DES MOINES, IOWA — Over the last eight years, Abby Castillo has lent her scientific expertise to pets. As senior global product manager of palatants and health & nutrition at Kemin Nutrisurance — Kemin Industries’ pet food and rendering ingredient solutions division — Castillo has played a central role in building the company’s portfolio of high-performing palatants, functional ingredients and proteins for the dog and cat food industries. But Castillo is also in the business of lifting up other young women aspiring to stoke an innovative future for pet food.
“Building up other women and advocating for one another benefits all of us,” she said. “Success is not a zero-sum game, and one woman’s achievements can create opportunities for even more women to advance in our industry.”
In the following Q&A, Castillo shares how she “unintentionally” found herself in the pet industry and hasn’t looked back since, details her greatest accomplishments, and offers advice for up-and-coming industry members.
PFP: Tell us about your business or career in the pet industry.
Castillo: Kemin Industries is a family-owned-and-operated global ingredient manufacturer, headquartered in Des Moines, Iowa. The company provides products and services to multiple industries and markets that serve people, pets, production animals and plants around the world. Kemin Nutrisurance is the pet food and rendering business unit of Kemin, offering solutions for oxidation control, palatability, food safety, and health and nutrition. My career has focused on the fast-paced palatant market, as well as proteins and other functional ingredients for pet food.
PFP: How did you get your start in the pet industry, and how did that experience lead you to where you are now?
Castillo: I unintentionally ended up in pet food, but I’m so glad I did. As I learned more about the market and interacted with our customers, I fell in love with this industry.
Prior to joining Kemin, I was working as a scientist and project manager at a nonprofit focused on solutions for the natural gas industry. I started at Kemin Nutrisurance as a project manager but quickly started taking on product management-type responsibilities, such as portfolio development, pricing, capacity optimization and customer support. I eventually made the jump into a full product management role. Most recently, I’ve expanded from North America to global product management. I’ve also added proteins and functional ingredients to my portfolio, which was previously palatant focused.
Although there are many more parts of the pet food supply chain than I realized prior to joining Kemin, we are all part of one important, far-reaching goal: providing high-quality, delicious food to the end user — our pets.
PFP: What has been your biggest challenge — personal or professional — related to your work in the pet industry?
Castillo: Kemin is the industry leader in antioxidants, but we’re also growing our portfolio in palatants, specialty proteins, food safety solutions and other functional ingredients, as well as expanding globally. To keep pace, we’ve expanded our workforce. Merging internal expansions with a fast-paced pet food market does bring challenges.
Kemin Nutrisurance was built on collaboration with customers; we started by providing innovative antioxidant solutions and real-time support for renderers and pet food manufacturers as challenges arose. Our lean and agile team of experts allowed for this type of true customer partnership. In turn, we’ve experienced tremendous year-over-year growth, allowing us to expand our team. Maintaining our adaptability and deep connection with customers while growing our team is not always easy, but we continue to work hard building a team of qualified professionals while prioritizing our commitment to responsiveness, excellent service and customer support.
PFP: Tell me about a professional accomplishment in the pet industry that you are proud of.
Castillo: I’ve had the pleasure of being part of Kemin’s expansion into the global palatant market. Palatability is a unique challenge and opportunity for pet food manufacturers. Many different parameters can affect the palatability of a finished good, including oxidation, texture, moisture, aroma and taste. Interacting with customers, learning their palatability needs and how Kemin Nutrisurance can respond with complete solutions has been particularly rewarding.
“Palatability is a unique challenge and opportunity for pet food manufacturers,” Castillo said.
One of the greatest needs we heard about across the industry was improved palatability for wet pet food products, particularly canned cat food. Kemin invested in a pilot facility, additional staff, and more training to deepen our internal knowledge of wet pet food and aid in the advancement and understanding of solutions for this market. After significant development and testing, we recently launched PALIVATE™, a line of palatants designed specifically for wet pet food products. When I look at a retail shelf and see the results of this years-long collaborative project, I’m proud to have helped solve a customer’s need and brought an even better product to the pets we love.
PFP: What is top of mind for you and/or your business in the industry right now?
Castillo: At Kemin, we are focused on innovation. As of late, the pet food industry has faced a variety of multi-faceted challenges that need solutions. New ingredients, supply chain shortages, more sustainable practices, new formats for pet food or treats, unique claims, branding — all of these can upend traditional methods of stabilization, nutrition or flavoring. At Kemin Nutrisurance, we are committed to transforming with our customers and providing products and service solutions to overcome these challenges and offer healthier, safer, more nutritious and sustainable products.
PFP: What is something about the pet industry that people outside of the industry may not realize?
Castillo: A lot of people would be surprised by the amount of regulation within the pet food industry, which, in some cases, is even more stringent than the human food industry. Pet food professionals are passionate about pets and their health and wellbeing, and we understand having a healthy pet and safe pet food affects the quality of life for pet owners.
PFP: What advice would you give to young people starting their careers in this industry?
Castillo: The pet food industry is fast-paced and constantly expanding into new ingredients, new formulas and new formats. Stay adaptable and say yes to opportunities and new experiences — even if they’re intimidating. This goes for young women, especially; in my experience, women tend to apply for opportunities for which they are fully qualified. Don’t be afraid to jump into the deep end. Trust in your ability to learn on the job and use your resources, like the expertise of your cross-functional team members, to grow and excel.
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.
Castillo: I am an animal person, in general. I grew up with a cat named Tigger and have had dogs most of my adult life. Right now, my family does not have any pets, but my children want to change that as soon as possible.
PFP: Any final advice for other women in the pet industry?
Castillo: Seek out other women and create a group of peer mentors. It’s so helpful to have others who share your experience in the present, as well as those who have already been through it. Building up other women and advocating for one another benefits all of us. Success is not a zero-sum game, and one woman’s achievements can create opportunities for even more women to advance in our industry.
Abby Castillo began her career at the Gas Technology Institute, where she leveraged her education in chemistry to serve in various scientific roles. In 2015, Castillo joined Kemin Industries as a project manager and has remained with the company ever since. Over the last eight years, she has held various leadership roles in palatants, including palatant product manager, senior product manager of North American palatants and health & nutrition, and now senior global product manager of palatants and health & nutrition. Castillo earned her bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Minnesota State University in Mankato, followed by a master’s degree in analytical chemistry from the Illinois Institute of Technology.
Continue reading about other female leaders featured in our Women in the Pet Industry series.