Highlights from the Pet Industry Leadership Summit



The 2020 Pet Industry Leadership Summit provided our industry’s leaders with current updates and future insights. Between the latest research from the Human-Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI), The Pet Care Trust and the Pet Leadership Council, and current projects from the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council's (PIJAC), the Summit offered a wealth of information that encourages my optimism about the pet industry’s future.


Teamwork Makes The Dream Work

One of the biggest topics discussed throughout the show revolved around the importance of teamwork and communication. It’s common knowledge that a team can make or break a business, and building that team can be accomplished in different ways.


Robyn Benincasa, a former adventurer racer and the keynote speaker, shared valuable teamwork and team building tips, highlighting that her teammates displayed creativity and class and left their egos at the door, which allowed the team to function as a whole.


While it may seem fair to divide up work evenly, Benincasa noted that in some situations, it may be more effective for the team to lean on one member more heavily than another. A team is only as strong as its weakest link, and team leaders must step in to support those who need it mostmaybe even taking on another individual’s work in order to let them shine. 


Don't Market To Customers, Educate Them
Michael Johnson, a consumer analyst, discussed that the wants and needs of consumers should be top of mind for pet businesses. In an animated and entertaining presentation, Johnson broke down that all customers are the same, in that they want to be treated to their specific needs. Bridging the gap between sales professional and confidant by sharing information for a customer's benefit—a genuine interaction—is what they are looking for. 


Retail partners play a huge role in the impact of education. While pet owners may actively be interested in what they’re giving their pets, many may not know where to begin online and immediately seek help from store employees. Serving as a resource has always been an important role for in-store sales teams, but now there needs to be a true voice, customer interest and passion. The importance of developing an optimal customer strategy and understanding the needs of the customer is key to success in business. The customers you already have are your most important ones. 


Johnson also highlighted that, as much as the grain-free controversy with DCM has rocked our industry, few customers truly understand the magnitude of it. Half of them likely are unaware of a problem at all. 


Questions on DCM and Grain-Free Diets

Speaking of DCM and grain-free diets—the elephant in the room—the topic was addressed in a lunch session featuring Pet Food Insitute’s Dana Brooks and the FDA’s Dr. Tim Schell, Ph.D. The discussion started at the FDA’s first announcement warning the public about the dangers of grain-free diets and pets foods in 2018 and moved into the release of the 2019 report, which infamously named all the pet food brands that the FDA was looking into for a possible grain-free/DCM connection. 


Dr. Schell explained that the FDA had been receiving questions about which brands are associated with DCM and decided to release all of the names at once instead of individually sharing them on a question-answer basis. 


As Brooks noted, “science does not move as fast as social media.” We’re all aware of the impact the reports had on our industry: the sensationalized headlines and lack of knowledge about DCM, even from veterinarians, caused confusion and concern. We’ve seen this beforethat vets may not be as informed about pet nutrition as you might think. 


According to Dr. Schell, the FDA is “trying to be more careful about our communication going forward,” and revealed that there won’t be another update coming for at least the next couple of months. But rest assured, the FDA’s primary concern is the health of petsand they will report anything that they deem necessary to share with the public. 


If the industry works with the FDA, we can work together to streamline our messaging about what’s right, what’s real and how to help customers understand what’s good for their pets. 


All in all, not too much new information here. More science-backed research is still needed to make a sound judgement on what causes non-genetic related DCM cases. 


Our Economic Future

Now, let’s talk numbers... Our $75B is in a good spot financially. There’s a lot of opportunity here, but it’s all about making the most of that opportunity. The economic forecast for the future, as told by Brian Beaulieu, is that we can expect three potential recessions in the 2020s, but the 2030s are where the economy will really struggle. Setting yourself up to prepare for a downturn in the market is the best possible way to remain unscathed, though Beaulieu feels confident that the pet industry is one that won’t be hit too hard. 


According to his estimates on the best geographic markets, Texas is expected to have the most population growth in the U.S. in the near future. He also anticipates that the next 10 years will see a de-globalization trend and that more nationalism will reign in the 20s. Another factor that won’t affect the economy, according to Beaulieu, is who will be in the Oval Office next year, as “the economy is much bigger than the politician.” 


Rich Karlgaard, Forbes publisher, author, forecaster and speaker, also took the stage at the Summit to share some of the greatest megatrends he sees in business. He outlined the four best practices moving forward when it comes to thinking about your business and how it operates: 

  • Digital Mastery—Aiming to be in the top quartile of your industry.

  • Cultural Clarity—Outlining wht you stand for as a business.

  • Team GeniusKeeping teams small to maximize communication.

  • Human Development—Recruiting, retaining and increasing the skill of people in your organization.


Karlgaard also highlights the importance of considering future technology. Edge computing, artificial intelligence and 5G are some of the evolving innovations that could change the landscape of this industry. Keeping an open mind to the possibilities of tomorrow will enable you to envision new ways to propel your business forward and outpace the competition. 


I'm optimistic about the future of the pet industry. There's potential to grow, the market is booming and there's a desire for a more authentic shopping experiencea service that e-commerce retailers unsuccessfully try to replicate. As we’ve found, the staggering level of innovation our industry has seen is something that needs to be addressed in the months and years ahead. As an industry, we need to maintain this level of creativity and passion for innovative and effective products that customers will wantno, need. 


Whether it was your first time seated in a room with distinguished members of the pet industry (like me!) or you’re a seasoned pro, it’s undeniable that the information learned will be valuable in the days, weeks, months and years ahead. 


Jen Goetz is the associate editor of Pet Business.


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