Dr. Antje Eckel
Founder and CEO
Dr. Eckel Animal Nutrition
INTERVIEW: Lessons from a CEO Who Built Her Company from Scratch – Women in Food & Agriculture
This year, German animal nutrition firm Dr. Eckel marks 25 years of existence. From its beginnings in the corners of the family home in Niederzissen, founder and CEO Dr Antje Eckel and her team—including her husband as well as longtime friends who have been with the business from the beginning—have grown Dr. Eckel Animal Nutrition into a respected voice on matters of innovative feed additives for animal performance and welfare, as well as feed protection. Before cutting into the cake to celebrate the milestone in a private gathering at the Feed Additives Asia event, Antje shares a few lessons learned over the business’s extraordinary trajectory.
The company Dr. Eckel Animal Nutrition began as a way for Antje, who had a degree in agricultural engineering and a growing family with her university sweetheart Bernhard, to reconcile her desire for a career and a family. “After finishing my PhD, I found myself in the countryside with two little children, a husband with a very exciting first job…but for me, I wasn’t so sure what the future would hold. One thing I was sure about, I wanted to work. But there was one big question left: how to work in a job with two little children and a salesman on the road?”
As it happens, Dr. Eckel was getting into the sector just at the right time, as companies were moving away from antibiotics and the industry was looking for different solutions. The business quickly outgrew Antje alone. “I needed a salesperson. I needed a nutritionist. And I needed a babysitter.” So she pitched her husband—whose own PhD was in animal nutrition—on the proposition of joining her business. She laughs to recall the offer: “double the work, half the pay” is what it came down to, she estimates. “When I told this to my daughter later, she said ‘oh, this is what you call true love.’ But maybe it was just juvenile naïveté,” Antje says. “Ever since June 1994, we’ve been building this company together, each of us doing what we could do best. Bernard [handled] everything about products, about science, about markets. I was responsible for finances and for organization.”
As with many startups, the early days were lean, and every penny counted. “I placed my desk in the bedroom and the garage was our first warehouse,” the CEO explains. She recounts hosting an executive from a major German chemical company at her home, around a meal cooked by her neighbor: “The story we told the guest was, ‘we’re sorry, there’s no good restaurant in this village’, [but] the truth was ‘sorry, we don’t have money.’” Instead, during those times, the company chose to focus its resources on building the brand. Antje still remembers running their very first advertisement, and the thrill of hearing a Swiss prospect reference it shortly thereafter. It really hammered the lesson home: “marketing works.”
The importance of strategy
Growing a startup as it expands into new markets and simultaneously raising a family required nimble organization; of course, only one of the Drs. Eckel could travel at once. Antje recalls her doubts when Bernhard began pushing for exports to East Asia relatively early on in the company’s development, at a time when she felt the company should be moving more cautiously and focusing on more local markets. She claims that while Bernhard was on his way to VIV via the Philippines, she was getting together with her team and trying to prepare arguments about why it was not the right time to move into Asia, when someone pointed out that, counter intuitively, shipping to the Philippines was actually cheaper than shipping to the south of France. “It’s important to have a solid strategy…but it is just as important to throw it overboard if you find a better one,” she states. “So by the time Bernhard came back, we knew more reasons to go to the Philippines than he did, and it was the start of our export business.” They quickly noted with pleasure that customers in Asia were more open to innovation than the established European players, and so business grew fast.
As the company continued to grow, more strategic milestones presented the opportunity for lessons. Launching their own branded solutions backed by internal R&D was long an important priority for the company, but toll manufacturing proved to be a minefield. “You can make as many contracts [and] NDAs as you want, but if you work with third parties you can always lose [proprietary] knowhow,” Antje warns. And so the company eventually took the nerve-wracking decision to launch its own plant. “Going into production is like being pregnant, you can’t just partially do it,” she jests. “And after you have [in-house] production, it changes your life totally.”
It’s been ten years since the company’s first manufacturing site began production, and 25 years since the company itself was formed. Today, Dr. Eckel now boasts employees from over 20 countries. But, seen from another perspective, it has not drifted so far from its roots: the company’s headquarters is still in the small town of Niederzissen, it still employs Antje and Bernhard’s first assistant, Ingrid, among several others who have been with Dr. Eckel for more than two decades, and its focus is still on good health and well-being for animals and humans.
One final key to this longevity has been the company’s determination to stay ahead of the market, whether with antibiotic alternatives in the 1990s or animal welfare solutions in the 2000’s. “Over the years, we’d always been investing in R&D…because we are curious and have fun doing it,” recounts the CEO. “And there is one thing I promise: you will get a lot more innovations in the coming years from us.”