American Dream Achieved
IBA, as an approximately fifty-year old business brokerage firm serving the entrepreneurial community of the Pacific Northwest, has been uniquely positioned since before the American Bicentennial celebration of 1976 to witness and hear the stories of thousands of people who have lived the American dream through entrepreneurship creating beloved businesses by employees, customers, and communities while finding personal fulfillment and financial prosperity through execution of their ideas, hard work, perseverance, and ability. In an effort to share these stories heard throughout the years by our team of business brokers, who are commonly regarded as the “best listeners” in the M&A industry, IBA has retained highly regarded freelance writer, David Garfield, to tell their stories. It is our goal to share one story a month. It is our hope that you will find the stories as inspirational and motivational as they are to us and the buyers who bought the businesses in IBA facilitated transactions in Washington, Oregon, and Alaska.
The Story of Randi & Rolf Astrom (Natural Pet Pantry)
By David Garfield
Randi Astrom grew up in the Minneapolis area and had dogs and a cat. But this future serial entrepreneur admits she didn’t become an animal lover until age 30 when she married Rolf — the love of her life — in 1989.
The two met a year earlier when Randi was visiting a friend at her home in Seattle. Randi and Rolf began dating long distance and fell in love. Instead of having kids, they decided to have pets and got two dogs. But little did the Astroms know at the time they would eventually buy Natural Pet Pantry in 2012 — the first producer and retailer in Seattle of raw, holistic, and real species-appropriate pet food.
But before that venture began, Randi sold printing supplies, yet didn’t like it and lost her Starbucks account. So she bought a printing supply company the next week, and her first sale to the bank was a whopping $10,000. Randi and Rolf worked from home, did business to business with a warehouse for shipping, while managing and stocking inventory for large companies in the Eastside of Seattle. The couple went online and did business across the country.
Rolf joined her in the 15-year business when Randi got the 10K sale and “didn’t know how to handle it on my own. It was out of necessity,” Randi added about Rolf becoming her business partner. Randi overcame adversity by undergoing chemotherapy and surgeries for a year while owning the company. The couple then sold the business since Randi said “somebody made us an offer that we couldn’t say no to.”
Randi, who had a longtime passion for buying raw food for her dogs, then went to work for a raw food company and did event sales. But she didn’t enjoy the job and called Natural Pet Pantry to see if they needed help with sales.
The owner said, ‘I’m actually looking to sell my company,’ and “before you knew it, we bought it.”
Natural Pet Pantry was Randi’s passion, and Rolf supported her every step of her journey. Randi said her primary motivation for her and Rolf buying the business was seeing the dramatic difference in feeding their dogs a raw diet and Randi wanted to share her knowledge with other pet owners “because there’s nobody out there to educate them. There’s very few vets that are out there. People usually go to the vet that’s closest to their house. They don’t pick the best vet based on their qualifications.”
On their first day of their new business, Randi cried. The previous owner was not organized, losing money, and the Astroms became “overwhelmed” at the prospects facing them.
“The stress was unbelievable,” Rolf told the Puget Sound Business Journal in April 2016.
But the Astroms didn’t give up with this adversity, and eventually thrived.
“It wasn’t really a profitable business when we bought it, but we loved the products and we saw something here that made a lot of sense,” Rolf said.
Randi elaborated on the obstacles when they bought Natural Pet Pantry.
“We had to organize it the way we wanted it, so it wasn’t as organized as we were and it was stressful to organize our new business,” she said. “I don’t think it’s any different than anybody else buying an existing business. Customers see a new owner, and they wonder what changes are going to be. You take baby steps so that your customers aren’t afraid because they have an existing customer base. You come into an existing business, and you have to continue to do business as usual but you have to figure out what helped the company turn a profit and what wasn’t profitable. What wasn’t profitable, you had to then change and maybe not offer that anymore. We had to customize the business so that it could be a profitable business.
“We’re very organized people, so you just expect when you buy a business, that they’re as organized as you are. Then you realize we’re more organized and it’s going to be more work than we thought.”
