PEOPLE: How Anneke embarked on addressing the multi-billion dollar pet care market

Anneke van den Broek skyrocketed to the top of the corporate ladder in the retail industry by the age of 30, but everything abruptly changed when she was unexpectedly made redundant from her role as General Manager of a major clothing retailer.

This is when Anneke embarked on turning her passion for pets into a business, and addressed the growing pet care market, which is generating almost $4 billion a year in Australia and is set to reach $39 billion in China by 2024.

In this interview, Anneke shares her story of starting and growing Rufus & Coco, scaling it internationally, and the lessons she’s learned along the way.

  • What sparked the idea for Rufus & Coco?

Since I was very little I always dreamed of starting my own business, but like most people I first hit the workforce with a bang – working my way through many of Australia’s leading businesses, including Carla Zampatti, David Jones, Blackmores, Bonds, where I managed marketing and product teams and learned to create and shape brands. I worked hard and succeeded in reaching director roles by the time I was 30.

But then, during my time as General Manager at Sportscraft I was suddenly made redundant. Though at the time this was incredibly hard, I also recognised this to be the perfect opportunity and used this time to make the dream of starting my own business a reality.

Whilst on a holiday in Bali, I wrote down a series of business ideas, but the one that stood out to me and the one I felt most passionate about was the idea of a pet care brand. I had a dream of improving humanity, one pet at a time. After all I’d owned over 30 pets in my lifetime at this point!

When I got home, I stuck up a big sign on my home office door ‘World Head Quarters’ and got to work. It wasn’t until later on that the name itself ‘Rufus & Coco’ emerged.

  • At what point did you know your efforts had gone beyond a passion project, and this was now your full-time job?

Once I started on Rufus & Coco I was in it full-time. However this was not without some adversity as it was also around this time that I gave birth to my first child and so I found myself caring for a newborn whilst working on my brand new business!

  • What were your biggest business challenges when growing Rufus & Coco in the early days? How did you overcome them?

We experienced many challenges in those early days. We were up against “Goliaths’ already existing in the industry and after nearly three years of trying to be David and win the day, even I began to doubt myself.

One of my earliest struggles was getting the range into Woolworths. The first time I presented the range to a Woolworths buyer he said there was no way anyone would buy my products; the price was too high, and it just wasn’t right for grocery. I kept coming back, I tried different tactics, but each time they came back with a different excuse. Meanwhile my husband at the time told me that if I didn’t start turning a profit soon, I would need to give up and return to my day job. So, it really felt like my dream was slipping through my fingers and that time was running out.

However, persistence and perseverance are the key, because not so long after I attended the Interzoo Trade Fair in Germany, and as fate would have it a new buyer for Woolworths happened to visit my stand. After showing her the range, I said to her “isn’t it ironic that I can sell into other countries before retailers in our homeland can understand the opportunity in the category”. She told me to come see her as soon as I got home and that same year, we landed 23 products onto 900 supermarket shelves.

  • What have been the biggest challenges when scaling the business internationally? How did you overcome them?

It’s a huge undertaking, as you might imagine. Each market is different, and even when we launched in America, which of course is also English speaking, we had to made significant changes to marketing copy, packaging or product offering to meet both the consumer needs and the legal requirements of that market. For example, in Australia it is OK to flush kitty litter down the toilet with “flushable” used as a key promotional benefit across promotional activities, however in California this goes against state law and so adjustments to copy were made to accommodate.

Due to time differences, you must be prepared for early morning or late-night conference calls and running online training sessions with retailers to help educate them and support your products sell in. As we grew we invested in hiring sales agents who could go door to door educating the stores and representing our brand to ensure the staff on the floor were confident in selling our brand and that it might remain top of mind amongst their recommendations. Getting the trade marketing right in store first has always been a key element in our strategy to success.

It is also crucial to not forget Intellectual Property factors and ensure you have secured your logos, names and icon trademark registrations in those key markets, as well as your own. This can be a very expensive endeavour however so do your research into what Government support may be offered. For example, there are a few Government Grants such as the EMDG (Export Market Development Grant) that you may be eligible for which can help to support your business in this space.

5. Have you ever been tempted to start another business? Why or why not?

Throughout my career I was always thinking up new business ideas, and certainly nothing has changed to this day! However I have to constantly remind myself that I am just one person and I have learned to channel that energy into what I care about the most, which is the welfare of pets and animals. I am hugely passionate about our Rufus & Coco brand and have a dream to see it succeed globally, and to see the brand grow to a point where we can give back even more greatly to causes like the Australian Pet Welfare Foundation and use our success to really make a difference.

Amongst those ideas I jotted down on that napkin in Bali all those years ago was also providing a service offering, and in 2019 off the back of the Rufus & Coco brand we opened The Fur Salon, a premiere pet grooming salon for cats and dogs based in Mosman.

About the expert

Pet advocate and founder and CEO of Australia’s most awarded pet care brand, Rufus & Coco, Anneke Van den Broek has built a highly successful, global brand that supports pet owners and gives back to animal charities and not-for-profits. 

Growing up, Anneke always knew she wanted to have a positive impact in the world. Her Dutch father taught her from a very young age that she ‘could do anything if she tried,’ and that she did. An early entrepreneur, at eight years old she was breeding and selling mice to her local pet store for 40c each. 

A successful career in marketing and management followed and at 23, she was single-handedly running 300 David Jones fashion shows across Australia each year. She went on to become the Marketing Director for Blackmores and held senior positions at Apparel Group and Bonds. During these years in corporate, she went back to study to complete an MBA, knowing that ultimately, she wanted to start her own business.

In 2008, pregnant with her first child, she launched Rufus & Coco, a ‘best of breed’ pet care brand offering fashionable, affordable, natural and quality pet care products unlike anything that was available at the time.

With great passion and persistence, she has taken Rufus & Coco from a startup to the largest privately-owned pet business in the pet accessories category selling into grocery in Australia. Now celebrating their 12th anniversary, Rufus & Coco are Australia’s most awarded pet care brand, receiving seven business awards for innovation.

Anneke has been recognised as one of Australia’s 50 most influential women entrepreneurs by Rare Birds, is the recipient of the 2012 Anita Prabhu Women in Business Award, was inducted into the Business Woman’s Hall of Fame in 2016 and was most recent announced as the 2020 NSW Business Woman of the Year. Running a ‘Women of EO’ (The Sydney faction of the global Entrepreneur’s Organisation) forum, she mentors high growth startups, helping them to build multi-million-dollar businesses.