Ted Mischaikov of Prairie Dog Pet Products: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO
You need to manage up as well as manage down. You can’t just leave it to your colleagues to take care of the relationship. Especially upper management — how well do you pay attention to those relationships above you? I see this as a key indicator as to who will advance in their professions.
As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ted Mischaikov.
Ted Mischaikov is the CEO of Prairie Dog Pet Products. He brings extensive leadership experience across a variety of industries, always finding success by enabling his team to thrive. He serves on the Pet Sustainability Coalition Board of Directors and is a past Board member of the American Pet Products Association. Most recently he was the CEO of Healthy Pet, a past portfolio company of Kinderhook, where he successfully led the company’s growth into major consumable categories while improving profitability with data driven systems and processes coupled with the discipline of continuous improvement.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
My career path has been quite varied and rather non-traditional, but it always had the common thread of working for closely held private companies. First, my background in economics and mathematics initially pointed career toward the growth side of business through analyzing new biz opportunities, although there was a progression of coming up through operations into project development, then project management and then business development. I became more involved with managing conglomerations of business units and then the transactional aspects thereof. With a focus on business development, I naturally became connected with the capital aspects of business and from there into private equity, where I was introduced to the pet industry in 2011 and found a very enjoyable industry to work within and where we also found success. Through relationships in private equity and my connection to the pet industry, I arrived here at Prairie Dog Pet Products with a great opportunity to develop another company with good assets, forward-looking technology and great people!
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
My early career challenges were many (understatement!). I started managing a fleet of fishing boats in Alaskan waters where the chaotic environment required you to be on task 24/7. I had to learn to focus on what really mattered in the moment and act decisively.
Next came the need to be effective at building business relationships in very fluid overseas environments, starting in Latin America and Southeast Asia. At the time, I was part of an international team developing large infrastructure projects. We needed to quickly operate in cultures, economies and regulatory regimes that were quite unlike the United States. Getting to know the value of local partners and understanding the cultural perspectives around business were far more important in most cases than purely the economic aspect. The math is the math is the math, but it depends where you do the math! So, if you’re working in Guatemala or Indonesia or Egypt — getting things done is very different than getting the math done. Business development was not simply a bunch of spreadsheets; rather it was developing trusting relationships based on local social value systems. That was certainly a challenge and a forever learning for me.
Also, when you’re in the growth business and experience recessions like 2000, 2008 and surprises like COVID-19, you better be nimble and able to find the upside in the chaos versus letting the challenges crush you. In each of those times, I learned to turn the equation around and find the opportunities.
Now my biggest mountain to climb is to effectively build purpose driven companies. This requires building trusted relationships not just between our employees (us) but also between us and those who choose our products for their beloved pets. You just can’t fake it because people see right through it. We strive to help people be the best parent to their pets, which means sticking to our principals of quality, safety and nutrition, provided in the manner people want and need. By doing so we/us will create deep and long-term value. Awesome stuff!
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
The drive to continue came from the work ethic instilled by immigrant parents. They came to America with absolutely nothing (maybe $20 in their pockets) and they built a life and an advantage for their kids that one simply cannot let down. I have much to live up to.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
I put in the time. Every day is a workday. It doesn’t mean that every day is a hard day or that every day is not a fun day, and once in a while I get off-grid too. It’s not about being a workaholic, rather it’s about finding a real sense of purpose, value, quality and accomplishment in working hard to make things happen for the people who rely on you.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
My most classic error was missing a deadline for a bid on a concession on a port in Argentina. I can laugh about it today because it turned out to be a disastrous project for the eventual winner, but in the moment I felt absolutely terrible about letting my team down. What was so great was that the team didn’t let me down. They said pick yourself up and get back in here, stay focused and keep working with us. In fact, when I decided to move on for another job offer, I received such a great compliment from the project supervisor. It was truly one of the nicest things anyone could have ever written and made me feel very good about my work.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
It’s the people — the effective team. We work so hard and so well together. We trust each other and always act with “good will intended.” It’s just amazing how you can bring a disparate group of people across multiple facilities into a cohesive team that come to work with a smile on their faces and their sleeves rolled up with ambition. We’re excited about the people we have and those who are joining.