“There were a lot of procedures we had to put in place that weren’t there,” she added. “We really didn’t focus on anything but moving forward. We didn’t dwell on whether or not we were profitable. We were just cruising along, doing our thing.”
The Astroms actually boosted sales each month since they bought the business until they sold Natural Pet Pantry in 2017. In 2016, they had a 40 percent growth.
Randi, 60, worked with Rolf, 62, as manufacturers and sold real pet food to independent retailers and had a home delivery business to direct customers. In 2014, the couple expanded operations to a store in Kirkland.
“I opened Kirkland so I could start educating people about getting their dogs and cats on raw food,” Randi said. “My focus was to make dogs and cats as healthy as we could through nutrition.”
The couple also inherited a little retail store in Burien, which opened in 2001 and served cooked stews made by the Astrom’s employees and where customers bought real food and pet treats.
Randi worked in sales at Natural Pet Pantry, while Rolf managed operations in production.
“We both had different roles in the business and our roles complemented one another,” Randi said. “We made a good team.”
Randi said her greatest gratification and pride of owning Natural Pet Pantry was “helping people learn how to making their dogs and cats healthier. Helping people learn how to make their pets feel good by eating an appropriate diet.
“…With a species-appropriate diet, (it) is real food. Food is medicine, food heals. We were able to teach people how to learn to to take care of their pets by providing them real food as opposed to highly processed bags of kibble, which is nonfood. It’s grain, it’s rendered.”
The Astroms produced and made their food with no grains, fillers, byproducts, chemicals, or preservatives. Randi engaged with pet owners and what was best for their loving animals, while considering them family and also treating their animals like they were their own pets.
“Especially home delivery, you’re dropping something off,” Randi said about feeling her customers were family. “(While) I wasn’t personally doing it, it’s a consumable business. It’s not like selling a car and you’re not seeing them for four years. You’re selling food and that’s what’s getting replenished frequently so you get to know your customers.”
She was passionate about educating owners on proper nutrition for their pets.
“It was about proving raw and cooked complete diets for dogs and cats,” Randi said. “We did not sell or offer any kibble. We did offer healthy treats from companies we liked and supplements and add-ons that we purchased and sold. But basically, we manufactured raw diets and cooked diets. Raw diets for dogs and cats and (also) cooked diets for dogs. Ideally, raw diet is better than cooked. My passion was raw, but not every dog can do raw for whatever reason so some dogs do better on cooked.”
Randi called the Kirkland pet outlet her “dream store.”
“To have a store that only sold real food and not bags of kibble,” she said. “Only great quality treats, high quality treats. To have a store where people walk in and think it’s a pet store and they’re going to buy a bag of food only to find out we don’t sell bags of food. And they want to know why don’t you, ‘Isn’t that what dogs eat?’ And then you teach them, ‘No, that’s not what they eat.’ So you have an opportunity to educate people because they simply walked into your store thinking they can pick up their bag of kibble because they were low on it.”
The Astroms sold their food to premium pet stores, while Randi consulted with holistic veterinarians and held events, including informational classes. They also did animal rescue events yearly.
Randi stressed that a raw or cooked diet helps pets “in every imaginable way, it’s good for their brain, body, their teeth, their health, everything. It’s like going to McDonald’s every day to actually having a home cooked meal. It helps with better digestion.”
“They didn’t have any acute skin, usually were the appropriate body weight. They didn’t have any synthetics vitamins put in them. All the nutrition and resources came from whole foods. It would help with skin sensitivities, allergies. Often times, dogs that have bowel issues, they are just not eating a species-appropriate diet, so the way we helped we would get dogs and cats on a species-appropriate diets that they were designed to eat. As a result, they’re now eating foods that keeps their bodies working as efficiently as they can, and in turn, making them healthier.”
Randi, as the face of the business in sales, received many testimonials over the years she and Rolf owned the business. One testimonial by a man named Kurt is indelibly etched in her mind.
