Wodonga's biggest private employer celebrates its golden anniversary this month. Boss Barry O'Sullivan reflects on the past and the future.

Dog's world: Mars Petcare Australia boss Barry O'Sullivan with pet Lola. He believes the Wodonga pet food factory has a bright future as it marks its 50th anniversary. Pictures: SIMON BAYLISS

Dog's world: Mars Petcare Australia boss Barry O'Sullivan with pet Lola. He believes the Wodonga pet food factory has a bright future as it marks its 50th anniversary. Pictures: SIMON BAYLISS

MORE than 550 million cans and trays of dog and cat food leave Wodonga’s Mars Petcare factory every year – that’s the equivalent of 22 products for each Australian.

It’s a long way from 1967 when a tin of Pal dog food cost 18 cents and the first production run, at what was then known as Uncle Ben’s, involved 1000 cans.

About 200 were initially employed at the plant which was established by the American-based Mars family at a time when processed pet food was imported.

In 1965, John Mars came to Australia to assess prospects for processing and he will return this month for 50th anniversary celebrations.

Today’s general manager of Mars Petcare Australia, Irishman Barry O’Sullivan, says Mr Mars’ pioneering attitude is still a guide.

“We're very proud to build on the legacy of John from 50 years ago,” Mr O’Sullivan said.

“There's a huge commitment to manufacturing in Australia, there's a huge commitment to being a big player in regional Australia and in terms of the growth of the business we've big ambitions to really return to those entrepreneurial roots of John when he started off the business and be much more innovative in the market.”

The move to an online retail world has not left Mars untouched with Mr O’Sullivan saying that although Whiskas or Pedigree would not be sold direct online, web promotion was increasingly important.

Etched in history: Veteran Mars worker Brett Brown points to his name on a board for those who have worked at the site for 10 years or more, be they current or retired.

Etched in history: Veteran Mars worker Brett Brown points to his name on a board for those who have worked at the site for 10 years or more, be they current or retired.

“(Consumers) made their decisions standing in front of a shelf, looking at the packs, picking them up, turning them around, looking at the ingredients on the back on the pack,” Mr O’Sullivan said.

He said buyers would now want “3D images...on screen, so people actually look it and while they can't touch it they can turn it around, they can study the label”.

Overall the pet food market is growing slowly and barriers to dog and cat ownership, particularly in capital cities, hurt. 

They include rental rules limiting dog and cat ownership and access to fenced areas in public parks.

Nevertheless, the vibe at Mars in Wodonga where pets accompany their owners to work, remains upbeat with the average career there covering 17 years.

For acting plant manager Brett Brown, who followed his brother Kevin to Mars in 1986, it is the family feel which makes it special, noting his younger brother Kade also works there.

“People really tend to come to Mars and stay with Mars and that’s reflected in our tenure...one associate, Evan Jones, who's now retired, he made 45 years worth of service,” Mr Brown said.

“I'm 48, hopefully I've at least got another 10 years left in me and I love what I do.

“I love coming to work...it's a terrific place to work with great people, great culture that's cascaded back down from the Mars family.”

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