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A Digital Transformation Journey

Digitizing B2B: The B2B eCommerce Podcast

EPISODE 2

A Digital Transformation Journey with Angela Spears

Full Transcript

Jary Carter: Hello and welcome to the podcast Digitizing B2B, with Jary Carter. I’m here today with Angela Spears, Senior Vice President of Digital Strategy and Marketing for Animal Supply. Welcome Angela. Thanks for being here.

Angela Spears: Good morning, Jary. Happy to be here!

Jary Carter: Right. Thank you. Well, I want to jump right in. I know your time is super valuable, so we’re going to just jump right in. I want you to tell our audience a little bit about Animal Supply, as a business. And then, after that, I want to back in to how you got there. But I’d love to hear just a little bit about Animal Supply as we get started.

Angela Spears: Yeah. So, Animal Supply Company is based in Irving, Texas. We have about 1,400 employees across the country. Animal Supply is a wholesaler/distributor of natural and organic pet food and supplies. So, a fantastic industry in pets and really focused on serving the independent pet retailer. So, the independent pet retailers are those local mom and pop shops, maybe around the corner from where you live, that know your pet, that really take to heart and specialize in those top tier, innovative products. Think Whole Foods, a few years ago, coming on to the scene. That’s the space that we deal with in pet. It’s those kinds of foods that you would feed your own family. And so, just a fascinating time to be in the industry and we sit right in the middle of that whole value chain. So, we partner with over 460 different brands in pet food and supplies. And we sell those to about 12,000 customers across the US.

Jary Carter: Okay. Great. Yeah, thanks for that overview. I like the Whole Foods analogy and feeding a member of your family. I think that trend is really starting to grow in pet food, specifically. So, this gives us a good sense for Animal Supply, and where you fit in the market and what the business model is. I want to back up and just talk about your experience a little bit. How did you arrive to lead Digital and Marketing at Animal Supply? What’s your background, specifically?

Angela Spears: Well, in the simplest terms, I would say it was because of a dog named Monte. I’ll get into the skill set in a sec. But my journey, and my jump, from where I came from into Animal Supply was really based in a passion point. I had one of those, this very special dog, kind of once in a lifetime dogs. And if you have had one of these in your life, then you know what I’m talking about. And I had 12 great years with him. He had passed away, and I was two years post that experience, and looking for the new pup. And I had just been down in Austin, Texas, looking at these little puppies.

Angela Spears: And then, on that Monday morning following that, I was having lunch with a friend and I was showing him these pictures of these pups. I was so excited and giddy- who doesn’t want puppies? And later on in the conversation, we were talking about career, and what’s next for me. And it was just one of those A-ha moments where he said, “You know, I just met this CEO who’s new to a company in the pet industry and he has these great ideas and you should talk to him.

Angela Spears: And that really was the genesis of conversations with Don McIntyre, who is our CEO and a brilliant man and even better human being- and we connected. He shared his list of ideas that he was thinking about for a company and I loved it. I was hooked, in terms of coming to be his co-pilot, so to speak. And in this environment that was kind of special, emotionally, for me, from a passion point. But also, in this natural and organic space, which was a secondary passion point. And then, it was this industry that was way behind, in terms of technology. And so, what I saw was just this great blank canvas, to come in and create and build and replicate some of the experience that I had done at my former company, over the last several years, in terms of establishing product innovation and sending out new business models. So, it was just a great fit, overall, for me.

Jary Carter: Yeah. It’s really interesting. I’ve never heard that story from you. I didn’t realize that that was how you got your start at Animal Supply. But it makes sense, in terms of this feeling of passion that I really get from everybody that we interact with at Animal Supply. So that really makes a lot more sense and a lot of sense to me. Really fascinating.

Jary Carter: So, I want to talk a little bit … ‘Cause this podcast really centers around how people are doing digital transformation. As we’re launching this podcast, I really thought about you and the Animal Supply team because you’ve really been through a really interesting digital transformation journey over the past 18 months. I think it’s a story that we feel, and we see, in the market that a lot of people are really trying to figure out and you probably feel like you’ve skinned your knees as much as you’ve succeeded. But I think if you look at it at the whole, you’ve had a ton of success with this digital transformation journey. So, can you give some insight into that journey that you’ve been in, and gone through, over the past couple of years? 18 months, specifically? I think this would be really interesting for folks to hear about. And maybe even where you started. Because as I understand it, there have been just really tectonic shifts in your business over that last couple of years. I’d love to unpack that a little bit.

