Leading a New Pack
Steve King discusses his transition from president of the Pet Industry Distributors Association to CEO of the American Pet Products Association, as well as the opportunities and challenges facing the entire pet industry.
Last year, you were named as the new CEO of the American Pet Products Association (APPA). How did your nearly 30 years of experience leading the Pet Industry Distributors Association (PIDA) prepare you for this role?
Steve King: Nearly 30 years of experience with PIDA—and even prior to that, the eight years I spent with PIJAC [the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council]—has given me a deep understanding of the pet care community and how different parts of the supply chain interact. We’ve had a lot of changes in Americans’ relationship with their pets during that time, which has driven a lot of change throughout the channel. I’ve been present for most of that, and I think it gives me a pretty good understanding of where we are today and the factors that have brought us to this point.
In addition, PIDA and APPA have had a very close and productive relationship during most of that time. That includes working together to create Global Pet Expo (GPE) nearly 15 years ago. Thanks in part to that close relationship, I’ve got a pretty strong grasp of some of the challenges facing pet product manufacturers today.
Finally, the contacts that I’ve made during my time leading PIDA—and as a member of the PIJAC staff before that—the many friendships and acquaintances that developed along the way, should serve me well as I embark on this new chapter in my career.
How has your transition from PIDA to APPA gone so far? Have there been any surprises or challenges along the way?
King: The transition has been great so far. The APPA staff has been really welcoming and extremely helpful as I learn everyone’s role there. Probably the biggest difference between running a relatively small organization like PIDA, versus APPA, is there are many more professionals on staff at APPA, and they have very distinct roles and expertise that I can draw upon in doing my job. We wore a lot of hats at PIDA and did a lot of things because we were a small organization and didn’t have the resources that we have at APPA. Certainly one of the biggest differences has been adjusting to that change.
Having [outgoing APPA president and CEO] Bob Vetere with me for a couple of months before he officially retires at the end of GPE has been extremely helpful too. He has really helped me understand the role of CEO with APPA, how he’s handled the pressures of the position and the organizational dynamics.
Finally, having Andy [Darmohraj] as the long-time COO and executive vice president at APPA has been a godsend. Andy knows from his many years of working there—both organizing GPE and managing the staff—the ins and outs the organization and what’s been successful for them. His counsel has been very welcome.
Do you have any specific goals or areas that you expect to be focused on coming out of the gate?
King: The biggest goal from the start is to work with the board in developing a new strategic plan. It’s been three years since the last formal strategic planning sessions were held with the board and other stakeholders. It was almost serendipitous that as I’m coming on board, it’s time to go into that process again. Based on my experience in going through that process at PIDA and other organizations that I’ve worked with, I think it’s going to be valuable in helping the organization to reset, so to speak. It will get the board thinking strategically about the future of the organization and its members, including the challenges that they’re facing and how to anticipate and deal with those challenges. So, that is a high priority for me, as it will help with the development of future projects and services that benefit APPA members and the industry at large.
How is the health of the American Pet Products Association? How is the organization improving the value that it provides to its membership?
King: The organization is very healthy, and that reflects the well being of the industry overall. Membership is at an all-time high, at more than 1,200 companies. GPE continues to grow, with more exhibit space and more buyers year after year.
That success has allowed us to improve the value that we provide our members, and that is always a major goal—to enhance the value proposition that APPA provides to its members. For example, the 2019/20 edition of the APPA National Pet Owners Survey will be released here at GPE this year. Each new edition of this survey is always highly anticipated because of the insight that it gives about the pet-owning public and some of the trends that can be seen in the way they shop. But this year, for the first time, APPA members will be able to take a deeper dive into the survey results by obtaining custom reports that specifically address their areas of interest. That is something we weren’t able to provide before, and we think it’s going to be a great added value that our members can take away from the survey.
We’re always looking at ways to provide educational opportunities to our members, so this year we will have webinars scheduled just about every other week. These expert-led webinars will cover a wide range of topics that impact pet product manufacturers, and they will be recorded, so they can be accessed 24/7 from the archives.
Another area where I’m going to be working with the staff is in making some of our other services more visible to members. There are lots of services that people don’t really think about until they need them but once they do need them, our hope is that they will turn to APPA first to find solutions. Whether it’s legal advice, import and export advice, insurance options, discounts on a whole array of business services, there are many things we provide that are overlooked by members who either don’t realize that APPA has all those services available or just haven’t had to look for them in the past. If we can make these things more visible and make APPA the first place members turn to, then we’ll be doing a better job in serving them.
