Mounds Pet Food Warehouse: ‘No sale’ brings goodwill, growth

Mounds Pet Food Warehouse has grown into one of the largest independent pet food retailers in southern Wisconsin by intentionally bypassing a potentially large revenue source. It sounds counterintuitive, but it’s actually perfectly aligned with the mission of a business that exists for pets and the people who love them.

For altruistic reasons, Mounds does not sell domesticated animals to pet lovers, and it chooses not to do so for a very important reason — so that more animals can find a home. Mounds, now a five-store operation, views itself as a partner with the Dane County Humane Society and animal rescue organizations, and so instead of selling pets, it encourages potential pet owners to look to local animal shelters or rescue groups for their new best friend, especially since shelters are often overflowing with animals in need.

Company President Katie Van Altena says Mounds has never regretted this decision. “I’ve been here almost 18 years, and we’ve never even second-guessed that decision at all,” she says. “We stand firmly with rescue groups and humane societies in not selling animals and being part of what they do. I don’t think it’s hard to maintain this practice. That’s why we have the customers who we have, and that’s why they support us. It’s because we do the right thing.”

The “no sale” decision also was a factor in Mounds Pet Food Warehouse earning a 2019 Dane County Small Business Award. Mounds and five other winning companies will be honored during an annual awards program on Tuesday, July 16, starting at 4 p.m., in the Overture Center’s upstairs Promenade Hall and Lobby.

Adopting awareness

Another part of what the company does for animal welfare is directly accommodating pet adoption. In an ongoing partnership with the Dane County Humane Society, Mounds established satellite adoption centers. These are in-store accommodations that benefit hundreds of animals each year by giving them an outlet to be adopted into a new home.

The centers began with Ken Mack, the original owner of Mounds, who wanted to find a solution to the problem of pet shelter overpopulation. “We started a partnership with the Dane County Humane Society and because we don’t sell animals, people love to come in and interact with animals and see animals,” Van Altena says. “That’s enjoyable for everyone, and it’s part of why we’ve kept it going. People really enjoy it, and it helps get those animals adopted and get more exposure.

“We work with Friends of Noah at our Janesville/Rock County store because they don’t have a place to showcase their animals, so that helps them tremendously, as well.”

Founded in 1969, Mounds promotes animal welfare in a variety of other ways. For the past quarter century, it has put on Dog Fest, a community-based, customer-appreciation event that brings a lot of “rescues” to one location. The event, held on the second Sunday in June, attracts people from humane societies, rescue groups, and local pet-friendly businesses. “We obviously have pet products that we carry there, but we think of it as a nice customer appreciation event because it is free to the public to attend,” says Michelle Mitchell, purchasing manager for Mounds. “We see 5,000 to 8,000 people there annually in a one-day event, and that’s something unique to us, and it also really drives home the community aspect that we try to provide.”

“Our biggest advantage is that we’re a feel-good company,” adds Van Altena. “Anybody who works here, if they learn about the company, can feel good about where they work and what they are doing for the community — their little part of changing the world. We’re always doing different fundraisers for different rescue groups, the K-9 police, Heartland Farm Sanctuary in Verona, the zoo, and all sorts of different organizations. So, maybe you like visiting the zoo, or maybe you want to help farm animals. As an employee, you can encourage people to shop here and take advantage of that service. So, we can keep that loyal customer base, and we can give more back to the community. Those are organizations that we support throughout the year as an ongoing benefit and feel-good thing for our employees.”

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ESOP’s fables

In becoming 100 percent employee owned and establishing an Employee Stock Option Plan, or ESOP, Mounds also has done the right thing by employees and the community. In 2015, former president Tim Walton was looking to retire, and he did not want to sell the business to an outside entity. He wanted Mounds to remain a community-based store that supports rescue animals.

Mounds Pet Food Warehouse and five other Dane County Small Business Award winners will be honored during the annual Dane County Small Business awards celebration on Tuesday, July 16, starting at 4 p.m. in the Overture Center’s upstairs Promenade Hall and Lobby.

Says Mitchell: “When we heard the company was going to be employee-owned, we were all very excited to be a part of such a company — where I’ve worked for almost 18 years — and really see it grow and thrive and stay community-based.”

Van Altena believes the ESOP played a role in Mounds’ recent growth, but most of its growth is attributable to the multiple stores it has opened over the years. “We’ve been trying to get that message out, but a lot of it is to drive home the point that we’re local and we’re community-based and we really support our employees,” she states. “So, that’s the biggest thing with the employee-owned status, that we’re keeping everything local, and that we’re giving back to the community.”

For those organizations that would follow Mounds’ example in establishing an ESOP, Van Altena has one piece of advice. “I don’t know that I would have pointers, other than the importance of communicating with your staff right from the beginning on what is going on and why, so they can get behind you and support you and support the company,” she counsels. “Communication is the most important thing — communication with your staff — on the positives of becoming employee owned.”

What a scream!

Upon winning a Dane county Small Business Award, shouts could be heard from the general direction of the HR department. “First and foremost, we were all very honored,” Van Altena states. “Gilda [Mulvaney] from human resources screamed quite loud. Half of our staff didn’t know if that was good or bad, but I knew it was good. So, we were very honored by this award. We all work very hard to give back to the community and make this a great place to work for our employees, so it’s definitely an honor.”

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