We are also adroitly investing in technology and infrastructure that is future-forward. This technology provides the consumer with what they value; many options that focus on nutrition, sustainability, shelf-life, convenience and transparency into the ingredients.
One of our core beliefs is that people want to be the very best person they can be, and one way they feel really good about themselves is to take the very best care of their pets, who rely on them to make all the decisions. Our treats and diets provide a way for people to feel really good about the care they are giving to such an important part of their life; their beloved pets. It’s a virtuous circle — do good, be good, create good and good follows.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
You must stay physically fit. It’s not an option. It’s so important for your mind and body and it allows you to have some fun to boot. It gives you stamina, helps you sleep well and keeps your mind sharp, which is essential. You also need to be able to turn your direction on the people you love and focus on them and give them the attention that they need and deserve to keep the relationship strong. Find balance. That’s probably the hardest because it’s easy to take advantage of the people who love you most. You actually need to put down what you’re doing and be present when you are with friends, family and coworkers.
Another recommendation is to read a lot and get other people’s thinking, opinions and perspectives. Do not stay in your own orbit or you will quickly become a “focus group of one.” It’s so easy in our world of supersized data feeds to pick any particular issue or belief and reinforce it ad nauseum. Be open-minded to alternative ideas, seek innovation outside your industry and seek differing opinions that are deeply rooted in logic, reason and research. Stay curious!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Ha, good question! My mom is actually my strength coach and plays a very important role in my success. She believes one’s definition of success should be defined by one’s self. Through the years she has humbly exhibited grace, gratitude and positivity, but she also has very strong principles, which she is not shy to share. The story that comes to mind is when I announced to my parents that I was dropping out of my senior year of college to go fishing in Alaska. While my professorial father was angry, disappointed and dismayed, my mom simply stared at me from across the dinner table, nodded her head and wisely said, “And so your education continues…”
I am also greatly supported by my partner who, despite managing her own growing company, is generous with her time, unfiltered advice and sound business acumen.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
My focus is to be a good, reliable person. I support our local university, sustainability, civil liberties and social justice. I’m no longer reticent to speak up about these issues. For a large part of my life, I stayed away from controversial issues, but I don’t anymore.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Trust yourself. For years I thought everyone else must be right. It turned out that I had good ideas too.
- The highest paid person is not the smartest person in the room. Speak your mind and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. People will recognize it if you’re speaking with integrity and goodwill.
- You need to manage up as well as manage down. You can’t just leave it to your colleagues to take care of the relationship. Especially upper management — how well do you pay attention to those relationships above you? I see this as a key indicator as to who will advance in their professions.
- Don’t believe Excel spreadsheets. I used to have projects with 50-tab spreadsheets and in many cases was just arriving at a more perfect version of wrong. You’ve got to look up from the spreadsheet and test data with experienced people and case studies. In business development your job is to find solutions and opportunity, but you need to balance what can build in Excel versus what will happen in real life. I wish someone had told me, “Build your worksheets, but once in a while put it down and look around.”
- Seek out trustworthy people. Don’t necessarily seek out the most successful people or those in positions of power; seek out trustworthy people and build your network with them. They’re the ones that are going to last over time. Trust is the most valuable asset in a relationship or a company for that matter. Do not break it. It’s invaluable, irreplaceable and almost irreparable.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
The world needs to celebrate more often and more closely. Music is one such medium that brings people together in great numbers for great celebration. I think positive movements to improve humanity at all levels could be assisted by the artists of the world to collaborate on constructive messages of peace, productivity and intercultural support. Simply put, music brings people together. Frankly, so do pets. Hmmmmm……
How can our readers follow you on social media?
See you on LinkedIn!
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!