KALAMAZOO, MICH. — Following in her father’s footsteps and blazing her own trail, Leigh Ann Sayen is leading The Peterson Company through a momentous time in pet nutrition — where function is all the rage, food safety is paramount, and pets are more humanized than ever. As chief executive officer of the family-owned ingredient supplier, Sayen has spent nearly the last quarter century bringing new and exciting nutritional solutions to market.
“Pet food is a dynamic industry with a broad consumer base and the diversity of options continues to evolve,” she said.
In the following Q&A, Sayen details how relationship building and staying open to new opportunities has driven success for The Peterson Company and shares her advice for aspiring industry leaders.
PFP: How did you get your start in the pet industry, and how did that experience lead you to where you are now?
Sayen: The Peterson Company was founded in 1947 and, since the early 1970s, has been dedicated exclusively to the companion animal industry. We apply our knowledge and experience to the development of specialty ingredients for pet food.
I consider myself incredibly fortunate for the opportunity to build upon the principles that our founder and my dad, Ron Sayen, lived by to guide The Peterson Company. Most importantly, identifying how we contribute to the value chain; from suppliers to product development, to pet food manufacturers, to the consumers, both pets and pet owners. The Peterson Company’s heartbeat is bringing a science-based, innovative and strategic approach to product development. Our focus and deep knowledge of the pet food industry allows us to quickly identify opportunities, apply the appropriate due diligence and launch to market. Thoughtfulness and agility are important to us.
For me to successfully lead The Peterson Company, it was essential to understand the key tenets that drive the organization. Building relationships with our business partners and the community was paramount. Secondarily, application of products, formulation experience and food processing were essential. Understanding these foundational needs led me to immerse myself in the industry. I attended tradeshows, joined trade organizations, and sought out individuals that were willing to help me advance my knowledge. I’m grateful to the people in those early days that met with me and answered my many, many questions. Additionally, while working, I attended Michigan State’s Food Science program. These experiences helped me understand that The Peterson Company’s work is instrumental in the success of our partners, customers and pets. Our ability to participate in the collective success of this industry inspires us every day.
PFP: What has been your biggest challenge — personal or professional — related to your work in the pet industry?
Sayen: There is no shortage of groundbreaking technologies, applying processes to underutilized raw materials and innovative ideas in the pet space. The Peterson Company is frequently engaged in bringing these to market. Prioritizing projects, understanding the steps to commercialization, and assuring the necessary capital for success is simultaneously challenging and motivating.
PFP: What is top of mind for you and/or your business in the industry right now?
Sayen: Pet food is a dynamic industry with a broad consumer base and the diversity of options continues to evolve. For our customers to be successful, they need responsive suppliers that are anticipating their current and future needs. It is our responsibility to know the distinctions of not only our industry, but our customers, their brands and their formulations so we can develop products that are meaningful to them. As we grow, promoting this core value is top of mind.
PFP: What is something about the pet industry that people outside of the industry may not realize?
Sayen: While more recently the benefits of minimizing waste have been better articulated, perhaps people outside our industry aren’t aware that pet food was one of the original “upcyclers.” Our history of sustainable business makes me proud.
PFP: What advice would you give to young people starting their careers in this industry?
Sayen: Be prepared to fall in love! Contributing to the health and wellbeing of pets while working alongside so many talented people is rewarding. A big welcome to young people that will further expand this amazing industry.
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.
Sayen: At The Peterson Company, we encourage employees to bring their pets to work. We appreciate the playfulness and snuggles. My dog, Donovan, enjoys the camaraderie of his “co-workers.”
PFP: Any final advice for other women in the pet industry?
Sayen: The pet food industry continues to identify the importance of women participating in related careers. Pet food companies, trade organizations and publications create opportunities for women to collaborate and recognize achievements. I feel fortunate to have the support of fellow female colleagues and want to extend this to women joining our industry.
Leigh Ann Sayen started her career with The Peterson Company as owner in 1999 before moving into the role of chief executive officer in 2008. She graduated from Kalamazoo College. The Peterson Company is women-owned certified by the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC) and maintains membership with the American Feed Industry Association (AFIA), Pet Food Institute (PFI), Pet Food Association of Canada (PFAC), North American Renderers Association (NARA), North American Meat Institute (NAMI), and Institute of Food Technologists (IFT).
Continue reading about other female leaders featured in our Women in the Pet Industry series.