This year’s GPE marks the last for APPA’s outgoing president and CEO Bob Vetere, someone you’ve collaborated with for more than 15 years now. What can you say about working with Bob over the years? What will you miss about him as a collaborator?
King: Bob is such an incredibly generous individual, and I’ve always had the sense that working with APPA was more than just a job for him. His goal is to improve the life of pets by running an organization whose members are devoted to that very notion.
Bob truly is one of the most collaborative people I know. He’s always looking for ways to get input and advice from anyone who has an interest or expertise in solving a problem facing the pet care community. And it’s not just lip service; he genuinely wants that input so we can come up with the most effective solution.
Working with Bob has really been a pleasure throughout his entire career with APPA.
From your perspective, what is the state of the pet industry? What is your outlook for the short and long term future of the industry?
King: The pet industry continues to do extremely well, which is reflective of the broader economy. But it’s also reflective of the changing relationship between the American public and their pets. I think the industry is doing a better job than ever in helping people properly care for their pets. And I think more people than ever are looking for the best possible products, whether it be food, treats, treatments—everything they need to keep a happy and healthy pet. It’s a combination of having a wide array of new products on the market that help people take better care of their pets and a willingness on the part of pet owners to spend a few more dollars to get the very best to care for their pets that has led to the present situation.
What are some of the biggest challenges facing the pet industry today? How can the industry come together to overcome those challenges?
King: We’re clearly seeing a new era of retailing in this country, and it is impacting pet products the same way it’s impacting many other consumer products. Online retailers continue to gain a larger share of consumers’ dollars, and we probably haven’t seen the top end of that yet. The benefits of convenience and price are very attractive to many people.
It is nice to see that there has been a strong response on the part of independent retailers, in particular, who continue to look for ways to keep consumers coming back into their stores. That is often accomplished by offering services that can’t be provided by online retailers. We also see more brick-and-mortar retailers who are looking to work more closely within their communities by staging events and activities. Whether it’s working with local veterinarians to provide low-cost vaccinations or working with local rescue groups to host adoption days, these programs help consumers view their local pet store as a part of the community and a place where they want to spend their dollars.
Ultimately, I think there’s room for a lot of different types of retail outlets in this industry, and I truly believe that while it is certainly more challenging to be a brick-and-mortar retailer today, they are quite capable of competing with e-commerce.
What role do you think manufacturers should play in shaping the competitive dynamics between traditional and internet retail?
King: I think most manufacturers would be doing themselves a disservice if they put all of their eggs in one basket, so to speak, by courting only one type of retailer to get their products to market. The risk associated with a strategy like that is far greater than if you make your product line available and attractive to all the different competitors that are out there in the retail space. It seems to me that it’s in the best interest of most manufacturers to think of ways to meet the needs of all those different types of retails outlets.
One way manufacturers can support brick-and-mortar retailers who pride themselves on offering a curated selection is by developing products that lend themselves to consultative selling—products that a consumer will want someone with expertise to advise them on to find the best product for their animal’s particular needs.
I also think that providing a level playing field through MAP policies that are enforceable and enforced can be another way manufacturers can support brick-and-mortar retailers. There are certainly plusses and minuses to that, and it’s not an easy thing to implement, but it’s a good way to give a fair chance to every retailer.
Your predecessor Bob Vetere was a leader in several cross-organizational initiatives, such as the Pet Leadership Council, HABRI and the Pets and Life campaign. Will you step into a similar role with some of these initiatives?
King: Yes, I will, and that’s reflective of APPA’s support for those organizations and campaigns. As long as the APPA board sees those allied organizations as being the best way to serve the particular needs that they are intended to serve, I will stay heavily involved on APPA’s behalf.
Every year, GPE honors a member of the media with its “Excellence in Journalism and Outstanding Contributions to the Pet Industry Award.” Can you tell us who this year’s honoree will be and why?
King: GPE’s annual Excellence in Journalism and Outstanding Contributions to the Pet Industry Award recognizes individuals in the media who have the power to influence millions of people and uses this to positively promote the joys and benefits of pet ownership. Dr. Evan Antin, our recipient of the 2019 media award, exemplifies these qualities. As Instagram’s most-followed veterinarian, with over one million followers, Dr. Antin uses his fame as an opportunity to further his mission of helping animals. Appearing on such shows as NBC’s TODAY, ABC News and The Doctors, Dr. Antin focuses on educating the public about animal welfare while promoting responsible pet ownership. While traveling the world, he also diagnoses and treats animals in remote areas where veterinarians are unavailable. We are excited to have Dr. Antin as our 2019 honoree.