Pets At Home boss leaves with a heavy heart

Hit: Peter Pritchard with a staff member’s dog named Walter

Peter Pritchard talks about Pets At Home with such enthusiasm that it’s easy to forget he’s leaving. “I really don’t think I’ll ever do anything better than this,” jokes the well-groomed 51-year-old, just days before he quits his job as managing director of Britain’s biggest pet store. Brittany.

“How bad is it if you work with dogs all day? It was a wonderful, exciting and moving journey. I loved every second of it,” he says.

The chain has become one of Britain’s retail success stories. Founded over three decades ago by entrepreneur Anthony Preston, it has grown from one store in Chester to a dominant force in the market with 455 stores.

Things have changed since then, says Pritchard. “Technology and digitization now play a very important role. But nothing like talking to a person, especially when something is difficult. You need empathy and understanding.

Pritchard says the secret to the company’s success during his tenure has been looking at the world from an owner’s perspective. “We weren’t born pet owners. We all stumble and learn from experience. Often our job is to educate owners. That’s probably the most important thing we do,” he says.

Pritchard joined Asda as chief commercial officer in 2011. He was promoted to succeed his boss after falling profits in 2018.

He decided that Pets At Home had not kept up with changing customer demands. So it slashed prices to compete with online rivals such as Amazon and accelerated the shift from selling pet food and accessories to more profitable services such as veterinary practices and pet grooming. dogs.

Things were already getting back on track when the pandemic hit. Unexpectedly, Pets At Home has emerged as a big winner in lockdown.

Considered an essential retailer, business boomed as people sought solace in cats and dogs due to enforced social isolation. As a result, the number of pet-owning households jumped by 3.2 million to 17 million. Corrective actions taken by Pritchard on price and service paid off.

This week’s results are expected to show record underlying pre-tax profits of around £140m, up from £93.5m in 2021.

But with 23% of the £6.2bn market, the company is undoubtedly encountering the same post-pandemic headwinds as other retailers.

The shares, still twice as high as when Pritchard took over, have nearly halved from their peak last November amid market concerns over the consumer.

Pritchard, who will be replaced by Sky TV’s Lyssa McGowan, admits Britain is heading into turbulent waters. But the chain relies on our declared love of pets to get by.

“The pet industry is incredibly resilient,” he insists. “The number of pet owners has increased and they are going to be with us for the next ten to 15 years.”

He thinks structural changes such as working from home are also here to stay and he doesn’t yet see any sign of a rise in the number of abandoned pets as pet owners increasingly run out of food. money, facing cost of living pressure, return to the office.

“We are entering a really difficult economic environment, but I don’t think we are going to see a big abandonment of pets. When we ask customers where they’re going to cut back, pets are on par with kids, it’s the last thing on the list.

One aspect of the business likely to weather tougher times is its veterinary practices, which he describes as “the jewel in the crown.” After growing rapidly through acquisition before becoming CEO, Pritchard performed sweeping surgery, eliminating underperforming practices in poor locations and buying out some loss-making joint ventures.

Operating under the Vets4Pets brand, it grew by 15-20% during the pandemic. There are now 450 veterinary practices, many of them in-store, run by some of the chain’s 16,000 employees.

On Friday, the company announced a new chief operating officer for Vets4Pets, Louise Stonier, who has worked for Pets At Home since 2004.

Pritchard, who earned £2.4million last year, has come a long way since growing up in a council house in Bootle, Merseyside. One of four children, his father was a postman, while his mother worked two jobs – as a waitress and at a sausage factory – to make ends meet.

As he reflects on the cost of living crisis, he says, “I know what it’s like when you don’t have money because that’s how you grew up. What I love about my parents is that they instilled some very good values ​​in me – to be a good person, to work hard, to live within your means. His first job was at the cashier at Marks & Spencer “with only two hours of training”.

Stints at Sainsbury’s, Iceland and Asda followed, where he learned from retail legends including Allan Leighton, Archie Norman and Richard Baker, before being recruited by Pets At Home.

Pritchard likes to keep things simple. He says, “At the end of the day, a dog and a cat need two things in life. They need food and they need love. Our role is to listen to the change of owner.

Perhaps most surprisingly of all, the specialty retailer mostly sticks to a traditional bricks-and-mortar approach – online sales still only account for around 16% of its revenue.

He clearly has fans in the City. A top fund manager told the Mail on Sunday that he had combed through almost all of his other retail stocks in his portfolio over the past five years but had stuck with Pets At Home.

So why is Pritchard leaving? “I’m leaving with a very heavy heart, but I’m now at the point where I want to take back control of my diary and try to find the right balance in my life.

“I’m really looking forward to traveling again, it’s always been a passion. For the past three years I’ve felt like a caged animal to some extent. Like everyone else, my world has shrunk. The plan is to take a break and rediscover myself with my family and myself, because it has been quite a busy time.

He has been linked with a number of vacancies, including a return to Asda, where the post of chief executive is vacant. But he rules out another big job.

“I’m exploring a few things that will keep me busy. I’m way too young to retire.

But he adds, “If I had wanted to work full time, I would have stayed at Pets At Home.”

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