NAPIER, NEW ZEALAND — As a relatively new full-time member of the pet food manufacturing industry, Pavinee Watson, Ph.D., is ready to hit the ground running. Following the achievement of her Ph.D. against several odds, as well as a successful internship with ZIWI Ltd. during her undergraduate studies, Watson is now leveraging her pet nutrition expertise to benefit ZIWI’s research and development team.
“Innovation is something that, as a business, we are hoping to expand on in terms of new technologies and pet food concepts and, as an R&D technologist, it is exciting to be a part of,” she said.
In the following Q&A, this young pet industry professional imparts timely advice for other aspiring leaders and shares the top trends and consumer preferences set to drive the industry forward.
PFP: Tell us about your business or career in the pet industry.
Watson: I work as an R&D Technologist at ZIWI Ltd, a premium pet food manufacturer based in New Zealand. We develop and manufacture high meat-content products in the ultra-premium market. We have recently experienced so much growth within the company and have a lot going on behind the scenes that we’re excited about.
PFP: How did you get your start in the pet industry, and how did that experience lead you to where you are now?
Watson: My career in the pet food industry began in the summer of 2015. As part of my undergraduate degree in Food Technology, we had to complete summer work in the food industry and I ended up working with a local company that manufactures pet chews and treats. From there I completed another practicum at ZIWI Ltd the following summer, followed by my fourth year Food Technology project, then my master’s and finally my Ph.D. for the company with funding from various scholarships.
I have now been an employee of ZIWI Ltd for almost 18 months and have really seen it all as a student specializing in pet food research and how different it is being in industry — in a good way.
PFP: What has been your biggest challenge — personal or professional — related to your work in the pet industry?
Watson: For me, I had a pretty challenging time during my Ph.D. and my first six months as a working professional.
I began my Ph.D. in August 2019, and we all know that 2020 was a challenging year for everyone. Obviously, my project was impacted by supply chain delays, travel restrictions and lockdowns, but by some miracle, I got there in the end.
In addition to those setbacks, I began working for ZIWI prior to completing my dissertation, so I spent the first month not only adjusting to full-time work but also finalizing my write up. You would think that was hard enough, but roll on to Valentine’s Day 2023, when our city and workplace was hit by flooding from the aftermath of cyclone Gabrielle. That day also happened to be the day I was notified of when my oral exam would be, and because we had no cell phone reception or service, it was an absolute nightmare trying to contact the university to lock in the date — but, again, it all worked out.
PFP: Tell me about a professional accomplishment in the pet industry that you are proud of.
Watson: I am honestly so proud that I completed my Ph.D. in a somewhat timely matter, considering all the hardships that I faced during that time. I am also grateful to have two publications to my name, exploring topics that I am so passionate about and playing my part in contributing to pet food research.
PFP: What is top of mind for you and/or your business in the industry right now?
Watson: I think sustainability is front of mind for all pet food businesses now, not only in terms of packaging but regarding ingredient sourcing and ensuring we are all doing what we can to be the best we can. I also believe innovation is something that, as a business, we are hoping to expand on in terms of new technologies and pet food concepts and, as an R&D technologist, it is exciting to be a part of.
PFP: If you could pick three trends influencing the industry today, which are the most important and why?
Watson: Premiumization and humanization have always been two key trends that have gone hand-in-hand and are still very prevalent today. Also related to this is the demand for functional foods as pet owners are now increasingly aware of what they are purchasing for their pets, so foods that provide specific benefits are high on their radar. Finally, sustainability, as previously mentioned, is important and has gained a lot of attention in the industry.
PFP: What is something about the pet industry that people outside of the industry may not realize?
Watson: There are so many regulatory requirements to consider when making pet food. Of course, there is AAFCO and FEDIAF but, particularly within America, certain states have additional regulations that must be considered, which keeps things interesting.
PFP: What advice would you give to young people starting their careers in this industry?
Watson: I would say stick with it, and you will find yourself being part of such a cool industry. For me, I now know a lot of professionals in the New Zealand pet food industry and am starting to meet pet food professionals from all around the world. It really is such a tight knit community, and who knows what opportunities may come your way.
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.
Watson: My Ph.D. involved feeding cats, so I am more a cat than a dog person. I did have a ragdoll, but he now lives with my sister-in-law because we had moved around the country for work and lots of rentals don’t allow pets. That was a bit tricky, but he is living his best life on the farm.
PFP: Any final advice for other women in the pet industry?
Watson: My advice would be don’t be afraid to reach out to people, seek help when you need it, and ask questions. I struggled with this as a newbie in the industry, but I have slowly learned that you don’t need to know everything under the sun, and that reaching out is not a sign of weakness but in fact takes a lot of courage and really does help you out in the long run.
Pavinee Watson, Ph.D., is a recent graduate of Massey University in New Zealand, where she earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Food Technology and doctoral degree in Animal Science. The title of her Ph.D. thesis was, “Identifying Drivers of Palatability in Beef and Lamb Ingredients used in Commercial Pet Food.” Watson served as an R&D intern for ZIWI Pets from November 2016 to February 2017, before moving on to ANZCO Foods where she served as R&D technical assistant from November 2017 to February 2018. She joined ZIWI in September 2022 to begin her post-doctoral career in pet nutrition.
Continue reading about other female leaders featured in our Women in the Pet Industry series.