TRACY, CALIF. — For many in the pet food and treat space, a love for the industry is woven tightly with a love for pets. This sentiment rings true for Betty McPhee, vice president of sales for North America at IQI Trusted Petfood Ingredients. McPhee’s career in the pet industry wasn’t always easy, but she has made it her business to take challenges in stride and turn them into opportunities.
“There are always challenges in every aspect of a person's career; the important thing is how you accept those challenges,” she said.
In the following Q&A, McPhee shares her career story — from her first position with America Pac (now Wilbur-Ellis) to her current role with IQI Trusted Petfood Ingredients — and offers advice for other female leaders.
PFP: Tell us about your career in the pet industry.
McPhee: I started in the pet industry with a company called Ameri-Pac, which is now owned by Wilbur Ellis. They’re based in St. Joseph, Mo., and I grew up around St. Joseph on a farm. A mutual friend and the owner of Ameri-Pac, Dr. Marvin Moose, asked me to join his company, and the neatest thing he said was something along the lines of, “I know you don't have a great deal of experience in the pet industry so, for your first year, I want you to do everything you can to get involved and to learn.”
At first, I was in charge of sales for the company, but he encouraged me to get involved with AAFCO, PFI, AFIA, PFAC — which is in Canada — and go to every event that I could, and I did. That was so beneficial because I met with regulatory people, with procurement people and with R&D people. That's really what catapulted me into the pet industry. I met so many wonderful people and built many wonderful relationships. Once you get into the pet industry, it feels like this special club. Nobody wants to leave. And why would you?
“Pets bring so much to people's lives. Every day when I get up, I know that I have the opportunity to help people enjoy life, and it’s because we’re taking care of their pets. It's nice to know that you're contributing to a lot of people's happiness,” McPhee said.
Now, as vice president of sales in North America with IQI Trusted Petfood Ingredients, I essentially manage sales for North America, which encompasses managing all aspects of the business, with support from another IQI female leader, Parvin Singh.
The company is about 25 years old since it was founded in Holland, and our North America business is about 11 years old. The original owner was a Dutch entrepreneur who really wanted to contribute something to the pet industry. He was one of the first people who started bringing lamb meal into the US. At that time, lamb was a not considered a commodity — it was a new functional pet food ingredient — but over the years it has become more of a commodity. Today, we have a large portfolio of unique ingredients, primarily focused on the protein side – duck protein, chicken protein, pure products from France, Germany, Belgium and Chile. So, that's where we've evolved. We’re a dedicated partner, more than a broker.
PFP: How did your first experience in the pet industry lead you to where you are now?
McPhee: The focus on quality and service was really instilled in me with Ameri-Pac. They understood that if you don't have service and quality products, you simply won’t last. That's where IQI is very focused as well, on customer service and on the highest quality products that meet our requirements and our customers. I also think that's a good foundation to build your reputation on – what you supply and how you supply it.
PFP: What has been your biggest challenge — personal or professional — related to your work in the pet industry?
McPhee: There will always bechallenges in every aspect of a person's career; the important thing is how you accept those challenges. For me, being a young female in a male-dominated industry, there were challenges. I joked about it because I grew up with five brothers, but it was challenging when working with some customers who looked at me as a young female, asking, “Do you really have an understanding of the business?” or “Who's your boss, can I work with them instead?” and all those kinds of assumptions.
I think the more resistance I got, the more determined I was to win that person over, and it really helped shape me as a person. I always say this: be the person that you would want to work with. That’s the mantra that I took, and I think you have to take that at all levels of your life, not just in business, but also with your personal life. I took the initiative and thought, “Okay, these guys think that I need to refer them to somebody else, or that I don't understand things,” and that just made me more driven to be more diverse in my knowledge, become involved in regulatory, and become involved in more of the technical and nutritional side of it. I also to learned how to build those relationships and be respectful and appreciative, so when I work with a pet food company to discuss an opportunity, I want to make sure I bring value. So, yes, there have been some challenges, but I think with anything you have to make a challenge into an opportunity and learn from it.
PFP: Tell us about a professional accomplishment in the pet industry that you are proud of.
McPhee: As I look back over my career, I am so fortunate to have been a part of several great companies and many great projects. On the regulatory side, I've sat on the ingredient definition committee for AAFCO, and I was very much involved in the development of the definition for pulse proteins. I was a part of the pulse protein team when I was at Cargill, and it took us about three and a half years, but we got a definition. What I enjoyed about it was knowing that I was contributing something to a greater cause. Today, pulses are accepted, they're utilized in the pet industry a great length, and we were part of that bigger picture of making sure the ingredient we were supplying to the industry was safe and approved.
PFP: What is top of mind for you and/or your business in the industry right now?
McPhee: Sustainability is always top of mind because, globally, there's such a focus on it. In North America, I think we have been behind in understanding the impact of not having a plan for sustainability in our industry until the last few years, when it has become more of a focus. Over the years, we've had ample amounts of many different ingredients and products, and I think the growth of North America has focused on that. Ninety percent of IQI’s products are imported, so sustainability is something that IQI as a company has made a priority. It’s a commitment to our customers and the industry.
