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Pets At Home boss leaves with a heavy heart

Success: Peter Pritchard with a staff member's dog named Walter

Success: 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 he can do any better than this,” jokes the well-groomed 51-year-old, just days before he is set to resign as chief executive of Britain’s largest pet store.

‘How bad is it to work with dogs all day? It has been a wonderful, exciting and emotional journey. I have loved every second of it,” she says.

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

Things have changed since then, says Pritchard. ‘Technology and digitization play a very important role now. But there is 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 the owner’s point of view. ‘We are not born as pet owners. We all stumble and learn from the experience. Often our job is to educate homeowners. It’s probably the most important thing we do,’ he says.

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

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

Things were already getting back to normal when the pandemic hit. Unexpectedly, Pets At Home became a big lockdown winner.

Considered an essential retailer, the business flourished as people sought solace in cats and dogs from forced social isolation. As a result, the number of households with pets soared from 3.2 million to 17 million. Corrective action taken by Pritchard on price and services 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 per cent of the £6.2bn market, the business is undoubtedly facing the same post-pandemic hurdles as other retailers.

Shares, still twice as high as when Pritchard took over, have nearly halved since their peak last November amid market jitters about the consumer.

Pritchard, who will be succeeded by Sky TV’s Lyssa McGowan, admits Britain is heading into rough waters. But the chain relies on our avowed love for pets to see it through.

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

He believes structural changes like working from home are also here to stay and sees no signs of an increase in abandoned pets as pet owners become increasingly strapped for cash, facing a falling cost of living. They return to the office.

“We’re entering a really challenging economic environment, but I don’t think we’re going to see a big give-up of pets. When we ask customers where they are going to reduce, pets sit next to children, it is the last thing on the list.

One aspect of the business that is likely to make it through tough times is its veterinary practices, which he describes as “the jewel in the crown.” Having expanded rapidly through acquisitions before becoming CEO, Pritchard performed radical surgery, eliminating underperforming practices in poor locations and buying some loss-making joint ventures.

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

On Friday, the company announced a new COO for Vets4Pets, Louise Stonier, who has been with Pets At Home since 2004.

Pritchard, who earned £2.4m last year, has come a long way from his childhood in a council house in Bootle, Merseyside. One of four children, his father was a clerk while his mother worked two jobs, as a waitress and in a sausage factory, to make ends meet.

Reflecting on the cost-of-living crisis, he says: ‘I know what it’s like when you don’t have money because that’s how we grew up. What I love about my parents is that they instilled in me really good values: be a good person, work hard, live within your means.’ His first job was at the cash register at Marks & Spencer ‘with only two hours of training’.

1653194233 856 Pets At Home boss leaves with a heavy heart

Spells followed at Sainsbury’s, Iceland and Asda, where he learned from retail legends like 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 stay in step with the changing owner.’

Perhaps most surprising of all, the specialty retailer has largely stuck to a traditional bricks-and-mortar approach: Online sales still account for only about 16 percent of revenue.

He clearly has a following at City. A top fund manager told The Mail on Sunday that he has combed almost all of his other retail stocks from his portfolio for the past five years, but has held on to Pets At Home.

So why is Pritchard going? I am leaving with a very heavy heart, but now I am at that point where I want to take back control of my journal again and try to get the right balance in my life.

I really want to travel again, it has always been a passion. For the last three years, I feel to some extent like a caged animal. Like everyone else, my world has shrunk. The plan is to take a breather and reacquaint myself and my family because it’s been a pretty busy time.

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

I’m exploring a couple of things that will keep me busy. I am too, too young to retire.

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

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