Building an Empire
The Wade Graskewicz Story
Despite the fact that 90-percent of startup businesses fail or the impossible odds of succeeding from the bottom of a $23 billion industry, Wade Graskewicz carved out a brand and became his own American success story.
He formulated his own dog food line, Hi-Standard, that is made and sourced entirely in the USA. Then in 2011, he acquired both Joy Pet Food and Best Feeds brands which gave his distribution a reach into 90-percent of the United States as well as international markets.
As a young man growing up in Pinckneyville, Illinois, population 5,600, Wade Graskewicz never envisioned growing his own global brand. In college he majored in business and played college basketball in Joplin, Missouri, only to return home and discover the job situation was still the same.
He ended up reluctantly working in the area coal mines and was miserable. Needing an outlet, he became interested in hunting and working with hunting dogs. It was that pastime where Wade found his passion.
His journey into a new business began in 1988 when he partnered with a friend and opened a small hunting and dog supply store in his hometown. Within two short years, Wade bought out his partner’s share of the business and began focusing his attention on the store’s robust dog food sales.
Having bred and raised German Shepherds, Jack Russell Terriers and Coonhounds, he understood what breeders and pet owners wanted. Like himself, Wade’s loyal customer base expected high quality dog food at a reasonable price point.
“My dogs are my pets – they are not pieces of merchandise,” Wade Graskewicz said. “There were really good dog food products on the market, but they were quite expensive. I wanted to create above standard, high quality dog food that was fairly priced.”
And with that focus, he spent the next eight years running his business and trying to develop the perfect dog food formulation. Eventually, he developed a formula that met his high standard of quality at a comfortable price for his customer base.
It was then that he encountered his first major challenge – packaging. Originally, Wade anticipated packaging in units of 500, however, he was shocked to learn he would have to order 40,000 empty bags – 80 times more than what he needed for a first order.
While daunted by the prospect of growing his brand big enough to support a massive packaging order, he took the risk and bet on himself. Having spent ten years of building his own business and creating his dog food formula, Wade prepared to work even harder.
He soon discovered yet another major hurdle of bringing his product to market – manufacturing. Big name pet food manufacturers have their own processing plants, but small independent business owners like Wade must research and secure their own manufacturer.
“When I first started nobody wanted to manufacture pet food for me,” Wade said. “So, I was forced to go to this small plant. I gave them the ingredients, they gave me a price and it was all good.”
Then, the night before his dog food was to be made, Wade had a night of restless sleep. He felt something wasn’t right. Awake at 3 a.m., he decided to make a surprise visit to the plant and drove five hours to the manufacturing facility.
Unannounced, Wade went to the manufacturing area he had been shown on the previous tour. He was stunned to discover that the plant was not accurately following his formula, so he demanded his product bags be loaded in his vehicle.
He severed ties with the facility and began seeking another manufacturing facility. He had learned one of his first valuable lessons and became even more diligent about how his dog food would be manufactured, packaged and distributed.
Regardless of the setbacks, Wade pressed on and began mass production of his dog food and in 1998 Hi-Standard Dog Food was born. In the beginning, he would load up his Dodge dually truck with 60-pound and 80-pound bags of dog food, tarp it over and hit the road at 4 a.m. every morning.
He made his deliveries and pushed to get back to open his store in Pinckneyville, Illinois by 8:30 a.m. to open his store. He spent his days running the store and planning for the next day’s run. In the early years, his mother, Ruby Graskewicz, would pitch in by answering phones and doing the billing.
Also, growing up and working alongside Wade was his son Skyler, born the same year Hi-Standard Suppliers opened its doors. From a child watching Sesame Street in his father’s office to later doing odd-jobs, Skyler became ingrained in every aspect of the business.
During those early lean years, Wade lived in a very small older mobile home trying to scrape out a living and get his business on its feet. He finally had a goal. He envisioned a family-run business to pass on to his son. Nothing, not even the big setbacks would stop his progress.
Though the odds were stacked against him, Wade fueled his business with optimism and hard work. He persevered. Today Wade’s brands blanket most of the United States and a massive international market. He carries 25 different products in 60 different size bags.
Now, in his mid-50’s, Wade is enjoying the ability to work side-by-side with his son. He has even delegated entire areas of the business to Skyler who has developed a keen business acumen in the shipping and exporting area, especially to international markets.
Naming Skyler as president of the company has provided Wade the time necessary to re-evaluate the business and make new goals. As he moves into his 30th year in business, Wade shows no signs of slowing down.
He has challenged himself in new ways by expanding lines, territories and creating new formulas such as the company’s Grain Free and Ultimate products. His tenacity has paid off, even in the international markets where he has seen sales increase as much as 10-percent in one month.
He credits his family’s constant encouragement for the success of his business. Through the many challenges, the focus on building a family-operated business has been his motivating drive to succeed.
“My wife Lisa has also been a very big part of my success,” Wade said. “She is an interior designer and very talented in her own right. She owns Interiors Designed by Lisa and I have to credit her with helping me stay focused and do what I had to do.”
Wade believes what sets his dog food apart from others is three-fold. First, he sources and manufactures his dog food in the United States and is allowed the preferred designation “Made in the USA” on his packaging. Much of the industry cannot make that claim.
Secondly, he offers his products at a lower price by essentially cutting out the middleman. Through operating his business lean, Wade has managed to produce a high-quality pet food for a reasonable price that pet owners can afford.
“There are no real secrets in the dog food industry, no magical formula,” Wade said. “Some of the big industry names are simply good at marketing, but not necessarily at making good quality pet food at an affordable price. Many have just been around a long time, but use cheap commodities in their food.”
The third reason Wade cites for his successful dog food line is the service and care that customers can expect from a family-run business. Even though the business has several phone lines and people working the phones, it is not unusual for Wade to pick up and talk to customers.
“Just the other day, we had all the lines lit up, ringing in the office, so I jumped in and answered a line. It was a customer from Utah or Idaho and he had some questions regarding which product he should be feeding his dog, so I answered his questions.”
“Then the caller asked, ‘Who am I speaking to?’ and I told him my name. He then asked, ‘What is your title?’ I told him I was the owner. He thanked me for answering his questions but then asked, ‘What are you doing answering the phone?’ I told him I jump in and do whatever needs done.”
That kind of customer service is the cornerstone of the business. For Wade, talking to customers personally and providing them with nutritional guidance for their pet’s health is just as important as what goes in every bag of dog food he sells. It is more than a brand, it is his own Hi-Standard.