TOPEKA, KAN. — For Nicki Baty, current president of Hill’s Pet Nutrition US, the company’s science-led history goes hand-in-hand with its charitable initiatives. This established, global pet food brand, dating back to the late 1930s, continues to grow awareness of its products while expanding its support for ending pet obesity and pet homelessness.
“It's an incredibly powerful industry that has the potential to do so much good and to have such a big impact,” Baty said.
In the following Q&A, Baty shares how her career led her to lead Hill’s Pet Nutrition’s US business, key programs the company is supporting to address pet homelessness and obesity, and her advice for aspiring pet industry professionals.
PFP: Tell us about your business or career in the pet industry.
Baty: Hill’s Pet Nutrition has been around for 80 years — it’s really a long-standing company. We were founded by Dr. Mark Morris, who was looking to help a dog that had gone blind and see what he could do to improve the dog’s life and expected outcome. Dr. Morris ended up creating this amazing food, which is still on the market today under the Hill’s Prescription Diet brand, called KD. That’s how our roots started.
We’re very much rooted in science and with the veterinary profession. Dr. Mark Morris was a veterinarian himself, and since that inauguration around 80 years ago, we've very much focused on developing foods that are perfectly nutritionally balanced, meet the right life stages of different cat and dog breeds, and are also able to address different conditions. We are a science-led pet nutrition company, and we work in incredibly close partnership with veterinary professionals.
PFP: How did you get your start in the pet industry, and how did that experience lead you to where you are now?
Baty: I started in consumer product goods over 20 years ago and, as you can hear from my accent, I did not start my career in the United States. I am originally from the United Kingdom, and I started my career with Unilever on a graduate scheme. That was a great experience because it allowed me to try different functions. This included all the commercial and marketing functions, but I also spent time in factories and in HR and other areas. From there, I joined Colgate-Palmolive and I've been with the company now for nearly two decades.
Hill’s Pet Nutrition is part of the Colgate-Palmolive family, and over the last 17 years I've had a variety of roles in different commercial areas. I took my first general management role in Colgate-Palmolive Netherlands, so I’ve worked in a number of different European countries. I’m very fortunate to have experienced different cultures and had those different opportunities before I came to the United States around three years ago, when I joined Hill’s Pet Nutrition.
While at Hill’s, I started in our international division looking after emerging markets. The Hill’s brand is quite nascent in a number of those markets, but a very fast growing and entrepreneurial part of the business. Then I was appointed president of the Hill’s US business around two years ago.
PFP: What has been your biggest challenge — personal or professional — related to your work in the pet industry?
Baty: The biggest challenge, if I think back to what we've experienced over the last couple of years during the pandemic, has really been the volatility overall. As a leader of a big business where I have a lot of employees spread across the United States, one of the biggest challenges was really to make sure that our people were safe and healthy and that, as a company, we were providing the right support and infrastructure for everyone during what was an incredibly difficult time.
Another challenge was to be able to deal with incredible external pressures that were coming at us, whether it was global supply chain with raw materials and supply challenges, inflation — everything was and continues to be in flux. One of my biggest learnings as a leader over the last number of years was that certainty is really important. When you're talking to the team, and when you're talking to customers, you're used to being able to give much more certainty of what's going on. So, for me, this meant adjusting that to make sure that I could give clarity of the direction that we're going in, but allow for a lot of flexibility in how we get there. It’s been a really great learning experience over the last few years.
PFP: Tell me about a professional accomplishment in the pet industry that you are proud of.
Baty: We've been very fortunate to be able to grow as fast as we have over the last few years here at Hill’s. Even if you look back at some of the data five or six years ago, and despite having a really strong presence within the veterinary profession, we're a bit of an untold secret as to how amazingly efficacious and great our products are. Not everyone knew that Hill’s was out there. So, what I’m really proud of is how we have stopped being shy about telling our story and have started being vocal about what we stand for, and being able to get out there and talk to pet parents about the life-changing products and benefits that we can provide.
I'm really proud of the way our team has embraced getting out there and doing that, but doing it in a way that’s very human. We talk a lot about the number of pets that are overweight in the United States and, yet, what can we do to be part of that solution? In some of our latest advertising, we talk about “Feed the Love, Lose the Weight.” It’s much more emotionally engaging in how I believe that we are talking about real problems that are out there.