Angela Spears: Yeah. So, when I came in, one of those first conversations with Don, he asked the question multiple times, “Are you sure you want to come to the Dark Ages?” And that’s really what it felt like to me coming over.

Jary Carter: (Laughter) You can’t say he was really putting a lot in the recruiting brochure, there.

Angela Spears: (Laughter) No… I also don’t think he wanted me to get in, and be like, “What’s going on here?” But again, that was all on the upside, in terms of the way you look at the opportunity. And so, when I came in, their small line to the organization, here. No real investment in that over the previous years. There was really no, even, diagram, in terms of what the organization has, from a systematic standpoint. So, we really started at ground zero, in terms of assessing, what do we have here? Who’s managing that? And it was all over. That was like putting these bizarre pieces of the puzzle together.

Angela Spears: Then externally, we started with the market research to get insights from our customers and brand partners, on what it was like to do business with us. Where they saw the pain points. But it’s really important because ultimately, as we’ve gone through our journey, we are very much rooted into what that list of pain points is, and work fiercely in trying to overcome those. But when we started out- I’ll tell you a quick, funny story. My objectives that were written for me … Now, please remember that Don has a big vision, and a lot of ideas, but the objectives, the targets that were given to me were, create e-learning courses and build a company in intranet.

Angela Spears: So, I just put that over to the side… and when-

Jary Carter: So, e-learning, and and intranet were your two objectives? In terms of technology?

Angela Spears: When I first came in. Yeah.

Jary Carter: Amazing. Wow.

Angela Spears: And so, humbly, just put that aside. And six months later, we had re-designed our website. We had done the market research. And we had selected a new eCommerce platform, which was OroCommerce. So, we started quickly … And I don’t think we’ve ever let off the gas since. But to give listeners just a perspective into those Dark Ages. We had five ERP systems across Animal Supply. And the reason for that was Animal Supply had grown largely through M&A activity. 18 acquisitions in 11 years. So, not only did you have antiquated systems, but you had a lot of them.

Angela Spears: So, there were actually four different eCommerce platforms serving our customers in different regions of the country and each one of those had varying degrees of limitations and capabilities. And certainly a different type of experience for our customers. So, it was obvious that in order to make inroads in creating a good customer experience, we needed a national platform that everyone was on so we could start building from there what our ultimate vision was, in terms of the way we wanted to connect, and serve our customers. So, when I started, there was no digital team. I would say there was very limited buying in at a senior executive level. There was no budget, no team. I think for a long time, when I was walking around the office, people didn’t know why I was hired. Or what I was here to do. And questioning, “What does digital mean? And who is this crazy person?”

Jary Carter: So, no budget. No team. No sense for what direction. This is a bleak picture. And actually, it’s interesting that you say this. Because I think a lot of companies are finding themselves in this spot. And I actually think a lot of people are coming into organizations in a digital leadership role, finding exactly this. This is not uncommon. And I think this is a really interesting success story that I’m excited to hear unfold.

Angela Spears: Yeah. So, you just start taking steps and for us, the market research was really important. Because it gave you some of that ammo, in terms of concrete data points. As you start trying to earn management buy-in and folks to join you on this drive, you can point to that. I think you really try to align on … You know, we all want to create this great customer experience. We all want our revenue numbers to grow. And so, how do you do that? And technology, and the digital arena, really allow new ways to not just come up to speed. But to start to leap ahead and really slingshot. So, that’s where we started. And the key things we started with …

Angela Spears: I will tell you, the technology piece is the easier part. And Don used to say that jokingly, just to nudge me out of the bed and mess with me. But the really hard part of the transformation is winning the hearts and minds. Is getting the investment dollars. And we started kind of flow with that. We’re in an industry that- we’ve joked about the Dark Ages- but very reluctant to change. And in an industry where it’s a lot of relationship and partnership- and that’s a beautiful thing- but the downside of that is that it’s digital’s a foreign topic.

Angela Spears: And so, what we started doing in the very early days, was myself just joining our board meetings and having dinner with folks across the industry and just talking about digital, and opportunity. We were very fortunate to witness accord of our private equity owners and our board of directors, which were all owners of the previous acquisition companies that make up Animal Supply. We just built on that. And then, I would say in terms of an internal leadership perspective, it was almost one by one in the beginning. Then, slowly you feel the inertia coming. But there’s getting the short, quick wins is a big deal.

