Aaron Merrell began collecting experience in the pet food and treat industry in high school. What started as after school and weekend employment prepared him for a future in the industry. The experience and network contacts would prove invaluable to his current role as CEO of Fresno, California-based Plato Pet Treats.
“I started working through the ranks from driving the local truck collecting product at places like Foster Farms down the road. I was doing that and processing,” Merrell says. “Then I started working in the quality control portion of their plant, and then I ended up working in the administrative end of things and the procurement and stuff like that.”
That company was one of the pioneers of the pig ear dog treat in the ‘90s. They sold the company with a non-compete agreement, an agreement that expired during Merrell’s final year of an MBA at Fresno State Univ. Anxious to put his entrepreneurial spirit to work, Merrell put together a business plan to turn in for credit.
During business school, Merrell and his cohorts had studied a book by Jim Collins, “Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…And Others Don’t.”
“It talks about focusing on what you have, your unique strengths, and I kind of really took it to heart, and put together this business plan around that,” he says.
The plan included leveraging the strengths, experience and access to the supply chain Merrell had from the years of working for the same business, in the same industry, while he was growing up. Upon completion of the business plan for a pet treat company, for a good grade Merrell showed the plan to his long-time employers, and they liked the idea.
“I sat down and kind of had my ‘Shark Tank’ moment with them and another partner who owned a large pet food distribution company and a retail store in southern California,” Merrell says. “We got together and decided to start the company with the business plan as I had laid it out.”
For the next year, Merrell worked at putting the plan into action and transitioning out of his role at the other company. Then in 2006, at the original pig ear plant in Indiana, Merrell launched Plato Pet Treats and comitted full time. He chose the former pig ear plant because it was empty, had a lot of power, a lot of gas, and it was directly connected to an existing meat facility.
“I hired a team, a plant manager, and then I kind of became the jack of all trades,” Merrell says of starting the company, “from helping to develop the label to developing the recipes to actually going out and doing cold calls and trade shows and things.”
For over six years Plato continually grew until it eventually began outgrowing the space available at the Indiana facility. On July 15, 2012, Plato officially left the Indiana facility. By Sept. 1, 2012, it was up and running in Fresno. The growth of the business set the move in motion, as well as issues with the customer base, labor force and access to ingredients.
“So, I relocated the company, and actually in a very short amount of time, I was able to transition from operating in Indiana to operating in Fresno with basically zero carryover as far as our team from the manufacturing side,” Merrell says.