He had a 12-year-old Labrador Retriever and came into the Kirkland store looking for kibble. I said, ‘Sorry, we only sell raw food.’ He goes, ‘I want to try it.’ I said, ‘But your dog is 12.’ He also told me his dog wasn’t doing well. I said, ‘If you buy this food, it’s great for your dog, however, being that you have a Labrador Retriever that is 12, we don’t know how long they’re going to last’…He then starts feeding his dog Lucy at age 12 a raw diet and she lived to 16.
“Basically, the review was, ‘I feel bad I didn’t feed this to my dog knowing what I know now from my dog’s whole life. I feel I let my dog down now knowing this is how I was supposed to feed.’”
Randi felt great empathy for Kurt but overwhelmed with joy she “saved his dog’s life.”
“Vets don’t get nutritional training at school,” she said. … “(The pet owners) feel bad for not being an advocate for their pets. When they find their food their pet has more energy, feels better, they’re absorbing more food, it’s a big deal when you have that moment where it clicks in someone’s head that they’re eating (raw food) and they’re thriving. It’s a pretty neat compliment.”
In addition to educating the beloved pet owners, the Astroms used the best and most impeccable practices in their business, including full disclosure of ingredients on their labels.
“We were bound by different pet food,” Randi said. “You had to put certain things in, in the pet food industry. You had to meet certain standards. … We sourced from good people. We used a lot of larger companies like Charlie’s Produce.”
They also did their diligence in how they sourced products to get into food.
“You always do the best you can,” Randi said. “You use the best sources that are available to you. Sometimes, you get products you have to return or have to throw away because it doesn’t meet your standards. We would work with specialty companies. When we would get the product in, we didn’t get a whole cow in. We would get ground meat in. We didn’t take an animal and get it in whole like an old-time butcher. We would get duck necks, turkey necks so we would grind bone and that’s a calcium source.”
In addition, the Astroms also used best practices by introducing “ugly organics.” Randi first read about the movement in France.
“That’s when we went to using organic vegetables because they were affordable,” she said. “You grow a carrot and it comes out with two funny looking carrots on it, or it’s not perfect. It didn’t matter because all of our stuff was put through a food processor, so we were able to get certified organic products because it wasn’t pretty enough for the grocery store shelves. We went from conventional vegetables, we were the ones that changed it to certified organic vegetables, what’s referred to as ugly organics. We actually used and helped to prevent products from going to landfills because it wasn’t pretty. Ugly organics was a huge part of our business. That was a big step we took.”
Randi learned invaluable lessons from owning the business with Rolf.
“People want to know the truth and want to do the best for their animals,” Randi said. “But they don’t know how to go about finding anybody that will help them. I think the greatest success is if you come from a place of wellness so you can keep your dogs as healthy as possible. They’re going to die at some point. But I can tell you your dog is going to have a better chance of staying healthy, but there’s no guarantees. The best thing is that people are open to learning and I was able to help people feel good about what they were feeding their pets and making a difference in their lives.
“People loved to see how their dogs and cats worked after eating raw food. It was an incredibly huge experience. When the cats used their litter box, there is really no smell. Raw food really does not have a smell. Their skin, their eyes, their coats and digestive tract and most importantly their poop (improved). Everything you know about a dog and probably a cat is in their poop. What their eating isn’t just coming out the other end. But they’re actually absorbing the food that their eating.”
While Randi and Rolf greatly complemented each other in the business, Randi said that “I had it much easier than Rolf because people would spend the whole day thanking me and Rolf had employees complaining about each other, or meat wouldn’t come in or it would come in and we would have to reject it because we didn’t like the quality. Just managing production and keeping the flow of everything going. He had to deal with many more problems.”
Rolf “had to make sure we have enough food on the shelves, and all I got to do was tell everybody how wonderful our products were and help make their pets healthy. I got all the accolades and Rolf got all the aggravation. He had to deal with managing people, a staff, and it’s not easy in production and home delivery. We had a freezer truck. We had packaging, printers, labels. Rolf had to deal with all of that, the employees if they don’t get along. All I had to do was let people know what was the right way to feed their pets.”
