Shaping the Future of the Industry
Bob Vetere, president and CEO of the American Pet Products Association, shares his perspective on the key issues and programs that will ultimately drive the success of a quickly evolving pet care market.
This year marks the 60th anniversary of the American Pet Products Association’s (APPA) founding. What does this anniversary mean to you and your team? How has the organization evolved over the past six decades?
Bob Vetere: Looking back to 1958, it amazes me that APPA was basically formed by 17 guys who were looking to put together a trade show to replace another trade show that was dying off.
Back then, pets were a secondary piece of life, but you look at where the industry is today and it’s just incredible. Interestingly, when I got here 15 years ago, my predecessor said that he was pretty much leaving the industry because he was convinced that it had plateaued. At that time, we had 650 members. Now we’re at just about double that, with a little under 1,300 members.
We had 1,476 booths at my first APPMA Show, which is less than half the number we have at this year’s Global Pet Expo. And what I find fascinating is that we continue to grow at an amazing pace, which shows there are many more people out there looking to get into this industry year after year after year.
We also owe a lot to the stability of our great staff, which works hard to help make sure that this upward trend continues. They are so savvy and play such an important role in making this organization successful.
Then, of course, there is our Board of Directors, which has been so influential. They have given us a very challenging strategic plan and then have been good enough to let us execute that plan the right way by guiding us instead of telling us how to do everything.
How has APPA’s role evolved beyond simply representing the interests of its core constituency—the manufacturing class—to take a position of leadership and collaboration in all facets to the industry?
Vetere: One of the things that I’ve enjoyed the most about my job is I’ve been given the freedom to do just that. Years ago, there really was no unified effort among the various parts of the industry. Everybody had their own efforts and was generally moving in the same direction, but it was like herding cats. Everybody was going forward, but in a million different ways. What we’ve been trying to do, and what the board has allowed us to do is build a rallying point. That’s why they dropped “manufacturers” out of the organization’s name 10 years ago.
Still, it became obvious that doing everything under the APPA umbrella wasn’t going to work because that took away ownership from other organizations in the industry. That’s why HABRI (the Human Animal Research Institute) came along. That’s why the Pet Leadership Council came along. That’s why our Pets Add Life program has branched out the way it has. These moves have allowed other entities to be the rallying forces in our industry. But APPA has done a lot in trying to make this level of collaboration work, and that has been a big positive for the industry as a whole over the past 10-15 years.
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?
Vetere: Every time I’ve thought we were going to see things slow up a little bit, the industry just continues to keep growing. Every year since I joined this industry, we’ve seen growth—even in 2007, 2008 and 2009. Of course, there has been some varied results within given segments of the industry, but when you put them all together, there’s still more people out there spending more money on pets. In that sense, I think the industry is like a having a money market fund that just keeps yielding solid growth. With the innovation we continue to see at Global Pet Expo, I think we will continue to see that healthy growth in the industry.
What also helps is that we’re seeing a variety of reasons why pet ownership has a positive impact on our lives come to light—the health benefits, the learning benefits for kids, the quality of life benefits. As these benefits continue to be exposed, some of the demographics that traditionally didn’t have a high rate of pet ownership are now getting pets because they have compelling reasons. As these demographics become a larger piece of the pet ownership puzzle, it will continue to fuel growth in the future.
Competition between online and brick-and-mortar stores continues to be a hot-button issue in the pet industry. How do you expect this issue to play out over the next year, and beyond?
Vetere: The growth of online retail is a change, but there has been a lot of changes in the industry over the years. I think the important thing to keep in mind is that you’re always going to have a large percentage of the pet owning population that wants to go into a store and talk to somebody, especially as pets become significantly more important to people. That’s where the mom and pop pet shops have an advantage over online retailers, of course, but also over Walmart and Target—and even the Petcos and PetSmarts. So I think that smart independent retailers are still going to be a very significant part of the marketplace.
In addition to serving as the president and CEO of the American Pet Products Association, you are also the chairman of the Pet Leadership Council, an organization made up of pet industry leaders, animal welfare advocates, veterinarians and academia. What are some of the initiatives that PLC has been working on over the past year? Are you happy with the progress that the organization has made?
Vetere: During my 15 years with APPA, I spent probably 10 of them working on different initiatives trying to get this kind of coalition pulled together. The first success was HABRI, which was a program that brought everybody together to develop something that now has its own momentum. Everyone recognizes that HABRI is working not only for the good of the industry, but also to help the general public by spreading the word that animals are good for our health.
Now we’re trying to take our work one step further. In many ways, certain animal-rights activist groups have necessitated the need for the PLC. These groups put out so much disinformation about our industry because doing so helps them with fundraising. In another world, these groups would work with the industry for the good of animals, but they are just focused on raising money for their organizations.
To me, the rallying point for the industry has got to be letting people know we’re not just in it for ourselves. We want to get truth out there, to get people to understand that if you give money to some of these animal-rights groups, your local shelters are often getting two percent of it, at best.
Of course, watching over bad actors in our industry is necessary—no question about it. There are bad breeders out there, but there are also bad shelters and bad rescues that are also in it just for the money. I mean, there are shelters out there importing dogs from overseas so they can keep the supply up. There is just so much information that needs to be out there, and we’re now getting people to recognize it.