Jary Carter: Now, it’s interesting that you talk about getting by, and around this. And really, it sounds like you were doing a lot of internal selling, with customer data as the sales tools that you had, is really knowing your stuff around what customers wanted. And then, really articulating that customer experience, or the desired customer experience, throughout the leadership team in getting that moving. Now, I want to talk about once you had leadership on board, was it hard to organize the right team? Because you have a really exceptional team that you’re working with right now. I see a lot of people really struggle with this, sort of getting the right people in the organization to really help them with this journey. How did you do that? Was that a struggle? And once you had the investment dollars, how did you assemble the team? I guess is my question.

Angela Spears: So, I would say the philosophy, and the team, and the how we were gonna do this, we ground it in very early in formulating that road map. I will say within 90 days, we had a two-year road map. And we have held so true to that road map. And one of the underlying principles of that was that in order to get expertise, and speed, we were going to operate with a small, but mighty, team internally, and then, align ourselves with external partners that could really be running on the side of the organization. So that the way it’s designed is the company still focuses on the core business. Then, off to the side almost, you’re building these product dev teams that are focused on the future and the innovation pieces and that’s coming along at an accelerated rate. And at some point, you’ve got to start making that merging into the organization.

Angela Spears: And that’s a very delicate timing. And how you know when that is. Now, I’ll come back to that in a little bit. So, our internal team, since there was no real digital presence here, we knew it was gonna be hard to attract the kind of talent we needed, to accomplish what that vision was. So, we were fortunate to start with one … I will tell you it was about eight months before I had my second employee. And we brought him on right after we made our eCommerce selection. And six months later, we were in market with our first pilot of OroCommerce. And then, 12 months later, we were fully deployed across the nation.

Angela Spears: So, after that one employee, we built up to 11 folks. Which depending on who you talk to, some will say that’s a lot. And some will say, “Oh man. How do you get all that done?” But having the right external partners was such the golden key for us. And they spent a lot of effort in the early days, of identifying those partners. And vetting them. And really aligning, not just from what their portfolio was, in terms of business cases they had done. It was more about how they culturally align. Were they going to be strategic partners? Because outside of Don and I, no one else really had that kind of experience inside Animal Supply.

Angela Spears: And so, I really think of these partners as vision allies. And we’ve assembled these external folks that share in this passion, to pioneer, and innovate, and work together. And I’m so grateful for that because we do have about five different groups of external partners, doing different piece parts of our design. And they all work so well together. And I think that’s how we’ve been able to accomplish so much in the short amount of time.

Jary Carter: It’s interesting you say that. Because I agree with you. I think trying to hire an internal team for the massive hill that you were trying to climb, you’d still be hiring that internal team. So, I think partnering allowed you to get to market so much faster. And I think it’s a compliment to the Animal Supply organization, you all have done a great job at sort of bring … And I’ve been in a few of these meetings where you’ve been with some of your key partners. And it’s really clear that you really do treat the companies, and I think this is just a good model for the industry, generally. But I think you really do treat the companies that you work with like partners. And part of your organization. And you really spend careful consideration and time, really articulating your vision. And getting them on board. And excited about what you’re doing. And I actually think that’s been one of the keys to how quickly your team’s been able to get to market. And how you’ve been able to do it so cohesively, across several different groups.

Jary Carter: I want to … We talk to, and I know you do, too. We talk to so many people, and companies, of your size, larger companies, smaller companies, that either don’t have an eCommerce presence. Or have a very nascent, or uninvested, interest in eCommerce. Maybe it’s there, but they’re really not curating the experience. You didn’t have a B2B presence before the last 18 months. This has really been something that you’ve launched recently. A lot of companies are on the fence about whether or not they should invest in this. What would be your advice to these folks? And I guess, what I’m really driving at, is what have been the results that you’ve seen? And what would be your advice to these people that are on the fence about this?

Angela Spears: I would say, consider how your business is going to compete in the next three to five years. And consider what that looks like with digital capabilities, and without. And compare those scenes in your head. Where do you want to be? And I think it probably pops out pretty clearly that you know that it’s a sunnier picture on the one side. I think what scares people, and really, the term scare, literally is just that It just seems so overwhelming to get there, based on where you are. And that’s okay. I just think you need to start somewhere. And it can be a small thing.

