John Burns: Vet started dog food business with £72 and sack of brown rice and is now worth £24 m
John Burns is probably one of the richest people in Wales you’ve never heard of. This is how he went from working as a vet in Carmarthenshire to the helm of a multi-million-pound business.
The Burns Pet Nutrition logo is probably something you’ve seen but never really registered whether you have a pet or not.
Yet that simple geometric pattern belongs to a brand which has created one of the richest people in Wales you have probably never heard of.
That person is 71-year-old John Burns, a man who has created a £24 m dog food business from just £72 and a sack of brown rice.
On the day we meet he wants to be photographed with the dog. It is after all his trademark and how he made his fortune.
He introduces Gregory the second, a pure-bred collie. There was a Gregory the first but he died a few years ago.
John also wants to be pictured wearing a kilt, true to his Scottish roots. “I’ll just run to the car and get it,” he says. When he says run, he really does mean it and he literally sprints across the car park with a swiftness that belies his 70-odd years.
Left minding the dog, I strongly suspect the current Gregory won’t outlast his sprightly master and John will have to find a third.
Any self-made millionaire is likely to walk with a spring in their step but John is genuinely pretty fit and still heads to the French Alps every year to ski.
He does a park run in Llanelli every weekend too, coming in at “30 minutes-and-a-bit”. He’s pretty competitive, he admits, and gets frustrated when he is beaten by “the only other bugger” in his age group. Yet it is that competitive streak which has helped him develop Wales’ biggest pet food business, which is based in Kidwelly.
John speaks deliberately and concisely as he describes how an interest in first animal health and then human health in the 1970’s translated into a multi-million-pound niche dog food business.
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Originally from the west coast of Scotland just south of Glasgow, John arrived in Carmarthenshire in 1971 after qualifying as a vet. His first job at a practice in Whitland was the first he was offered. He thought he’d stay for just a year but 49 years later he is still in the county and calls Ferryside home.
“I can remember the very first caesarean I ever performed on a cow was by torchlight in the middle of the night,” he says, stood in the Tarmacked car park outside the Burns Nutrition offices in Kidwelly.
As a young vet in the 1970’s John could have been described as “alternative”. Even then he was eating brown rice for breakfast, long before it was being served up in hipster cafes in 2020.
“It was mainly large animals at Whitland but when I got back to the surgery in the afternoon the receptionist would say Mrs so-and-so wants to bring her dog down so we’d see the odd pet,” he explains. “But even at that stage I was seeing health problems in pets like itchy skin or ear problems.”
In those days antibiotics or drugs were seen as the answer but John used to say to his clients: “This isn’t really curing the problem, we don’t really know what’s causing it.” When the drugs finished the problem would come back again.
“I thought: ‘Well that’s not what veterinary science ought to be’, not for me anyhow,” John continues. “I read an article about acupuncture and thought that looked promising at solving recurring health problems.”
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His interest was piqued, so much so that he left Whitland in 1976 and enrolled in a course on human acupuncture while working as a locum vet, which in turn led to interest in alternative medicine and nutrition. If it worked for humans then it would surely work for dogs, John reasoned.
“Basically the traditional way of eating for humans had been abandoned by the modern world and had become high in meat and animal products with hardly any cereal grains or vegetables,” he explains.
“Part of the thinking was that many health problems had been caused by abandoning our traditional way of eating – things like cancer, diabetes and obesity.
“Rather like humans, obesity in pets is the most common issue affecting health.”
He moved back to Llanelli and started telling clients in his practice that while he would treat their animal with drugs they needed to stop feeding their pet conventional pet food and start it on a wholemeal diet of brown rice, vegetables, and meat in equal portions.
The difficult part, however, was convincing people that his approach was the right way to go. After a few years of trying to get his message across he realised the only way was to make the pet food himself.
He already sold packs of brown rice in his surgery. “It was a job to get hold of quality brown rice back then,” he said. “It’s not like now, although even today it’s hard finding high-quality brown rice in west Wales.”
Still it took another decade for John to work out how to manufacture the ideal pet food in a commercial way. Armed with his perfect formula, he criss-crossed the country looking for a manufacturer who would make the food for him. In 1993 he eventually found one in Llandovery.
“The incubation period of my business was not far off 20 years,” he chuckles. “I wish I’d done it earlier, perhaps, but it might not have been right back in the 70’s. People might not have been ready for it.”
The young John had no doubts about his enterprise: “I thought this was going to be big news, a vet making his own pet food,” he says.
With the benefit of hindsight John is more realistic about his early endeavours. He spent just £72 on a box of plastic sacks and wasn’t fussed on colour.
“I didn’t have proper packaging – it just came in a plain polythene bag and I designed the leaflet and a label to go on that polythene bag,” he said. “So you can imagine what that looked like. It was a very unappealing appearance.”
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The wholesalers told him no-one would buy it and he was advised to develop his local contacts instead. “It was the best piece of advice I ever received,” adds John.