The biggest mistake that the Pet Leadership Council made—and I’m the one who made it—happened when we were really getting together to form this group. The Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC) was facing a very serious challenge to its funding, so we wound up doing more to guarantee the future of PIJAC and less to guarantee the intended purpose of the PLC. That problem must be addressed this year. PIJAC needs to be able to continue doing its important work while, at the same time, the PLC can be viewed solely as a positive speaking voice for the industry.
I think another thing we have to do is change the name because the public has no concept of what the organization is supposed to be. So, we’re going to have to come up with something a little more user-friendly, but we will solve that problem later.
I believe that this year is a turn-the-corner year for the PLC and I believe that when I go sailing off into the sunset in a few years, it will be another legacy that I’ll leave behind that will be a very positive thing for the industry.
During the Pet Industry Leadership Conference that was held earlier this year, attendees got a chance to learn the results of a dog population and supply study. Can you tell us a bit about the study? Why is it important?
Vetere: The beauty of the survey is that it actually got the Stanton Foundation interested because they thought that the numbers we came up with from Mississippi State were meaningful enough that they have now reached out to Mississippi State and are talking about funding an even broader study that will include rescues and try to quantify how many breeders are out there. The key fact that came out of the study is that if you don’t have breeders, you’re not going have nearly enough dogs. The breeders need to be around to supply two to three million dogs a year, because the dogs that come out of shelters aren’t going to be making puppies, and the puppies have to come from somewhere.
The study that we did is starting to show that, and I think what the Stanton Foundation is going to be doing with Mississippi State over the course of this year is going to finally give us solid data that will form a complete picture. Couple that with the Purdue University’s Canine Care Certified Program, which identifies what
a caring, qualified, quality breeder is, and we can give the public the facts about why we need breeders and what we need to do to ensure that these breeders are doing right by the animals and pet owners.
I think if we start to identify quality breeders and even extrapolate that so we can identify quality shelters, I think the resulting public education is what’s going to finally ensure that the only dogs out there are healthy, well-cared-for and can be great additions to any family.
Another session at the conference explored the early progress of the Canine Care Certified program from Purdue University’s Center for Animal Welfare Science. What role do you think this program will play in ensuring a bright future for the pet industry?
Vetere: They’ve got a great program. Candace Croney and the people of Purdue University have developed the most incredibly science-based breeder standard program ever. Even animal welfare groups would agree that dogs raised under these standards will be healthy and prepared for intermingling with people and other animals. There’s just so much to like about this program. I’m just eager to get it out to everybody as soon as possible.
APPA’s Pets Add Life campaign recently got some updates. Can you describe the changes and how they should help promote pet ownership?
Vetere: We’re revitalizing the program. APPA puts well over $1 million dollars a year into the program, and it has made a difference. We’ve seen a lot of progress in awareness through resources such as social media, so this is just more or less a case of refreshing something that’s been working really well.
Still, I think you’ll find it very interesting. We’ve increased our involvement with the Bark at the Park program, where professional baseball stadiums allow dogs to come to one game a year. It’s really been quite a way to reach out to the consuming public.
Another important step is that we now have a number of websites now that are kind of related to the PAL website in educating people about the good, the bad and the ugly aspects of pet ownership and about their responsibility as pet owners.
You touched on it earlier, but how is HABRI going? Are there any new developments to report? What are your expectations for the initiative over the short and long term?
Vetere: HABRI has become everything I ever hoped it would be. The level of involvement throughout the industry has been very satisfying and just continues to grow. We now have AVMA [the American Veterinary Medical Association] and NAVC [the North American Veterinary Community] becoming big contributors. Both have given us the ability to now do outreach in a new way. Veterinarians represent a great way to reach the pet-owning public and educate them.
On top of that, there are a number of studies that HABRI has been directly responsible for getting off the ground. In fact, HABRI has committed more than $2.5 million toward research since it began. And we’ve got 29,000 pieces of literature and studies into the different facets of human health that are positively impacted by pets.
For example, we’re seeing studies on how pets can be such a big help with treating soldiers with PTSD. We’re finding big benefits for cancer patients. We’re seeing kids with autism who won’t speak to other people but will sit and read a book to a rabbit or will sit and talk to a fish tank. It’s just incredible when you get to read the many studies that are out there. In every case, it shows that pets are helping people feel better, whether that means making an actual physical health difference or just a mental difference.
And it continues to grow because we’re getting so much more interest from various groups. We now have hundreds of thousands of dollars committed to HABRI for studies that further the understanding how the human-health benefits of pet ownership can extrapolate out into benefits for insurance programs. If you have a pet, at some point that could actually make a positive difference in the rates you’re paying for insurance.
Every year, Global Pet Expo 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?
Vetere: This year, we are honoring Brandon McMillan, a professional animal trainer and behaviorist who hosts the Emmy-Award winning CBS television show “Lucky Dog.” McMillan has spent his whole life learning about and working with all types of animals, and on his show he rescues dogs bound for euthanization and turns them into well-trained pets and service animals.
Often used by A-list celebrities to get their pets under control, he’s also the author Lucky Dog Lessons: Train Your Dog in 7 Days, a book in which he teaches pet owners the basics and provides solutions to common canine behavior problems. He covers a variety of essential topics such as house training, chewing, barking and a variety of common mealtime issues.
We feel that McMillan’s long, impressive career helping both pets and pet owners makes him a great choice for this year’s Excellence in Journalism and Outstanding Contributions to the Pet Industry Award.