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Banking on KC – Joe Roetheli of Pet's Best Life

Banking on KC – Joe Roetheli of Pet's Best Life

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Kelly Scanlon:

Welcome to Banking on KC. I'm your host, Kelly Scanlon. Thank you for joining us. With us on this episode is serial entrepreneur, Joe Roetheli, who invented and then sold Greenies Dog Treats. He's also owned several other companies in a variety of sectors, including health and wellness, tool manufacturing, the restaurant industry, and many others. Now he's at it again, with a new company called Pet's Best Life, which has just recently introduced Yummy Combs Dog Treats. Welcome, Joe.

Joe Roetheli:

Kelly, thank you for having me, always delighted to visit with you.

Kelly Scanlon:

Yes, it's so good to be catching up with you again I'm really glad to see that you're back in the pet treat business. My dogs always loved your treats, so now we have a new one. But before we talk about Yummy Combs, let's take a step back and talk about what inspired your entrepreneurial journey to begin with. What led to your involvement in the pet treat business?

Joe Roetheli:

Back in 1996, we had moved here a couple of years earlier. I was working for the Department of Agriculture. Yes. Department of Agriculture. And we had these two Samoyed dogs and they both had bad breath. The male had particularly bad breath. Judy, my wife, basically said, "Joe, you've been doing research for the federal government or managing research for nearly 20 years now. Fix this problem for us."

Joe Roetheli:

So I did some research and my dentist helped me a little bit and I put together some ingredients. It was kind of like if you were baking a cake and you were just putting the dry ingredients together, no eggs, no liquids, then I'm going to mix it up, put it in dog's bowls. They liked it. They ate it. I kept doing this for, we don't know exactly how long, but it wasn't two weeks. Judy came to me and said, "Hey, do you notice how much better Ivan's breath is?" And I go, "Well, no, not really." Because you see, I was really, my goal was to keep Judy satisfied more than really thinking that I could solve the dog's problem. But we had that dog about 80% cleaned up by that time.

Joe Roetheli:

So about the same time, USDA called one day and said, "We need you to move back to Washington DC." Basically it was a ultimatum, "You have to move back to DC." Giving me ultimatums probably isn't the wisest thing to do, because my reaction was fire Uncle Sam. So I did. And so we kind of took this idea that was to clean up the dogs and said, "Well, can we make a business out of this?" So we took off and that was the start that led to Greenies. It was a happy ending.

Kelly Scanlon:

Yes. You ultimately sold to Mars, and so you're completely out of that business at this point, right?

Joe Roetheli:

That is absolutely correct. When we sold, we sold the entire thing. We have had no management responsibility. We own the ownership. We have no financial interest. There's no tails. There's no nothing. It was just a nice clean cut.

Kelly Scanlon:

Yes, but it was such a success story, because I remember when I met you, you might've been in business about a year, but at that time you were still trying to figure out how to finance the company. Judy was the queen of spreadsheets because she was keeping, I can't remember, 20 some credit cards that you were financing the business on. She was figuring out when she needed to roll them over. I mean, you guys really bootstrapped that business. After you sold to Mars, you got involved in several other startups, which I want to talk about. But let's talk about your recent one first that's Pet's Best Life and Yummy Combs. Tell us about that product and why you created this one.

Joe Roetheli:

Well, we had a five-year non-compete when we sold to Mars. So I didn't think about pets very much for a number of years. Then earlier in the teens decade, I'd started scratching my head and saying, "Well, what did we learn out of Greenies, and how could we improve it? How could we make dogs' life better? How could we have them live longer, healthier, and provide more enjoyment for a longer time to their owners?" Because, I am a pet lover. I have many times said, "I can exist without a dog, but I can't live without a dog."