He changed his ambitions and instead of rolling it out nationally he loaded up his car and went round to the local vets and pet shops.
From Neath to Pembroke Dock, the response was positive despite the makeshift bags. “Before I knew it I had a one-man business which was doing okay,” says John.
By now he had sold his vet practice and moved in to a bungalow in Kidwelly with his wife and their two young children.
“I had to make a go of it,” John says. “You can’t concentrate on one business while you’re doing another. I decided to concentrate full-time on the pet food business.
“Five or six months after I started up I can remember thinking: ‘You know, it’s just me, I’m working from home, I’m delivering food out of my car, I’m not employing anybody, I’m making a living and I don’t get called out at night; I’m doing all right here’. I was making a living quite easily compared to working at a vet practice.”
The young family used to sit around the TV putting cupfuls of food in bags and sticking labels on. “I got the children on to it and they would earn some extra pocket money by sticking labels on bags,” says John. “They got three pence for every sample they filled.
“We had a garage outside and when a delivery came in everyone had to come out and help carry the bags into the garage and stack it up there. It was more of a family business in those days.”
From the initial two tonnes of dog food in 1993 production soon expanded to 20 tonnes and today around 1,000 tonnes are produced every week. The turning point was a two-page spread in the Dogs Today magazine, which kicked the business out of West Wales and into the national realm.
It took a year before John hired any extra help. Now he employs 110 people, including two vets in Ireland, and the dog food is exported internationally. Burns Pet Nutrition is worth £24 m today.
Despite the millions Burns Pet Food has less than 2% of the UK dog food market. But luckily for John the pet food market is vast and there is money to be made.
“Somebody said to me this could be a monster but I didn’t really
believe them,” he said. “If you’d said this could be a £20m business I would never have thought that could be conceivable. It’s only because I’ve grown with it that I’ve adapted and become used to that.
“I can remember in the early days working from home one day, a Sunday, I got my bank statement out and I looked through it and I totted how much money had been paid into my account in the month. It was something like £30,000 and I thought: ‘Bloody hell, I’m rich’.
“And then I got my cheque book out and started looking through that and realised I had written cheques totalling more than £30,000 that month so that was a sobering thought.
“It’s a huge amount of money being turned over and it’s just something I grew into really as the business grew.”
Over time he has reluctantly learned to delegate and says he doesn’t do much of the heavy lifting any more. “I do the thinking but the main running of the business is by other people,” he says. He talks like a businessman rather than a vet and it is clear that his success is down to shrewd and calculated decisions along the way, however much he tries to gloss over them.
“Early on I decided I wanted to keep this as a privately-owned company based in west Wales and owned in west Wales,” he explains. “And I make that decision every three weeks because I get approached all the time to sell up or to put the company on the market. But I want it to remain a private business and in the family.”
He has five children and nine grandchildren. His family will continue to own the business even if they don’t become actively involved. But John has no thoughts of retiring just yet.
“It’s a way of life as much as anything, it’s not just a job,” he adds. Today, it’s the Burns Pet Nutrition Foundation which takes up as much of his thinking space as the business. Set up in 2007, it is basically a way of channelling money from the company and into the community, he says.
But equally it is another example of a sound business decision. “My hope is that Burns Pet Nutrition’s investment in community activities will raise the company’s profile and recognition through useful work rather than using conventional advertising and PR,” he explains.
Not that he doesn’t find the charitable arm of the business rewarding. “I’m in a position to be able to do that and use money I’ve made from the company for charitable activities I’ve set up,” he continues. “I find that very gratifying and satisfying to be able to do that.”
As part of that John started the Parc y Bocs Farm Shop on the outskirts of Kidwelly. What started out as a roadside honesty box to sell surplus eggs from the farm has flourished into an impressive farm shop, pet food outlet, and a major community project.
John started selling eggs at the end of the lane after buying several hundred hens to lay eggs to go into his dog food. But the factory wasn’t ready and he had to find a way to get rid of the excess eggs. After setting up a little stall he soon found he was selling 1,500 eggs every week and then someone started stealing the proceeds.
Today the swanky farm shop building also boasts a market garden and playground. The site is used for the company’s Better Tomorrow scheme where those who are disadvantaged or have learning difficulties can visit and undertake supervised projects. There’s even a minibus which goes around collecting isolated people in the community and brings them together at the farm shop cafe.
Stood in the car park under a deep blue summer sky John couldn’t be further away from his early days as an eager vet, delivering calves by torchlight.
But decades later the lessons he learned in 1971 are as applicable
“People do love to spoil their pets by giving them treats and too much food,” he says.
“The biggest problem I see today is people overfeeding their pets. People want to indulge them, spoil them – that’s human nature of having a pet. Many people give their pets too much food and not enough time. A real treat would be an extra walk.”
Although buying a bag of Burns Pet Nutrition probably won’t hurt them either.
(Article source: Wales Online)