Angela Spears: I mentioned earlier about getting some small wins. For us, the first small thing I did, from a technology standpoint- I mentioned that we had these five different ERP’s and four different eCommerce platforms. Not only did they all function differently but they all looked differently. They were branded those old company names. I mean, it was so disjointed, and a horrible kind of picture. So the first thing we did, was just re-design that website. So, it was one cohesive, at least external marketing, website. And that created just some easy energy and excitement in the organization. And then, we just kept going from there.

Angela Spears: So, I just think you’ve got to think about what those two scenarios look like in your head. Plan on where you want to be. And take an initial step.

Jary Carter: Yeah. I think looking ahead three to five years, with either you have a digital presence, or you don’t. I think the competitive landscape looks exactly like what you said, a lot sunnier with an investment in digital. And I also really like what you said about creating the wins along the way. And the incremental wins. I think that the thing that we see in companies that are really getting the investment dollars is, they’re actually showing the incremental progress. And getting excitement around the things that they’re completing and the tasks that they’re completing and the work that they’re launching. So it’s a really interesting point.

Jary Carter: I know we’re coming up on our time. Are there any words of advice that you would give to someone else, maybe earlier in the journey than you, at this point. What did we miss in the conversation here, today, that you really feel like needs to be talked about with this kind of audience?

Angela Spears: I don’t think we talked about vision much. Although, we might have hummed around it a little bit. We are so convicted in the vision that we have. And it is shared with whoever we’re talking to. Whether that’s internal employees, or our technology partners, or our customers, or brand partners. We spend so much time re-enforcing and communicating, on that. And it’s just staying kind of hard and fast to that. And I think that makes it different when, again, digital is foreign. It can be scary and misunderstood. To create that vision, and start allowing it to breathe, and come to life over time. You just gotta have that. Otherwise, I think you just get lost along the way.

Angela Spears: In terms of answering your direct question on final words of advice …

Jary Carter: Well, can I back up on that? ‘Cause I really, I want to hear the advice. But I want to talk about vision. How did you formulate that? Were you anchoring in the company tenets, and the company value system? Did you really create something completely outside of that? How did you … ‘Cause I think this is something that you’ve done really, really well. And I think it’s something that isn’t universally done well. So, maybe just walk us through a little bit of that vision creation, from your side.

Angela Spears: So, I think it’s just orientation around present and future. So, there were a lot of pain points that we needed to address to run our core business better. And just the easy one to point to on that, in terms of a digital product offering, was a new B2B eCommerce piece. But then, it’s like that’s bare bones. That’s how you get just up to where you really should be. And so, it’s like, how do we build something so much grander than that? And we knew we wanted to do mobile off the bat, for example. So, we were looking to get up to par within spring.

Angela Spears: And I think, more so, because I came from such a drastic, different environment in my previous life, I knew the company needed a strong focus, in terms of the way it was gonna build business models for a future revenue generation. And no one was really thinking about those things. So one of the greatest things I think you can do, in terms of your vision and creation, is linking the transformation to the DNA of the company. And so, in our case, Animal Supply is, at its core, this logistics company. And so, I started thinking about what technology that could be paired with that to create new revenue paths.

Angela Spears: And so, for us, I’ll just give you a quick example. Because of what was going on in the market, in direct to consumer, we have these independent pet retailers. And the great brands we work with all starting to play around with selling direct to consumer online. And so, what we started building out were kind of back end technology integration pieces into our logistics business, where we could do fulfillment and shipping for our partners in our value chain that were wanting to go direct to consumer.

Angela Spears: So, linking into that DNA, well, people knew logistics in the business. And it’s like, okay, we’re just gonna add these things called API’s and some of this smart routing. And now, we’re able to serve our customers and brands in ways that they really have a market need and they don’t know how to do it. We get to come in, and be that great partner. So, if you can do that, I think that’s one of the strong pins to this. The other piece, you were starting to hit on, Jary, and that is just anchoring digital into customer value and that goes back to knowing your customer. That market research we did in the beginning, where I came away with, “oh, boy. We have a lot of pain points. We need to get after this.”

Angela Spears: So, I think it’s minding your precedent. Addressing some of those things that you just have to take care of. And then, looking forward in the future, of how your business is going to meet the needs of your stakeholders and how do you start creating that value today, so that you can reap those benefits three to five years from now.

Jary Carter: Yeah. Yeah. I really like that. It seems like it’s really taking … Gleaning from the value system that already exists within the company. Gleaning from really, the value that you want to provide to you customers and the customer experience that you want to provide and really meshing those into a vision. And then, an actionable road map, like exactly what you said, this rating an app, getting the B2B eCommerce site launched. All of these sort of things that you feel like, actually, deliver on the vision that you create. Which is where the blend of strategy creation, and then execution, on that really come together.

