Success: Peter Pritchard with a staff member’s dog called Walter
Peter Pritchard talks about Pets At Home with such enthusiasm that it’s easy to forget he’s leaving. ‘I genuinely don’t think I’ll ever do anything better than this,’ the neatly groomed 51-year-old quips, just days before he steps down as chief executive at Britain’s biggest pet store.
‘How bad is it if you’re working with dogs all day? It’s been such a wonderful, exciting, emotional journey. I’ve loved every second of it,’ he says.
The chain has become one of Britain’s retail success stories. Set up over three decades ago by entrepreneur Anthony Preston, it has grown from one shop in Chester to become the dominant force in the market with 455 stores.
Things have changed since then, Pritchard says. ‘Technology and digitalisation play a really important role now. But there’s nothing like speaking to a person, especially when something’s difficult. You need empathy and understanding.’
Pritchard says the secret of the company’s success during his tenure has been to look at the world from an owner’s point of view. ‘We’re not born as pet owners. We all stumble on through and learn from experience. Often our job is to educate owners. It’s probably the most important thing we do,’ he says.
Pritchard joined from Asda as commercial director in 2011. He was promoted to take over from his boss after a profit slide in 2018.
He decided Pets At Home had not kept up with evolving customer demands. So, he 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 dog grooming.
Things were already getting back on track when the pandemic struck. Unexpectedly, Pets At Home became a big lockdown winner.
Deemed an essential retailer, business boomed as people sought solace in cats and dogs from enforced social isolation. As a result, the number of pet-owning homes soared by 3.2million to 17million. The remedial action taken by Pritchard on price and services paid off handsomely.
Results this week are expected to show record underlying pre-tax profits of around £140million, up from £93.5million in 2021.
But with 23 per cent of the £6.2billion market, the business is undoubtedly encountering the same post-pandemic headwinds as other retailers.
The shares, still twice as high as when Pritchard took over, have almost halved from their peak last November amid market jitters about the consumer.
Pritchard, who will be replaced by Lyssa McGowan from Sky TV, admits Britain is heading for turbulent waters. But the chain is banking on our professed love of pets to ride it out.
‘The pets sector is incredibly resilient,’ he insists. ‘The number of pet owners has increased and they’re going to be with us for the next ten to 15 years.’
He thinks structural shifts such as working from home are also here to stay and he sees no sign yet of an uptick in abandoned pets as increasingly cash-strapped pet owners, facing a cost-of-living squeeze, go back to the office.
‘We’re entering a really challenging economic environment but I don’t think we’re going to see a big relinquishing of pets. When we ask customers where they’re going to cut back, pets sit on a par with children, it’s the last thing on the list.’
One aspect of the business likely to see it through tougher times is its veterinary practices, which he describes as ‘the jewel in the crown’. Having expanded rapidly via acquisition before he became CEO, Pritchard performed radical surgery, culling underperforming practices in poor locations and buying out some loss-making joint ventures.
Operating under the Vets4Pets brand, it grew by 15 to 20 per cent during the pandemic. There are now 450 vet practices, many of them in-store, manned by some of the chain’s 16,000 people.
On Friday, the company announced a new chief operating officer for Vets4Pets, Louise Stonier, who has been with Pets At Home since 2004.
Pritchard, who earned £2.4million last year, has come a long way from his childhood in a council house in Bootle, Merseyside. One of four children, his dad was a postie, while his mum held down two jobs – as a dinner lady and in 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’ve got no money because that’s how we grew up. The thing I love about my parents is they just instilled really good values – being a good person, working hard, living within your means.’ His first job was on the till at Marks & Spencer ‘with just two hours training’.
Spells at Sainsbury’s, Iceland and Asda followed, where he learned from retail legends including Allan Leighton, Archie Norman and Richard Baker before he was recruited by Pets At Home.
Pritchard likes to keep things simple. He says: ‘At the end of the day, a dog and cat need two things in life. They need food and they need love. Our role is to keep in tune with the changing owner.’
Perhaps most surprising of all, the specialist retailer has mainly stuck to a traditional bricks and mortar approach – online sales still only account for around 16 per cent of revenue.
He clearly has fans in the City. One top fund manager told The Mail on Sunday that he has combed almost all his other retail stocks from his portfolio over the past five years, but has held on to Pets At Home.
So why is Pritchard going? ‘I’m leaving with a really heavy heart but I’m at that point now where I want to regain control of my diary again and try and get the balance right in my life.
‘I’m really looking forward to travelling again, it’s always been a passion. For the last three years, I do feel to a degree like a caged animal. Like everyone else, my world has shrunk right down. The plan is to have a breather and re-acquaint myself with myself and my family because it’s been quite a busy time.’
He has been linked to a number of vacancies, including a return to Asda, where the chief executive’s post is vacant. But he rules out another big job.
‘I’m exploring a couple of things that will keep me occupied. I’m far, far too young to retire.’
But he adds: ‘If I wanted to work full-time, I would have stayed at Pets At Home.’