Joe Roetheli:

So I had these ideas and I had six things that I really thought we could make some progress with. I was concerned with dogs gulping products and getting them lodged in their throat or not dissolving and going to their intestines and causing blockages there. I really wanted to come up with a better way to floss and clean teeth, because what many people don't know, dog owners, is that periodontal disease, which is a result of not cleaning your dog's teeth, and the calculus building up on them over time, is the number one killer of dogs. It's a pretty silent killer, because an autopsy will seldom say cause of death was periodontal disease, but a lot of them will say vital organ failure.

Joe Roetheli:

So I wanted to get that done. I wanted something that would dissolve quickly. I wanted something that would be able to take up nutrients quickly. I wanted something that we didn't have to have a high temperature to bake it, so we could preserve volatile ingredients and not just cook them off. Because it doesn't do any good to put them in and then cook them off before they get to the dog. So those were my six things.

Joe Roetheli:

One day, I had this brilliant epiphany in the middle of the afternoon that a hexagonal shape, a hexagonal perimeter, kind of size of a hockey puck, so to speak, and then the interior completely filled with hexagonal pockets that would let the teeth go down and get in there and be able to scrub and floss the teeth. It's really kind of a revolutionary thing. We have a utility patent and three design patents issued. There's two more utility patents that are pending. It's got a lot of attributes to it that we think are really good. And then we've packed that with 44% really high quality proteins. We've got 12 ingredients in there simply for wellness benefits. We really have pioneering oral care and we have advanced safety. I would say we have the most advanced safety in the pet treat business today with that product.

Kelly Scanlon:

And if I know you, you've put something in there to make dogs go wild about them, too, probably.

Joe Roetheli:

Well there's a slight chance that that could occur.

Kelly Scanlon:

I know that was always one of your hallmarks.

Joe Roetheli:

The slight chance is simply about 99.999.

Kelly Scanlon:

Exactly, right. Where can we get these? You say you have patents pending, but they are already out on the market, correct?

Joe Roetheli:

Yes, but our timing was impeccably terrible in our launch. We shipped, and this was scheduled long before, but we shipped to PetSmart the third week of March of this past spring. We all know what was going on then. There weren't any people in the stores. That has been a little bit of a tough deal. We had already, much prior to that, agreed with PetSmart that we wouldn't sell on the Internet for six to nine months' time that they were in the market. At the time we made the decision, it was a good decision. In the end, it was about the most terrible decision we could have made, because we have not been able to sell until just the last couple of weeks, now. We're out of that to where we're going to be on Amazon and Chewy before long,

Kelly Scanlon:

The little bit that you have been able to sell though, they've been accepted very well, I take it.

Joe Roetheli:

One of the interesting things is, we've had quite a bit of activity on social media and we don't respond to social medias where we get a five-star rating. As our executive VP of sales and marketing says, "We haven't been able to contact anybody because all we've gotten is five star ratings."

Kelly Scanlon:

Not a surprise. It's also not a surprise to see you involved in another startup. After you sold to Mars, as I mentioned, you were involved in a number of other companies. I think, to me, anyway, what's interesting about that is that the industries were just so varied.

Joe Roetheli:

Yeah.

Kelly Scanlon:

As a serial entrepreneur, talk to us about being at the helm of such a diverse group of companies. How were you able to acquire the knowledge base necessary to make critical decisions for the companies and to drive innovation in those industries?

Joe Roetheli:

From my perspective, it's pretty simple. It's not about the industry. It's about your philosophy about business. Ours is pretty simple. We look for a market need out there, something that needs to be solved for somebody. We go out and we find technology that will do that. We use that for product differentiation. We build a brand out of it, and then we execute. It doesn't matter what industry it is, from my perspective. We go out and hire people who know something about the industry we are in then.

Kelly Scanlon:

You and Judy have not only made a mark in the business world, you do tremendous philanthropic work internationally and here in the US. First, tell us a little bit about the work that you do. Second, what motivates you to do it on such a large scale? Because, it really is a large scale effort that you undertake.