Another priority is education and, with that, transparency. So, not only educating our employees, but making sure we have the opportunity to educate our customers on what we offer with our products. We promote purity, which I think is such a critical word. Purity applies to a company’s approach, its beliefs and its products, and that goes along with transparency. There’s too much information available online to the extent that if you're not transparent, somebody will find out. There are plenty of opportunities for people to not be transparent, but that’s become one of our main focus areas.
The challenge that every company is dealing with right now is supply chain issues. How do we build inventory? How do we make sure that our customers in North America can call IQI and know that, just because the world is a little chaotic right now, we still have stability of our ingredients and our inventory? It’s important that the way we address supply chain issues doesn’t change our commitment to our customers. These issues are not going away any time soon. As with anything, if you address it and endure it, you can learn from it.
PFP: If you could pick three trends influencing the industry today, which are the most important and why?
McPhee: One trend that I think is being forced as a trend is insect proteins, and there are a lot of mixed reviews and emotions among consumers. In Europe, I think it's probably a bit more accepted; in North America, people still have that “ick” factor. The trend is there for sustainability, but there needs to be more communication and education, because the consumer is not going to come on board just because of sustainability – there needs to be a bigger impact for them to do it. Through the humanization of pets, I'm going to give my pet what I would be eating. So, if I'm not going to eat bugs, I'm not going to feed them to my dog or cat. I think that's the mindset. There is a lot of potential for this trend and it could definitely be a good direction for the industry, but I don't see that happening without suppliers like us taking the time to actually invest in educating the manufacturer to help promote these types of products to the consumer.
The second trend comes back to humanization: human-grade ingredients. It’s a difficult situation, because most manufacturing plants are feed-grade plants. How do you retrofit for running human ingredients through a feed plant? It’s going to be a challenge.
The third trend is the use of grains. There has been a trend of grain-free, and I think if anything beneficial came from the DCM situation, that would be part of it. Many consumers went into panic mode and started really evaluating grain products again and understanding those are excellent products too. One of the products that we worked with at Cargill was corn protein concentrate, and a lot of the data supported it as an excellent source of protein. Consumers had the impression that it was a high allergen, but corn actually is not. This data was from a couple years ago, but corn wasn't even in the top 100 for allergens. With grain free, we're not utilizing some of the great sources that we have for protein.
PFP: What is something about the pet industry that people outside of the industry may not realize?
McPhee: I would say people outside of the industry don't understand how regulated it is, and how quality is such a big factor. Years ago, when regulatory started getting very constrained and very tight on the pet industry, the main concern was if you have a bag of dog food and your little child goes up and grabs a handful of it, is it going to hurt them? No. Maybe give them a bad belly? Doubtful. One of the misconceptions among consumers especially is that producers can put all kinds of bad ingredients in pet food when, really, it's a heavily regulated industry. And that's something the industry should be proud of – the fact that we've evolved. It has made some things more complicated but, as with anything, it makes us better people and better suppliers and manufacturers.
PFP: What advice would you give to young people starting their careers in this industry?
McPhee: Know that you're in a good industry and, again, be the person that you would want to work with. Respect and have compassion for people and realize that you can be impactful. At the end of the day, I think a lot of people want to know that they can make an impact, and that they can be recognized for doing a good job. Just be humble and be a good person. That goes a long way.
PFP: Just for fun, do you consider yourself a dog person or a cat person? And, if you have pets of your own, tell us a little bit about them.
McPhee: I am definitely a dog person. I like cats, but cats are a little too clever for me. I grew up on a farm, so I’ve always had dogs. Right now, I have two Newfoundlands, and they are big supporters of the industry because they eat a lot of food.
They say pets and their parents have similarities; they might look a little bit alike, and they might have some of the same mannerisms. My Newfoundlands look like little bears – our similarities are that we have black curly hair. But they're just happy dogs. They love everybody they see. One weighs 175 lbs, and the other is 145 lbs, so they’re big dogs, but they’re babies, and very sweet.
PFP: Any final advice for other women in the pet industry?
McPhee: The best advice I’ve received is to always be true to yourself. Don't change to accommodate what people want you to be. Know that there are other women in the industry that want you to be successful and reach out to them for mentorship. If you see somebody on LinkedIn or on Twitter, and you’re impressed with who they are as a person or of their success, reach out to them. That person will absolutely want to support you in the industry, and you will make a friend along the way.
“Surround yourself with other women in the industry, see their successes and reach out to them… We are all in this together,” McPhee said.
I think this industry is so unique in that there are a lot more women in it now than there used to be. Many of us went through some struggles to get where we are today, and we don't want other women to have to go through that. We want to be supportive. Surround yourself with other women in the industry, see their successes and reach out to them. Let them know you appreciate what they've done and ask for their help if you need it. We are all in this together.
Betty McPhee joined IQI Trusted Petfood Ingredients in July 2021 with more than 25 years of experience in the pet food, animal feed and human food sectors.
Continue reading about other female leaders featured in our Women in the Pet Industry series.