“He had to deal with supply chain and hiring employees,” Randi added. “You have to make sure you have enough products coming in to make and then you have to make sure you have enough packaging to put the product in and then you have to figure out how to distribute the product in the most efficient way. He had all the puzzle pieces; I got the puzzle when the puzzle was finished. He had to put the puzzle pieces together and all I had to do was to show somebody the puzzle.”
Rolf worked in South Park in Seattle with his employees manufacturing and producing food, while Randi usually worked in the Kirkland store. While Rolf had much more stress in his job, he also felt gratification.
“It’s fun to get up in the morning, partly because or what we do,” Rolf told the Puget Sound Business Journal. “It’s rather motivating to make a difference.”
The couple had a difficult and challenging balancing role of managing life at home and business together.
“I’ve always been in business with my husband. It’s hard,” Randi said. “You give up vacations, you’re on 24/7. You get freezers and power than can go out. You’re just always on. I had the easier of the two jobs because I got to make people happy and Rolf had to make sure things got done. Once we opened Kirkland, it was a seven day a week business.
“I think we’ve been very fortunate. We survived working together,” Randi admitted. “It’s very hard to work together as a husband and wife. When you have a spouse and they’re in another industry, they can tell you what they did in their office that day. When we got home, we didn’t talk about what we did that day because then it’s like bringing work home. Did (being in business together) strengthen our marriage? No, I don’t think most marriages would have survived it working together all these years. Not at all.”
“We never had freedom. We sacrificed a lot,” Randi added. “Did we get to retire early? Yes, but that might have more to do with not having kids. If strength comes from learning how to cope then I guess it strengthened (our marriage), (although) it doesn’t make for a better marriage, but we’ve been married 32 years.”
“It’s very difficult to be in business with their spouse,” Randi continued. “It’s something else to disagree about. There’s two people running the business. It’s not easy.”
After years of being serial entrepreneurs, the Astroms decided to sell their business because “my husband was tired of being a babysitter for a bunch of adults that argued,” Randi said. “It was lot of work, a long commute. Commuting to South Park from (our home in) Woodinville and being stuck in traffic sometimes for an hour and half a day, one way, it’s very stressful.”
While it was difficult for Randi to give up Natural Pet Pantry, she said she felt stress, too, and was ready to sell. Rolf gave a glowing testimonial of IBA president and CEO Gregory Kovsky on behalf of him and his wife after the sales process.
“We talked with Gregory Kovsky of IBA a year before going to market and even though he could have signed us then, he recommended waiting a year given our revenue growth to achieve the best possible sale price,” Rolf said. “Once the decision was made to sell, we consulted with multiple brokers before we selected IBA. Several brokers actually quoted us higher values for our company but we felt Gregory’s grounded information was realistic and trustworthy.
“Once we went ‘live,’ we had a professional package to present and we had three qualified buyers within weeks. Selling a business that you are personally invested in can be very emotional and you need a steady captain by the rudder to keep you going through the process. Gregory Kovsky is that captain.”
Kovsky was completely humbled that the Astroms trusted him to sell the business at what he called a “fair market price.”
“I hope all my clients trust me,” Kovsky said. “It means a lot to me. What I’m selling is knowledge, experience and ability. I’ve been doing this over 27 years. All I have in this business is my reputation so people hire me like they would an attorney because of my reputation and my performance in the past. I’m honored that they trusted me, but I hope that my clients will trust me because I only know how to do things one way and that’s with integrity and skill.”
Randi said she and Rolf actually waited six months — not a year — before consulting again with Kovsky. She wanted to sell at the beginning, but said Kovsky “was right” about waiting. “I understood he was doing it in our best interest.”
“Greg’s a really good guy. If I had to do it all over again, I would go through Greg,” Randi said. “I really like Greg and (he) feeds his dog raw, too. He believed in me so much that he gave me an opportunity to teach him how to feed his dogs. If he had dogs and didn’t understand what our business was, that wasn’t going to be helpful. I needed him to believe what we did really made a difference.”
Kovsky, indeed, followed Randi’s advice about a raw diet for his dogs and how the Astroms ran their business.