Joe Roetheli:

Well, thank you. I will say this to start with. The philanthropic work that we have done, especially down in South America, the country of Guyana, which, when we started with them, they were ranked as the second poorest country in the Western hemisphere, but it has been the most gratifying thing I have done in my life. There is no doubt about that statement. When you do something and you, for example, give a home to somebody that might be 60 or 70 years old and has never, in their life, lived in a house, that is pretty gratifying stuff. The people are so, so grateful to have that.

Joe Roetheli:

We work through an entity called Food for the Poor. They have been absolutely excellent. We don't build the houses ourself. We basically fund them and we have input into what the villages are going to look like. We've got seven villages that we've helped build down there. There's about 350 homes, four schools, four retail shops and a couple of water projects and some micro enterprises. But that has been so gratifying. If you haven't been able to do something like that, COVID gets over, I would recommend that you find a place that's doing something like that and go take a visit and see what it's like, and feel the difference you're making.

Kelly Scanlon:

What is the extent of your involvement, other than financial?

Joe Roetheli:

Well, we go down. We help. We work with Food for the Poor and get these villages lined up with what we want in them, how big they're going to be, what's the school system, is there a school around it? If not, we build a school. If there is one that the children of these families can go to that school, we go. The people in Guyana are quite education-minded, but they have a little problem, because every time somebody gets educated and gets enough money to get out of the country, they are in North America if they have a sponsor here. So it's really a drain on the country. But they've got to be educated. That's their way out. So we get involved in some of those aspects of it. We do go down and we generally have kind of a celebration opening of the village, inauguration. The talents of these very, very poor people are amazing, what they can do in terms of dancing and singing that interacts with their culture. I'm fascinated by it.

Kelly Scanlon:

I'm also curious about one other thing, and that is, with the brain drain that you described that's occurring there, with your entrepreneurial background, your entrepreneurial skills, your business mind, have you ever thought about helping them to start industry there so that maybe people would have a reason to stay?

Joe Roetheli:

Well, yes we have, in fact. Thank you for the question. We purchased a Mobile sawmill. We work with the chairman of Region Two and got this mobile sawmill in place down there and got that industry started. We worked very closely with the chairman of the region and got a plan put together to replant trees after they cut and put that together so they could do that. We also started a couple of poultry projects down there, because one of the needs that the country has is, they do not have very much access to animal protein. They basically survive off of beans and things like that. So having poultry in their diet is very important. They've done some really interesting things in the prisons with starting poultry projects there, raising poultry and carrying it all the way through to their meals.

Kelly Scanlon:

The Henry Bloch School of Management established an Entrepreneur Hall of Fame, and you and Judy were the visionaries behind that. You helped to finance it. Tell us about the Hall of Fame and why you thought it was important to establish it right here in Kansas City.

Joe Roetheli:

Well, I saw the entrepreneurs of this city and said, "You know, we really have quite a few of them." I think that both students and other people that are interested in business in any way, or interested in starting a business, could really benefit if we had a hall of fame that explained how people got to where they are. Because, I am of the opinion that most people have a real difficulty. They drive by the Bloch building downtown and they, "Wow, what's that?"

Joe Roetheli:

What they don't realize is Henry and his brother started walking up and down the street trying to get a business started. And today it's H&R Block. They started it and they were out there right in it. In fact, one of the artifacts that I think is really impressive in the Hall of Fame is Henry Bloch's first submission of his income tax form, for his first year. It's very, very meager dollars on there, but he kept fighting. He kept going. He persisted, and he grew that business to what it is today. That's a story that most people, I think, can learn from, if they can understand how small it started, that they can tackle something like that and get something started. You can't just jump in and build the H&R Block of today overnight. It takes a lot of time. It takes a lot of persistence. It takes a lot of passion to do something like that, but it's doable.

Joe Roetheli:

Another one of the artifacts that we have that I am very fond of is the letter that Lamar Hunt wrote on American Airlines letterhead, as he was flying back from a meeting with the NFL, who had just rejected his application for a team in the NFL. He wrote this letter to a number of his friends and basically said, "Let's start our own conference." Hence, the American Football League, and today's Kansas City Chiefs were part of that. They were Dallas at the time, but Kansas City Chiefs are a product of that effort. That letter, one little letter on an airplane, on American Airlines letterhead, started the American Football Conference. And look what it is today.

