MARKHAM, ILL. — After college, Holly Sher had a plan: work for her father’s business, prove her leadership and skillset, and be awarded with a 51% stake in the company down the road. The last piece of this puzzle was promised, but that promise was never fulfilled. As a self-proclaimed workaholic, Sher refused to throw in the towel; she instead embarked on a years-long journey to prove that she could run a successful business. Today, Sher owns and runs one of the only women-owned and family-operated pet food canneries in the country.
“Take that leap of faith,” she advised. “Almost 100% of the time, success is on the other side. Trust in yourself, always.”
In the following Q&A, Sher shares how she came to purchase Evanger’s Dog and Cat Food Company and transformed the brand, the pride she has found in running her own family business, and her best advice for other female leaders.
PFP: Tell us about your business or career in the pet industry.
Sher: I am proud to say that Evanger's Dog and Cat Food is a woman-owned, family-owned and -operated pet food manufacturer and cannery based in America's heartland of Markham, Ill. One of the few private and family-owned food manufacturers left in the United States, we pride ourselves on our uncompromising quality and delicious Made in the USA meals for dogs and cats. Despite many challenges these last few years, we are very proud of our company's continual growth, due to our ability to continue to innovate with launching new, unique product lines, exceptional quality of sourcing and ingredients, and our commitment to sustainability.
I am also very proud that Evanger's remains committed to supporting independent pet retailers. We believe strongly in the independent retailer, as they are the key to educating consumers on pet health solutions.
Since I purchased Evanger's 21 years ago, I have gone from five employees to now over 50. We had to move Evanger's into a larger facility in Markham, and now our foods are proudly distributed and sold in over 20 countries all over the world. Evanger's remains the only Kosher for Passover pet food on the market, and we are proud of our ability to continue to innovate, such as in our Nothing Else line of single-ingredient foods for dogs, foods that help dogs and cats with allergies, foods for cats with urinary or weight management issues, and over 100 unique other products.
Sher: I started my career in the pet industry over 21 years ago. My previous career in the high-end fashion world was coming to an end and I was facing endless setbacks and struggles trying to find my path. My husband Joel was a raw meat supplier at the time, and he turned me on to the opportunity to purchase Evanger's. I knew I loved our family dogs and I knew that I wanted to own a company. The rest was history, as they say.
I am blessed that now my children, the next generation of the pet industry, are leaders involved in our company in various expertise areas and roles. The future is bright!
PFP: What has been your biggest challenge — personal or professional — related to your work in the pet industry?
Sher: Being taken seriously and not being taken advantage of, which as a woman in this industry has not been an easy task. It has been a long and winding road but, through perseverance and surrounding myself with an amazing, closeknit network, we have overcome even the largest of obstacles.
PFP: Tell me about a professional accomplishment in the pet industry that you are proud of.
Sher: It's hard to narrow down what I feel is the single biggest accomplishment because there have been so many through the years. First and foremost, I am proud that my family works very hard at Evanger's seven days a week to make what we believe are the best pet foods on the market today. I think I am most proud of our grit and perseverance. Our whole team and family are always striving to produce premium Made in the USA pet foods that solve problems and help make life better for pet parents, pets, pet retailers and the planet.
I am very proud of the innovation with our single-ingredient Against the Grain Nothing Else line, our hallmark hand-packed Evanger's Hunk of Beef product, and the recent relaunch of our Evanger's Hi-Bio foods, which is a new category in and of itself. We’ve also had resounding success with our problem/solution focused cat food line — our USA Evanger's EvX Restricted Diet. In addition, we are always researching and evolving into becoming more efficient, effective, lean and clean.
In addition, to the product accomplishments above, we are constantly evolving to become the most sustainable and eco-friendly company possible. Just two examples are that our steel cans are not only BPA-free but are infinitely recyclable, and our recycled paper trays have saved over 1,000 trees in the last 12 months. In addition, we replaced our white corrugated pallet and pet food trays with brown corrugated trays, learning that white corrugated trays aren't always 100% recyclable.
PFP: If you could pick three trends influencing the industry today, which are the most important and why?
Sher: The main trends we see influencing the industry today are: No. 1, innovation; No. 2, sustainability or an eco-conscious focus; and No. 3, Made in the USA. We proudly answer those trends on a daily basis and continue to innovate.
For innovation and product development, I am very proud of the fact that we can take our ideas and bring them to a reality. For sustainability, I am proud of the tremendous changes we've made to care for our planet. From changing our corrugated pallet trays to using infinitely recyclable steel cans to improving efficiency in our Markham manufacturing plant, we love helping our planet. For Made in the USA, this has been a foundation of Evanger's since the company started in 1935. It has been incredibly important to me and my family to source fresh ingredients in the USA and to be able to make them ourselves onsite every day. We also love our employees and support a growing number of jobs in Illinois at our newly expanded food manufacturing plant, as well as all around the country with our regional sales reps.
PFP: What is something about the pet industry that people outside of the industry may not realize?
Sher: Pet food manufacturing — especially in our capacity — is not a “9-to-5” job. It is 24/7, 365 days a year. And for that very reason I feel so fortunate that I surround myself with my family and our closeknit network.
PFP: What advice would you give to young people starting their careers in this industry?
Sher: Surround yourself with a strong and supportive network. Treat every day as a learning experience. Devote time to building relationships within every phase and aspect of this industry — relationships that you continue to build and strengthen year after year.
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.
Sher: Before buying Evanger's, I would have said I was 100% a dog person (and, actually, I've battled being allergic to cats my entire life). But since owning and managing Evanger's, I have loved learning more about both dog and cat nutrition, having the chance to develop innovations for both species and their unique nutritional needs.
PFP: Any final advice for other women in the pet industry?
Sher: Be persistent, work hard, and do not take no for an answer. And finally, always take that next step. Take that leap of faith — almost 100% of the time, success is on the other side. Trust in yourself, always.
Holly Sher purchased Evanger’s Dog and Cat Food Company, Inc., in 2002 and has worked tirelessly since to see the brand succeed and innovate for the betterment of pets. She runs the entire business with her husband, Joel, and three of their children. Sher graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Continue reading about other female leaders featured in our Women in the Pet Industry series.