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Going to the Dogs

With $50 billion spent on pets, three Wilton companies are making money and helping others.



Douglas Foulke

Last year Americans spent more than $50 billion—billion—on their pets. That’s a lot of kibble, leashes, and toys. A notable wedge of that financial pie is connected to three pet companies—Blue Buffalo, Doggone Smart/Nano Pet, and the up-and-coming Clear Conscience Pets—all with strong ties to the Wilton community.

In 12 short years, Blue Buffalo, located in Wilton Center, has grown to become a popular national brand. The genesis of the company was surprisingly simple. Bill Bishop, a Wilton resident and one of the founders of SoBe beverages, had just inked a deal to sell SoBe to Pepsi. He was 65, financially flush, and ready to retire.

While celebrating with his sons (who were also his co-workers) at the Black Goose Grill in Darien, Bill Bishop learned retirement wasn’t in the cards. Chris and Billy told their father they wanted to keep working with him. Why? “Because it’s fun and my dad is a very empowering person,” says Chris Bishop.

But what kind of business venture could they start? At the time, Bill and his wife Jackie had been researching nutritional cures with a holistic vet to help heal their Airedale, Blue, who was suffering with cancer. Recognizing an opening in the marketplace for a natural, nutritionally balanced product, Bill Bishop suggested creating a dog food company, and Blue Buffalo was born.

Bishop Sr. is a savvy marketer who believes that the company’s “Buff culture” embraces a healthy life/work balance. “Your kid only sings for the first time once,” he says with a smile. “You should be there.” Their offices are sprawling but maintain a casual vibe. Visiting dogs wag their tails as you pass by, the CEO wears jeans, and a “no BS policy” is in force.

Bill Bishop attributes the company’s success to the fact that they understand their consumer. “They’re normal people with normal lives, and that’s how we market to them. Our slogan is ‘Love them like family. Feed them like family.”’

In 2003 the company established the Blue Buffalo Foundation for Cancer Research, which has made huge strides in gaining a better understanding of dog and cat cancers. “And much of the research is transferable to helping humans,” he says with obvious pride.

On first blush, Chris Onthank, an affable, pleasantly rumpled art grad who does fine carpentry and breeds rare waterfowl, doesn’t appear to be a typical CEO. But when one learns more about his innate connection to animals and his passion for great design, it becomes obvious why he’s become a successful entrepreneur. His brainchild, Nano-Pet Technology, is a globally successful pet-product company responsible for creating the DogGone Smart pet line. Their signature product is a pet bed constructed with patented, non-toxic nano-technology woven directly into the fabric. The result is an environmentally safe pet bed that magically repels all liquids, filth and anything stinky. “We’re a solution-based company,” says Onthank. “We focus on solving the problems all pet owners face: how to deal with dirt, mud, and odor.”

Now in their eighth year of business, the company employs over 1,000 people worldwide and their product line is carried in pet stores internationally.

When developing new pet lines, product testing is a breeze. “All we have to do is go downstairs to the Canine Center, where at least 60 pet volunteers stand at the ready,” says Onthank. The pet center offers doggy daycare, agility, behavioral, and puppy training, and canine swimming lessons. Chris, who goes by the nom-de-guerre The Canine Master, is also an expert dog-trainer and makes sure to do at least one hands-on training session a day. “Working with dogs centers me.”

Onthank grew up above a kennel run by his grandmother where she raised Dachshunds and Dobermans. As a child, he helped Betty Ambler with the animals at Ambler Farm. Today, along with his family, he lives with a rescue dog, four active beehives and a menagerie of birds on a five-acre spread in Wilton.

Anthony and Amanda Bennie live just down the road from the Onthanks. Four years ago Anthony, a marketer, writer, dog lover, and “sales guy” in the pet food industry, asked himself the question:  “How do you reinvent the dog biscuit?”  After some trial and error, he came up with a quality product, and then he and his wife both left secure jobs and launched Clear Conscience Pets, a company that specializes in organically sourced, healthy dog treats.

Their trademark Sliders have ingredients that sound so appetizing they wouldn’t be out of place on a restaurant menu: chicken or beef tenders, organic flax seed, cheddar cheese, and vegetables. Anthony Bennie vouches for the superior taste and health benefits by eating them himself on a YouTube video. While experimenting, the duo also invented Super Gravy, “a powder that, when mixed with water, “becomes an au jus gravy so your dog can experience Thanksgiving all year round.”

“We won’t compromise on quality,” says Anthony firmly. “That made it harder initially,” adds Amanda. “But people are beginning to understand and appreciate what we do.”  The company has been expanding and they recently won their ninth national award for Best Treat of the Year from the Dogington Post. Will Clear Conscience grow to become a strong national brand like Blue Buffalo and DogGone Smart? Only time, hard work, and discerning dog palates will tell.

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