Kelly Scanlon:

This is open to the public. This isn't just something that you can see if you're a student there at the Bloch School. It is open to the public. What is that experience like? If I were to go to visit the Kansas City Entrepreneur Hall of Fame, what would I see? How would I interact with it?

Joe Roetheli:

Sure. What you're going to see is, you're going to see some background on each of the people that's been inducted and the story about them and how they got to where they are. You're also going to be able to watch video of it and how the hall of fame got started, and some of the people that are in it. There's some interviews of people. I think everybody really ought to go and just see and think about how all of these people who became truly great entrepreneurs started out just as a ordinary person out on the street. But they had a dream. They had passion. They had persistence. And they made that dream come true.

Kelly Scanlon:

Joe, you and Judy have come such a long way since your childhood. I've heard you talk about how you grew up poor in the Ozarks. Then every time I hear or read about Judy putting on plays and selling admission and popcorn to her friends and family, growing up in Florida, it makes me smile. Through all your entrepreneurial and philanthropic ventures, what's been your North Star? Have you had a philosophy that you followed steadfastly that's served you well?

Joe Roetheli:

Well, yes. I've had a couple of things. One of them is that many people have told me, "Joe, you're not out in left field. You haven't found the stadium yet." What really was my North Star is, I have long had and have refined it, it's changed some over time, but I somehow had the insight to write out what I would like my epitaph to someday be. When I retire, when I die, whatever, what would I like people to say about me? And here's what I'd like for them to say, "He loved God and family. He was a fun-loving, [inaudible 00:00:18:17]-thinking entrepreneur who helped many."

Joe Roetheli:

Now, if you start with something like that as a goal, then you work backwards and you lay out, "Well, how am I going to get there?" If you do that and you lay out those stepping stones as a path from where you are today, to where you want to go, it makes decision-making immensely easier than most people make it out to be. Because you simply ask one question, when you're making a decision, "Does this take me to my goal, or not?" If it doesn't, decision made. Don't do it. If it does, yes. I'll go that road and take that step, and therefore you get another decision made. You can do so much more that way, in my opinion, than most people think that they can do. And reaching each one of those stepping stones along the way is reaching a goal. It's time to celebrate when you reach a goal.

Kelly Scanlon:

Joe, you have done so much. You and Judy as a team have done so much. Thank you for all that you've contributed to Kansas City. Can't wait to see where this latest entrepreneurial venture goes. Yummy Combs, starting in late December, early January, you'll be able to get those on Amazon and Chewy's. Best of luck with all that. And again, thank you so much for all that you do.

Joe Roetheli:

Well, and thank you for all you do, Kelly. We've been around you now for most of two decades, I believe.

Kelly Scanlon:

Yes.

Joe Roetheli:

If I recall correctly.

Kelly Scanlon:

Yes.

Joe Roetheli:

And we appreciate all that you've done to contribute to Kansas City, too.

Joe Close:

This is Joe Close, president of Country Club Bank. Thank you to Joe Roetheli for being our guest on this episode of Banking on KC. Congratulations to Joe and his wife, Judy, on the launch of yet another business. Serial entrepreneurs many times over, the Roetheli's epitomize the passion and dogged determination necessary to launch and grow companies that have attracted international acclaim and then successfully exited from them. They also embody a community spirit that has propelled them to build homes and schools in Guyana. And closer to home, they have worked with the UMKC Bloch School of Management to finance their vision of an Entrepreneur Hall of Fame that celebrates legendary Kansas Citians who built businesses from the ground up. At Country Club Bank, the legacy of our former chairman and entrepreneur, Byron Thompson, endures, as we continue to embrace old new ideas and work within the community to inspire bright futures for Kansas Citians. Thanks for tuning in this week. We're banking on you, Kansas City. Country Club Bank, member, FDIC.