“(It’s a) fascinating story on how they sought to address health issues in pets with proper diet,” Kovsky said. “I largely credit the diet for our Weimaraner, Santorini, living to 16 years of age. Our current Weimaraner, Tasmania, has eaten the diet since she was a puppy.”
Kovsky has true and utmost respect and admiration for the Astroms.
“They’re rock-solid people of high integrity,” he said. “(They’re) people who want to do the right thing. They’re very intelligent, negotiated in good faith (and) wanted to sell the business using best practices.”
Jeff Howlett bought Natural Pet Pantry through IBA from the Astroms. Randi had a candid message to Howlett at the time.
“We were very hands-on, we were there when our employees were there,” she said. “We had really good people. I told Jeff, ‘Whatever you do, you make sure you take care of these three people,’ and those people are still there. They were major in management. Those three people were integral to our business. I worked with one of them because she was in retail and (then) she now she does more stuff with Jeff. Rolf worked with (two) people in production, home delivery, customer stuff, and ordering. I just said, ‘You better take good care of these people,’ (and) he has.”
After selling Natural Pet Pantry, Rolf, who is from Sweden and has the same entrepreneurial spirit as Randi, opened a vintage motorcycle business for enjoyment for a year, while Randi enjoyed retirement before working for fun at a high-end shoe store. A car buff, Rolf also previously sold and rebuilt hot rod cars. The couple has enjoyed their freedom by taking vacations and “mostly worked with dogs so we like to stay close to home.”
Coming from Sweden to the United States and owning multiple successful business, Rolf has lived the American dream. Randi, meanwhile, feels grateful to live such a fulfilling life, despite the hardships being a business owner.
“It’s been a good life, but it’s been a hard life,” Randi said. “You give up a lot. Selling the business, I am so happy, especially during this pandemic. I love not having this responsibility.”
An animal rights advocate and supremely outgoing person, Randi said it’s all about the relationships she built with her customers and devoted pet owners.
“It’s not about the money,” Randi said. “I was not in the business to take advantage of people. I was in the business to make relationships between people and pets stronger, better. It’s a consumable, you see these people all the time. You want them to come back. You’ll do anything. If it’s 10 o’clock at night and if somebody runs out of food and your dog has nothing to eat the next morning, I would bring it to them, even if I had to drive 20 miles. I was always just a phone call away for anybody. Most people aren’t like that. You can’t be. But that’s just how I am.”
For Randi, owning Natural Pet Pantry was the highlight of her entrepreneurial career and life.
“One hundred percent, she says happily. “It was the greatest. I’m amazing with people and I just get joy out of helping others. It was my passion to make a difference for people and their pets. It still is. It’s my passion. I could make a difference, and I loved to make a difference.”
David Garfield is an international award-winning freelance writer based in Lawrence, Kansas. He’s been writing professionally since 1995 and has written over 20 magazine cover stories. A 1988 University of Kansas honors graduate, David has written on a variety of subjects during his long and successful career, including covering athletics at the University of Kansas, the Kansas City Royals and Kansas City Chiefs with a special emphasis on telling stories about the people behind achievement, including Hall of Famers George Brett, Roy Williams, Larry Brown, All-Star Johnny Damon, and rising NBA star Devonte’ Graham. He’s also written profiles on about 200 volunteers who played significant roles in their community. One of David’s most inspirational stories was about a Kansas native who traveled to Israel, where he donated a kidney to a 10-year-old boy and was hailed as a “hero.” David, who specializes in writing human interest profiles, has written stories from the heart on cancer survivors, recovering alcoholics and former homeless people, to successful businessmen/women, doctors, dentists, and idealist college students who wanted to change the world. He’s been published in USA Today, KANSAS! Magazine, Anchorage Daily News, Lawrence Journal-World, Lawrence Magazine, KU Today & Tomorrow, Kansas City Jewish Chronicle and Jayhawk Insider. He’s extremely excited to join the IBA family and write human interest stories on entrepreneurs who have achieved the American dream. Mr. Garfield also writes a blog about KU basketball: https://davidgarfieldshoopheaven.blogspot.com/.