"If we can get animals in the shelter to be well cared for and well looked after, they are far more likely to be adopted. This is one of the reasons we provide so much food to shelters across the country. It really does link to wanting to make a broader difference and have an impact on the industry,” Baty said.
Our focus as a company has been to think about what we need to do to end pet obesity, hence our Feed the Love campaign. But then also, what do we need to do to really step up in our efforts to help end pet homelessness? That’s another area that we're really committed to. We have an amazing long-standing partnership with thousands of shelters across the United States and we have an ongoing shelter program, Hill’s Food, Shelter and Love, where we provide pet food to shelters 365 days a year. We are also the primary sponsor of the nation’s largest pet adoption event, NBC Universal Local’s Clear The Shelters, which drove the highest number of pet adoptions in campaign history this year and has helped a total of 860,000 pets find their forever homes since 2015.
A big part of our thought process is that if we can get animals in the shelter to be well cared for and well fed, they are far more likely to be adopted. This is one of the reasons we provide so much food to shelters across the country. It really does link to wanting to make a broader difference and have an impact on the industry. We’re centered around the question of how we can help be part of the solution that ends pet homelessness.
PFP: What is top of mind for you and/or your business in the industry right now?
Baty: I’ll build on those two areas — pet obesity and pet homelessness — a little bit more because I do think that when consumers are purchasing products, they are thinking more and more about what that brand stands for. And I can relate to that — is that brand doing good? Is this a business that is doing the right thing? Is this business standing up and having an impact more broadly than just making money and driving financial results? I think there's much more consciousness about the choices consumers are making, and a need to understand a lot more about the decisions and leadership of businesses.
There is an ever-increasing trend in the industry to have more of a genuine core purpose of what a company stands for, and it needs to be very authentic as well. For me, what's really top of mind right now is being very authentic about who our brand is, but also making sure that we're picking the areas in which we feel we can make a big impact. I think pet obesity and pet adoption are the things that I see us really doubling down on in the coming years because they are powerful extensions of our mission to help transform the lives of pets.
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.
Baty: I always thought I was a cat person. We always had cats — from our grandparents and parents to cats in our own household — and now we've come to the United States and dogs are absolutely everywhere. Now that we're in the states, we’ve been looking to get more experience with dogs through fostering. I have two children, and we just started to connect with our local shelter, Lawrence Humane Society, to start taking on foster dogs. We’ve had so many different dog breeds come through our house — everything from Chihuahuas to Lab mixes. I don't know yet whether I'm a fully, all-in dog person, but I definitely know that I can no longer call myself a cat person.
If any of your readers are out there and are thinking about fostering, I would say it has been really incredible to be able to help out our local shelter.
PFP: Any final advice for other women in the pet industry?
Baty: This is an amazing industry. If you take a step back and think about how many times people ask about what you do for a career or for work — to actually be able to talk about pets and even bring your pets to work, it’s incredible the emotional engagement and connection you can have with so many people. If you think about how many of your friends and family have pets, it's just an immediate bonding and connecting moment. I like the fact that it’s an industry relevant to so many families and so many households throughout the country. For me, that’s one of the big selling points about this industry.
Also, this industry is evolving so quickly. It's incredibly innovative, it’s a growth industry, and if you think about some of the trends or the amount people spend on their pets — probably over and above what they might spend on other parts of their lives — it's an incredibly powerful industry that has the potential to do so much good and to have such a big impact.
There’s a lot of purpose to be found in this industry, especially for young people looking to make an impact through their careers. There are so many career choices, from engineers to food scientists to a myriad of other things, that there's no way of getting bored. There’s a lot of potential to have a really long career path in the pet industry.
Nicki Baty is the current president of Hill’s Pet Nutrition US, a subsidiary of Colgate-Palmolive. Baty has worked with Colgate-Palmolive for the last 17 years, serving the Hill’s Pet Nutrition business in various leadership roles since the summer of 2019. She earned her bachelor’s degree in law and business from the University of Warwick, and attended The Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth for its Global Leadership Program in 2017-2018.
Continue reading about other female leaders featured in our Women in the Pet Industry series.