Collaboration is King

During his more than a quarter century as the president of the Pet Industry Distributors Association, Steve King has been able to use diplomacy and a broad vision of what is best for the pet trade to benefit the entire industry.



One would be hard pressed to find someone more universally well liked and respected in the pet industry as Steve King, president of the Pet Industry Distributors Association (PIDA). 

While he heads up an organization that has a very specific membership, many industry officials point out that the impact of his leadership extends much further than the industry’s base of specialty wholesale distributors. In fact, King’s work—whether it relates to trade shows, retailer education or shaping the next generation of pet owners—can be felt at every level of the pet world, many say.  

It is for these far-reaching efforts to strengthen and expand the pet trade that Pet Business has chosen King as its 2016 Pet Industry Executive of the Year.

“Steve has always had a willingness to look at the big picture, which is an important quality in a leader,” says Bob Vetere, president and CEO of the American Pet Products Association (APPA). “From the beginning of my time at APPA, he has been someone I can turn to for help. He is always positive and his get-it-done personality makes him a guiding light for many folks in this industry.”

That is high praise from a man that has worked very closely with King over the years. This month’s Global Pet Expo, for example, was developed through a partnership between PIDA and APPA, which essentially fused two separate trade shows to form a new event that, by all accounts, quickly turned out to be much greater than the sum of its parts.

The decision to join forces with another industry organization to develop a bigger, better show, says King, was in everyone’s best interest. “We had to let go of our egos and look at what was best for the industry,” he explains, pointing to Global Pet Expo as one of the biggest accomplishments of his tenure in the pet industry so far. “There were just too many trade shows in the industry, so we knew it would be more beneficial to combine the PIDA and APPA shows.”

According to Vetere, that lack of ego has been instrumental in the success of Global Pet Expo and all the other endeavors of which King has been a part. “He never worries about who is getting credit for what, and that is an important quality,” he explains. 

Recently, PIDA and APPA once again got together to create the Pet Industry Leadership Conference, which was held in Tucson, Ariz., in January.  Vetere credits King with “all of the heavy lifting” when it came to organizing what will be an annual event focusing on industry education and networking. And while the conference was actually born from the long-running, annual PIDA Management Conference, King was more than happy to share the billing with his APPA partners.

Forging partnerships seems to be something of a specialty for King, who got his start in the pet industry while still a law student at George Washington University when he went to work for the law firm representing the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, where, Marshall Meyers served as a valuable mentor in teaching him about the pet industry. He is almost always involved with initiatives that span across multiple segments of the trade. It is, as many in the pet industry point out, largely a product of his innate diplomatic qualities—an ability that Vetere likens to “herding cats”—as well as his considerable experience in the pet industry. 

“Steve’s ability to get along with all types of people by knowing what is important to them helps him lead,” says Bob Merar, president of General Pet Supply, a Milwaukee, Wis.-based pet product distributor. “He has a great skill in making sure all points of view are expressed and everyone feels their points have been made.  He knows and understands the issues and clearly expresses what the issues are about. “

Kemba Marshall, DVM, DABVP (Avian), director of merchandising pet quality and education for the Phoenix-based PetSmart chain, has gotten a first-hand view of the value that comes from King’s experience. “Steve is an elder statesman of the industry, so his perspective is invaluable in terms of situational leadership,” she says. 

Marshall and King work together on the Pet Care Trust (PCT)—she as president and he as executive director—a non-profit foundation that promotes pet ownership, most prominently through the Pets in the Classroom program. “Steve’s leadership means that when we update the Pets in the Classroom program to reflect where we are as an industry, we do so after much thought and deliberation so that we are always true to the mission of the Pet Care Trust,” she says. “Steve is there to make sure we never lose that as a guidepost.”

One of the newest initiatives that King has had a hand in shaping is the Pet Leadership Council. “Steve has been instrumental in the architecture and formation of the Pet Leadership Council, an organization comprising 20 company leaders from all industry segments focused on strengthening initiatives and advancing the greater good of the industry,” says Scott Rath, vice president – distribution for Walnut Creek, Calif.-based Central Pet, and chairman of the PIDA board. 

It is a role for which Vetere says King is uniquely suited. “Steve’s skill set lets him work well in that type of collaborative environment,” he explains. “He has to give direction to people who are used to giving the orders, and his demeanor is perfect for that.”

The success that King has had in using his special brand of diplomacy to help form the PLC comes as no surprise to Mark Smith, president of Frontier Distributing, Inc. in Oxford, Mich. “Steve is open to new ideas,” he says. “He is able to work with many different types of personalities. Steve is well organized and well connected in the industry.”

While he is humble about his long-standing reputation as a facilitator and unifying force in the pet industry, King is aware of the important benefits of his approach. “The success I’ve had in my career has been in working with a diverse group of people,” he says. “With anybody I work with, I look for the greater good of everyone involved, and I try to keep the lines of communication open.”

Of course, King’s skills are put to good use, first and foremost, as the president of PIDA—a post that he has filled since 1990. The organization’s member distributors say, King’s presence has been critical in ensuring the ongoing health of a diversified supply chain for pet specialty retailers. 

“Steve’s leadership has been invaluable in representing the pet industry’s distributors over the course of the past 25 years,” says Rath. “His deep understanding of the many facets of the industry is a distinct advantage to all and keeps distributors up to date on trends and on top of industry changes. His ability to shift focus towards the most important issues at hand is an asset, especially when you think about how fast our industry has grown in recent years and the ever-changing threats we are facing now.”

Merar also sees King’s leadership as instrumental to the success of the industry’s distributors. “Steve gives us a strong voice in the industry,” he says. “He is well respected by everyone and has done a great job in making sure PIDA is important to APPA and Global Pet Expo.  His leadership has given us stability and has allowed PIDA to help grow independent pet retail with strong programs.”

One such program, which belies King’s big-picture approach, is the Pet Store Pro free online training program that PIDA launched several years ago for pet retailers. Understanding that the fortunes of the industry’s distributors is inextricably linked to that of their pet specialty retailer customers, King championed the development of the training program for the benefit of the entire supply chain, from the bottom up. Here, King says that Stephanie Kaplan, director of online education for PIDA, was instrumental.

“With Steve’s guidance, Pet Store Pro is helping independent retailers better educate their employees to make the shopping experience in their stores very strong,” says Merar. “He has been the force behind Pet Store Pro, keeping it moving forward with new ideas, as well as making sure that the board [of directors] invests enough to keep it up to date for all users.”

While he has done a world of good for just about every facet of the pet trade, King still believes that his most important work lies ahead of him. This largely relates to the ongoing development of the Pet Leadership Council, and it’s going to take every bit of the diplomacy and vision for which he is well known throughout the industry.  

“The industry’s success depends on growing the support that PLC gets from major players in the industry,” he says. “I want the PLC to help the pet industry, as an overall entity, tell our story better than we have in the past.”

Despite all of the kudos that he receives from across the pet industry, at the end of the day, King is unwilling to take all of the credit for what PIDA has accomplished under his leadership. “In addition to the mentors I’ve had along the way, I’ve had the pleasure of working with many great people through the years,  including Marci Hickey [PIDA’s director of meetings and member services]. Marci is my right-hand person, and PIDA couldn’t have accomplished as much as we have without her.” 


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