ST. JOSEPH, MO. — With a background in meat science, Melissa Weber, Ph.D., senior technical sales specialist for Wilbur-Ellis’s Pet Nutrition division, entered the pet industry unexpectedly and hasn’t looked back since. She has built a successful career in this space through Cargill, Mars Pet Nutrition and now Wilbur-Ellis, where she leverages her experiences as a scientist to support the company’s companion animal nutrition solutions.
“Science holds the key to making quality, safe products for pets,” Weber said.
In the following Q&A, Weber shares why the supply chain, sustainability, alternative proteins and humanization are top of mind for her and the rest of the industry.
PFP: Tell us about your business or career in the pet industry.
Weber: Wilbur-Ellis is an over 100-year-old, privately held company that excels at supplying quality ingredients into agricultural industries. Within Wilbur-Ellis, I am a senior technical sales specialist supporting the Pet Nutrition division. With my experience in both human foods and pet food R&D, I am able to lead our innovation vision, manage key pet food accounts and support the sales team in technical communication with customers.
PFP: How did you get your start in the pet industry, and how did that experience lead you to where you are now?
Weber: I started my career in the human food industry after completing my Ph.D. in meat science. I never envisioned taking my meat science knowledge into the pet food industry. However, due to an acquisition, I found myself looking for a career change. That took me to an innovation scientist role at Mars Petcare, and I have not looked back since. I LOVE working in the pet industry. The complexity is amazing. There are two consumers — pets and pet parents — we are being asked to make humanized pet food products with food industry byproducts and it all needs to be cost competitive. I love the challenge.
PFP: What has been your biggest challenge — personal or professional — related to your work in the pet industry?
Weber: One of my biggest challenges has been the pace. I am a hard and dedicated worker, but at both at Mars and now in my role at Wilbur-Ellis there is lots to do and not always enough time. The pet industry is growing at such a fast pace that it is critical to keep new innovation on the shelf and ingredients supplied to production facilities. That is no easy task in today’s supply chain environment.
PFP: Tell me about a professional accomplishment in the pet industry that you are proud of.
Weber: There are several projects from my days at Mars that made me super proud. I was the product development scientist responsible for launching non-GMO NUTRO into the wet portfolio. I was also a key developer involved in the launch of NUTRO and CESAR meat-first, grain-free into the wet space. While at Wilbur-Ellis, my accomplishments do not show up directly on the pet food shelf, but I am proud of the progress we have made in providing quality antioxidants to rendering and pet food customers to ensure quality products make it home to our four-legged consumers.
PFP: What is top of mind for you and/or your business in the industry right now?
Weber: It seems odd for a scientist to be overly concerned with the supply chain, but that’s top of mind for me and Wilbur-Ellis. With the pet food companies growing so rapidly, the ingredient supply chains are struggling to keep up. Our goal at Wilbur-Ellis is to continue to source quality raw materials for the industry, but also lead the way in innovative products to alleviate the supply constraints with current ingredients.
PFP: If you could pick three trends influencing the industry today, which are the most important and why?
Weber: Alternative proteins. It’s critical that we branch out on protein sources to reduce the pet food industry competing with human foods.
Sustainability. It’s becoming more and more apparent that consumers care not just about the product, but about the product’s impact on the world. Pet food needs to keep up with this and tell the sustainability story of ingredients — especially byproducts to change the perception that byproducts are bad.
Humanization and customization. A dog is not just a dog anymore; a dog is another child in the household. Because of this, consumers continue to care about the look, nutrition and enjoyment of the foods and treats given to their pets.
PFP: What is something about the pet industry that people outside of the industry may not realize?
Weber: There is LOTS of science that goes into pet food development. So many people I meet are confused by my career. They say, “You have a Ph.D., and you make pet food.” Absolutely! Science holds the key to making quality, safe products for pets.
PFP: What advice would you give to young people starting their careers in this industry?
Weber: Be creative. Think big picture. There is so much room for innovation in the pet food space. I would encourage young people in their careers to really focus on what the future could look like for the industry versus feeling constrained to what has already been launched into the market.
PFP: Just for fun, do you consider yourself a dog person or a cat person? Or, if you have pets of your own, tell us a little bit about them.
Weber: I am 100% a dog person. Cats are not my thing. I have two dogs — a mutt named Fitz and a mini Australian Shepard named Shy. They are true companions to me and my daughter. Life would not be the same without them!
PFP: Any final advice for other women in the pet industry?
Weber: Be your authentic self. I spent years trying to be like other leaders (mainly men) to grow my career in the industry. It didn’t work. It was not until I started being my authentic self that my career took off. So, stay true to who you are and capitalize on your unique strengths.
Melissa Weber began her career with Cargill as a senior food scientist and was later promoted to innovation project manager before joining Mars Pet Nutrition, where she held various product development roles. She is currently the senior technical sales specialist for Wilbur-Ellis’s Pet Nutrition division. Weber earned her bachelor’s degree in animal science from the University of Tennessee at Martin, followed by her master’s and doctoral degrees in animal science with a focus on meat science from Kansas State University.
Continue reading about other female leaders featured in our Women in the Pet Industry series.