Who let the dogs out? At Carnivore Meat Company in Green Bay, the dogs that are roaming around and planting kisses on employees are cherished members of the family.
"When we procured our facility in 2011, one of the first things we did was put in a dog door and dog run. At one time, we had six dogs running around. Eventually, we needed a second facility and did the same thing," said Lanny Viegut, company owner.
The dogs, pets of employees, not only give joy, they are also ready and very willing to sample the freeze-dried treats manufactured by the company. And these aren't just any old treats. They are part of the company's growing brands that have led to it being an award-winning manufacturer of premium raw frozen and freeze-dried pet food and treats.
Recently, Viegut's company was a contender in the "Coolest Thing Made in Wisconsin" contest for its freeze dried duck heads that have been recognized throughout the industry as an innovative, unique and effective snack for dogs. Although the product didn't win, it is definitely a winner with more than 600,000 sold.
"We're always looking at the industry, we have a dozen or so products that are unique that no one else in the world is producing," Viegut said. "Someone from a duck harvest facility came to us and asked if we could do anything with duck heads, and we freeze-dried a bunch and took them to a trade show where they were launched. Now they are one of our top sellers. I think most companies would have said, 'What are you thinking?'" His flexibility and creativity have led to great success. He graduated with a degree in food service and went on to be a leader in meat processing for human consumption. When a friend asked him to take a look at a failing Green Bay pet food company, he considered it a natural transition.
"I agreed to take a look and it was interesting," Viegut said. "It occurred to me quickly that this was like a small meat plant for pets, and it was complimentary to go from meat for humans to meat for pets."
It was 2008, and one of the first steps taken was to create the brand Vital Essentials, now their flagship brand. In quick order, he says he worked to establish a distribution network to get the products in retail stores throughout the nation.
"At the time, in 2009 and 2010, there were 13,000 to 14,000 of these independent pet specialty stores and there was a significant opportunity to get in those and right the ship," Viegut said.
From there, it was a path of growth that has resulted in sales gains of 30% to 50% every year. Viegut exercised an option to purchase in 2012, and has taken the company to extraordinary levels.
There are three locations in Green Bay, and brands that include Nature's Advantage, Vital Essentials, VE Raw Bar and Vital Cat. The products are distributed to over 6,000 retailers nationwide, online through top retailers, and in 14 international markets. The freeze-dried division has services that include private labeling, co-packing and supplying of ingredients.
This has been accomplished without a business plan. Viegut says his skill has been to see trends and be quick to act without being restrained by a rigid course. His transition in 2018 from having outside sales reps throughout the country to inside sales execs allowed him to weather the pandemic without blinking.
"We came to the conclusion that the direction of the sales force was changing, and we were way ahead of the curve," Viegut said. "An inside sales person can make so many more calls a day and that has been aided by changes in technology."
Because the sales reps were not hindered by travel restrictions, they were able to sell and fill orders as usual and are having a banner year. Consumer demand for premium-quality, raw frozen and freeze dried pet food continues to grow, and Carnivore Meat Company meets that demand with more than 100 product options including unique items like bunny ears and beef organ medley.
It is difficult to summarize Viegut's innovation. From a unique leadership structure that encourages employee involvement, to an awareness of the need for sustainable products, he has taken a $1 million failing company to a $30 million powerhouse with 130 employees. He saw the pandemic as an opportunity to expand ecommerce, and has added another area of growth.
In all of this, Viegut moves forward with a simple philosophy.
"I'd be lying if I said we have a written plan for everything," he said. "What we do is play outside of the sandbox, and can turn on a dime and shift on a fly. We always find ways to say yes and to turn the impossible into the possible."
Tina Dettman-Bielefeldt is co-owner of DB Commercial Real Estate in Green Bay and past district director for SCORE, Wisconsin.