Rolf C. Hagen used generosity and gregariousness to grow a business and help expand an industry.
Hagen, who founded a multinational pet products company, knew that pet stores were his key clients, more than the large grocery chain or big-box store selling multiple bags of dog food. "My father said 'Nothing happens in the industry until a pet is sold,' " said Rolf Hagen Jr., who in 2004 took over from his father as president of the Rolf C. Hagen company.
For years Hagen Sr. would help pet stores hungry to expand by offering them financing and deep discounts, something that continues today. It was generous but also shrewd, as the stores, all over Canada, the U.S. and Germany, increased their capacity and ordered more of his dog food, aquarium filters and birdcages.
His legendary trade-show dinners set a tone for the industry. He seated competing CEOs at the same tables, spoiled them silly and watched them enjoy each other's company and their posh surroundings, as a one-man band or a drag queen singer would perform. He set up full kitchens at his trade show booths, serving thousands of sausages.
"He understood how to build relationships and trusted that good relationships would build the business," said Glenn Novotny, former CEO and President of Central Garden & Pet, one of the largest pet supplies manufacturers in the U.S.
Novotny credits the Montreal-headquartered company for bringing innovative new products to the industry, especially in aquatics. "Rolf was a lion in the industry," he said of his long-time friend.
Hagen died on Oct. 22 in Montreal of a heart attack at the age of 79. He, along with his two brothers, and eventually his three sons, built the largest privately held pet product manufacturer in the world.
To think that it all started with one smart 22-year-old who left Germany for Canada in 1955 and arrived with $7 in his pocket and a two-year apprenticeship in the birdseed trade.
Rolf Christian Hagen was born on Sept. 11, 1932, the third of 10 children and oldest boy of Walter and Grete (née Schwen) in the small seaside town of Groemitz in northern Germany, where the family ran an 18-room hotel. A short summer season provided their years' earnings, which meant money was tight. Things got more difficult when the war broke out. Walter Hagen was off fighting, Grete had to tend to the children and the dinner table saw many more potatoes than meat.
Hagen's brother Dieter said their mother was caring, but also strict. "If she told you something and you walked away muttering to yourself, you could expect a shoe to come flying after you."
In 1952, the family sent their oldest son to Hamburg to apprentice with an import-export company. It had a division that imported raw materials used in the pet food industry, including birdseed. For the next two years, Hagen learned how dependant the increasingly developed European birdseed market was on imports from countries such as Nigeria and Argentina, and how difficult it was for them to access Canadian-grown seeds.
Following his apprenticeship, Hagen was hired on but earned a meagre salary, and with the boss's son-in-law being groomed to take over, he could not see a future there. "My decision was an easy one: Leave the country and try my luck elsewhere," he recounted in a recent Q&A with Pet Product News.
One thing making his decision less easy was Marianne Koch, the 18 year-old secretary at the company. The two had fallen in love and, despite the impending trip, promised to remain committed.
Hagen chose Canada because he had a Montreal uncle who was able to sponsor him. In addition, he knew that two large birdseed outfits, Vitakraft in Germany and Hykro in Denmark, had no sales in North America and that his Hamburg trading house could use a man in Canada to try and access those Prairie seeds.
He took a freighter from Hamburg to Montreal and worked as a dishwasher to cut his fare in half. After the month-long voyage, Hagen used three of his $7 to register his company in Montreal under the name Rolf C. Hagen, secured export contracts from Vitakraft and Hykro, and by the fall attended his first pet industry trade show, all the while selling hardware for his uncle's business.
His big break came by way of two farmers, Henry Friesen in Winkler, Man., and Tom Early in Saskatoon. With most wheat and barley silos full, the two farmers took a calculated risk and agreed to grow the needed sunflower, white millet and rape for the seeds the young German immigrant was looking to export. Soon enough, Hagen was overseeing large shipments to Europe.
He would write Marianne frequently; telling her how much he loved her and how he was planning to bring her over. At the same time, he was sending as much money as he could back to his family.
In 1959, he took a trip to Germany to marry Marianne and bring her back to Canada. So proud of his early success, he actually brought his white Pontiac Grand Prix convertible with him on the ship and drove it to his hometown where the wedding was held.
That fall, he convinced his brother Dieter to join him in Canada. The brothers would eventually secure contracts to distribute bird sticks and bird toys, and by 1963, the year they opened a German office, brother Horst came to Canada to join them in the business.
Back in his Hamburg days, Hagen had met Ulrich Baensch, who invented a revolutionary flake food for tropical fish called TetraMin. Up until then, owners fed their fish using either pellets, which would sink to the bottom of aquariums, or live fish.
Hagen, who had talked to some very excited hobbyists, knew the floating flakes were a game changer. He flew to meet with Baensch, where for $2-million he secured the rights to sell TetraMin in North America and Japan. He recouped half the money by selling off the U.S. tranche for $1-million that same year.
Sales of the fish food skyrocketed, and his company began to distribute aquatics equipment for the growing hobby market.
The brothers worked hard – and often played hard, with Hagen's excess for drinking getting in the way of his family life in the early 70s. Thanks to his wife's intervention, Hagen "got outside help and went to meetings," according to Hagen Jr. In those early days, the family would wait for the garage door to open. "If he came home at 6 or 6:30 that meant he was okay." Hagen would remain sober for the rest of his life, which his son calls a gift to the family.
The 1970s and '80s saw enormous growth both in products and territory, with new distribution centres in the US, England and France. But the 1990s brought challenges. "The boardrooms of multinationals, investment bankers and equity partners discovered the pet industry," he said in the PPN article. The company had to relinquish its distribution rights with the two companies that gave the Rolf C. Hagen company its start, Hykro and Vitakraft, with the former purchased by Carnation and the latter having set up its own distribution centre in the U.S.
So in 1995 the company became a producer. It manufactured food and other products for fish, reptiles, birds and small animals from factories in Montreal and New York State.
And while he put his trust in the next generation of brothers to steer the company in the right direction, his worry was reserved for the industry. He saw that many of the pet stores that helped to both educate the public about pet nutrition and expand his and their business through the sales of pet foods and other products were being pushed out by big stores that sell few if any animals. "What worried him was who is going to be selling the pets in the future," said Hagen Jr.
In 1999 Hagen was inducted into the American Pet Products Association Hall of Fame and in 2004, given the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Pet Industry Distributors Association. After stepping down as president, Hagen stayed on as Chairman and worked until the day before his death.
Rolf C. Hagen leaves his wife Marianne, his three sons, Mark, Tom and Rolf Jr., his brothers Dieter and Horst, and sisters Hannelore, Marga, Anne and Karin.
Special to the Globe and Mail