own family member.
Any finance or cash-flow tips for new businesses starting out?
Tips number 1 to10 would be communication, communication, communication. I started Ark Wildlife with £6,000 which I believe was about £44,000 short of what I needed! The one thing I did possess was time and reputation. I spent hours on the phone and meetings in person, explaining my business plan to suppliers and asking for support. Once begrudgingly given, I then had to manage those agreements and cash flow in particular. I was never going to be able to pay everyone on time, so I consciously spoke to all my creditors before payment fell due to explaining my plan. Make sure you pay everyone something! Tell them what to expect and when and keep to it. I found as long as I paid suppliers on a regular and consistent basis, I could keep them onside.
Another trick I regularly used was while on the phone promising payments, I’d ask for contributions to marketing their product lines on their behalf. This could buy me extended credit, a discount or a cheque. At worst it demonstrated I was selling on their behalf, certainly making it harder for them to then decline my offer of part-payment. Mostly, I just kept in constant contact and worked tirelessly to build up a good business reputation backed by a strong personal relationship with each supplier and certainly the bank.
If you could ask one thing of the government to change for businesses what would it be?
I’d like to say create a fair playing field, so all businesses play to the same rules. However, in the real world the greatest benefit would come from the revision or removal of business rates. Business rates take no account of global business, let alone relative cost.
As a simple example our neighbour occupies a similar size unit to us but sells high value electronic goods. His turnover and stock value are nearly a hundred times that of our own and yet we both pay the same amount in business rates. As a percentage we are paying approximately 1.2% tax on rates, while he pays less than 0.25%. How can that be justified? I know speaking to many shop owners in town, their situation is even more unforgivable.
What is your attitude towards your competitors?
As with all businesses we have direct and indirect competitors. For Ark Wildlife we include supermarkets and general online retailers such as Amazon as indirect competitors. Although they are selling products aimed at the same market as us, they cater to a different market segment. We describe the difference as supermarkets supply bird food to customers who feed ‘the birds’ while we supply bird food to customers who feed ‘my birds’. We cater for customers who have taken ownership and responsibility for the welfare of the wildlife visiting their gardens, while supermarkets cater for the occasional or impulse shopper. We see indirect competition as critical to our eventual success as they are the ‘doorway’ to new customers and so we welcome them.
In terms of direct competition, there are multiple online wildlife suppliers, many of whom are peripheral players. The never-ending procession of discounters who see a market opportunity but can only sell on price. There is no point competing with these as this is a simple ‘chase to the bottom’ eroding quality that we are not prepared to do.
At the other end of the scale, we have two or three main competitors, with whom we enjoy the challenge of quality, service and innovation required to succeed. We each have our own specialist areas but compete keenly on the common ground. I like getting up each morning with the question ‘how can we be better than we were yesterday?’ This forces us to constantly raise our game and our customers benefit as a result.
Any thoughts on the future of your company and your dreams?
Ark Wildlife is well-established but still a young and growing business. From the outset, it’s been completely self-funded and profit, while important, has never been the driving factor. The benefit of being a larger business is we now have more money to reinvest each year to grow the business further.
Our strategy is to double the business every 5-years. Faster growth is a strong possibility, but it will be subject to maintaining the service standards to which we hold ourselves.
Wildlife gardening is still in its infancy, and we innovate on a continual basis. We fund student PHD’s to further our knowledge and retain veterinarians and nutritionists to formulate better and more nutritious foods. I have years of plans and sketches on my desk and habitats in various locations to monitor before going on sale. Loss of natural habitat is an ongoing concern and learning from experts how we can replicate habitat in our gardens is critical. There is still so much to do, and so much to learn, it will be a long time before my work is done and I can hand over Ark Wildlife to the next generation. For now, I’m really excited about the job I do and the opportunities it presents.