When faced with a competitor twice their size and backed by American money, many businessmen would have cut and run. Anthony Preston simply bought his competitor out for £35m. Preston, a former venture capitalist, founded his Pets at Home retail chain in 1991 with a single store in Chester. But he had a vision. He wanted to update the image of the pet supplies industry by moving it from dingy back streets to large out-of-town retail parks. “Pet product retailing was an area that had never really had any professional attention,” he says. “It was almost like a cottage industry, run by hobbyists. Everything else was being done on a bigger scale and I couldn’t see any reason not to do the same with pet supplies.” Preston set about attracting shoppers by offering entertainment for the whole family in the stores, installing aviaries, aquariums and “bunny villages”. Expansion was funded by £5m from his previous employers, venture capitalists 3i. Then, in December 1999, Preston decided to buy out his direct competitors, Petsmart, the UK arm of the top American chain, which had 95 stores throughout the UK. Profit growth of 103% a year, from £677,000 in 1997 to £5.7m in 2000, is derived partly from sales increasing to £96.8m, and partly from the “maturation” of stores, which take two years to begin trading to their full potential. The Cheshire-based company now has 144 branches, 30 of which have veterinary surgeries under their roofs. It also has an e-commerce site selling a selection of pet products.
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