Jary Carter: I want to give you … oh, go ahead.

Angela Spears: Oh, I was just gonna say, mobile is a good example. Where I want to say, I think the partnership we talk about with our, you know, that we’ve been talking about with our technology partners, about these different groups of people who want to pioneer, and innovate, with our- I think that’s where we’ve enabled growth in their own product road map. In their own portfolio, as offerings. Because we have a partner based here, in Dallas, called Bottle Rocket, that’s a mobile app shop, and their portfolio is impressive: Starwood, Chick-fil-A, Coca-Cola, you can go down the list.

Angela Spears: But those were all consumer based mobile app solutions that they had created. And so, here comes this distributor/wholesaler, that says, “We want a B2B app.” And it really challenged their team to think differently. To use the expertise they had learned over the years. But to go about it a bit different. Because a B2B space is a bit different. And then, similarly, Oro, our eCommerce partner, very young in terms of their product, had not yet built out their mobile API until we partnered directly with them to move that up in their road map, to meet the timelines that we were trying to go after and that was great. And what it did for our partners was, Oro benefits from getting that mobile API piece built way earlier than they thought. And then, Bottle Rocket, tapping into this other B2B space. Which, when you look at the data points, B2B growth over the next five years is very compelling. Even in comparison to direct to consumer.

Angela Spears: So, I think these piece parts, and these partnerships, really see the advantages in terms of doing this kind of work together.

Jary Carter: Yeah. I totally agree. Obviously, I’m a founder at Oro. So totally agree with the fact that this really turned into a symbiotic relationship for all of us. And it’s interesting, we could probably do another 30-45 minute session just on mobile for B2B eCommerce. I think there’s a lot of interest in the app that Animal Supply has built. The thought leadership you’ve put around this. So, maybe we…

Angela Spears: We should totally do that!

Jary Carter: We should do a follow-up! We really should. ‘Cause it’s super interesting. I guess, I want to go back to where I cut you off. Which was what are the … Any final pieces of advice that we missed today, outside of talking about vision, which I think you unpacked really well. Any other last pieces of advice that you would give our audience today?

Angela Spears: Sure. Outside of vision, I think you’ve got to have the passion, and the execution to really do a transformation. So, if you lack any of those, build the team, or partners that possess it. And then, empower the heck out of them. The other piece I would say, is don’t let setbacks, or non-believers, knock you down. And you started off our conversation with, “Hey, you’ve probably got some scrapes.” I’ve got scrapes, bruises …

Jary Carter: (Laughter) Broken bones.

Angela Spears: (Laughter) But at the end of the day, it’s so fulfilling and rewarding and it’s a heck of a lot of fun. So, I think I would probably just leave you with … Anyone out there, just be relentless.

Jary Carter: Yeah. That’s really, really good. I think it does take a lot of perseverance, patience, and celebrating those wins along the way. Which, luckily for Animal Supply, and for you, personally, you have a lot of those wins along the way. So, Angela, I want to thank you for talking with us today. This has been really, really helpful. I’m sure folks that have been listening today are gonna get just a ton out of your experience and background. I really do think we should plan that follow-up on mobile. And just want to thank you for spending 30-40 minutes with me today and talking about this digital journey you’ve been on. Thanks, Angela.

Angela Spears: Thanks, Jary. I think it’s great that you guys are doing these. I can’t wait to hear the other podcasts and learn myself. Because we certainly don’t have all the answers. So, I think it’s great what you’re doing, in terms of the community space there. So, thank you for thinking of me and Animal Supply.

Jary Carter: Yeah. Thank you. All right. Take care. Bye-bye.

Angela Spears: Bye.

 

**Animal Supply Co has revolutionized their industry with the launch of their new mobile app designed specifically for their B2B customers. Check out our eCommerce podcast page for more episodes!**

Key Points
  • Animal Supply Co is a wholesaler and distributor of organic pet food and supplies with roughly 1,400 employees across the US.
  • ASC experienced 18 acquisitions in 11 years, which led to 4 different eCommerce platforms and 5 different ERP systems.
  • To launch ASC’s digital transformation, Angela Spears built a roadmap to unify their multiple systems and launch a mobile app that would revolutionize how Animal Supply serviced their B2B customers.
  • Angela's advice: You've need to have the passion and the execution to really do a digital transformation. If you lack any of those, build the team, or partners that possess it.

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