Billy Bishop is the head of General Mills’ new pet-food business and the human embodiment of business casual.
On a recent visit to the company’s Golden Valley-based headquarters, Bishop — wearing a Patagonia vest and blue jeans — walked briskly through the sprawling, skyway-connected campus, swinging his duffel bag. He had come straight from the airport for the annual huddle of the company’s top 100 leaders. His familiarity with them belied the fact that Blue Buffalo, the company he helped start, had been a part of General Mills for little more than a year.
“What’s up, baby?! See you in a little bit,” Bishop said as he half-hugged, half-slapped a male executive’s back. Moments later, he stopped talking mid-sentence to address another male colleague, “What’s up, Rags! How are ya, baby?”
Bishop has a nickname for everyone, it seems, including his boss, General Mills Chief Executive Jeff Harmening, whom he calls “J.H.”
Blue Buffalo is a key part of General Mills’ strategy for returning the company to steady sales growth — a goal Harmening has promised investors. Pet food as a sector is growing faster than human food, and General Mills took a giant step into that space last year by purchasing Blue Buffalo for $8 billion.
That’s a lot of money, the most it has spent for any deal except the $10.5 billion on Pillsbury in 2000. General Mills’ plan has been to expand distribution of Blue Buffalo products, create new ones and listen closely to consumers, or “pet parents” as they’re now called around the company.
The U.S. pet food market grew 24.5% in the past five years and is expected to grow another 9.5% in the coming half-decade, according to market research firm Euromonitor International, with Blue Buffalo holding a 6.8% share of the fragmented market.
Sales of Blue Buffalo dry dog food grew more than 111% in the year ending July 14, according to IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm.
General Mills has made several acquisitions in recent years, but none has been given a place of influence within it the way Blue Buffalo has. The brand is so important to General Mills that the company created a new business segment and put Bishop in charge.
“It’s been a very thoughtful, very deliberate, very simple approach to how this transition occurred,” Bishop said.
Bishop may be the guy who wore running shoes with his suit to last month’s investor day on Wall Street, but he’s no novice. Now 49, he helped grow and sell two successful startups to large food companies. He, along with his dad and brother Chris, were involved in the early days of South Beach Beverage Co., or SoBe, before selling it to Pepsi in 2000.
Afterward, the three were looking to work together on another project. The family dog, Blue, had just developed cancer at the age of three. As they sought out treatment, they started focusing on Blue’s nutrition and saw a new business opportunity to create pet foods made from higher quality ingredients that are good for dogs (and cats) with key vitamins mixed in.
Bishop’s father, Bill Bishop Sr., ran his own marketing firm for years in Connecticut, where the family still lives and Blue Buffalo is still based. Bill Bishop honed a sharp message focusing on Blue and nutrition. Chris Bishop massaged relationships with independent retailers, and Billy Bishop managed the business strategy. Before the trio ever made a batch of dog food, they landed a contract with PetSmart, which agreed to launch their product in 240 stores in 2003.
Blue Buffalo, which is sold at a premium price, took off in national pet specialty stores. In 2017, the Bishops were targeting expansion into mass merchandisers when General Mills requested a meeting that eventually led to the acquisition.
The first big move General Mills made with Blue Buffalo was broadening distribution, including into Walmart. That decision had some negative consequences as Blue Buffalo lost shelf space — physically and on digital platforms — with pet specialty stores like PetSmart and Petco, upset that they no longer enjoyed as intimate of a relationship with the brand.
“It’s a very emotional industry. Everyone is always sore, but we are just trying to make dogs and cats happy,” Bishop said. “We only took one of our four product lines into [mainstream retailers]. But as the marketplace expands, everyone feels a little bit more threatened.”
There’s still a place for small independent retailers and pet specialty stores, whose shoppers value the ingredients, sourcing and wellness attributes of their pet food more than mass-retail shoppers do, according to a report published this month by market research firm Mintel.
Last month, General Mills announced a new Blue Buffalo line called Carnivora exclusively for pet specialty stores. The brand is underrepresented in wet pet food and pet treats, which Bishop called a huge opportunity. And, eventually, he said, “when the time is right, taking it to the international market, which is [a] roughly $40 billion opportunity.”
General Mills products cater to a wide variety of consumers, and the company regularly throws new products at them, hoping something will stick. Bishop said Blue Buffalo is up for fast innovation to beat its competitors to the next big trend, but that the brand won’t lose what it does best.
“To me, listening and learning is what it’s all about when it comes to the end consumer. We want to make sure we are serving the best and right products,” Bishop said. “The key is [expanding] in a high-quality way, listening to pet parents to make sure we are fulfilling their needs, and making sure we are educating along the way.”