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Leadership Event Focuses on Content and Connections


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Chris Kuehl of Armada Corporate Intelligence, delivered the keynote address during this year's Pet Industry Leadership Conference

A prized opportunity to connect with industry peers and a well-received line up of speakers and break-out sessions, including a discussion on the impact of tariffs in the pet market and a quick-witted economist, made this year’s Pet Industry Leadership Conference (PILC) worth the time away from the office, according to attendees. 

The conference, organized by four leading trade organizations, played host to a gathering of manufacturer and distributor executives, as well as leaders from other pet-related businesses and organizations at the La Cantera Resort and Spa in San Antonio from Jan. 27-30. 

Among the highlights were a presentation by economist Dr. Chris Kuehl, managing director of Armada Corporate Intelligence; a breakout session on tariffs; and an update on pet trade regulatory issues, presented by Mike Bober, president and CEO of the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC)—one of the organizations that, along with the Pet Industry Distributors Association (PIDA), American Pet Products Association (APPA) and World Pet Association (WPA), organizes the event.

While perks such as a golf tournament and a stay at a luxury resort in Texas Hill Country might have also been a strong draw, many cited the ability to walk away with fresh insights on the evolving pet industry as the more compelling reason to attend. 

WPA president Jacinthe Moreau said that conference’s lineup was appropriately tailored for a community of leaders who “believe in adapting and becoming better at meeting the evolving needs” of pet owners.

“All participants I connected with agreed that leaving their office, distancing themselves from their daily routine and listening to subject-matter experts is critical, not only for the education and information, but to trigger creativity and gain perspective of the big picture,” Moreau said, adding that she planned to use some of what she had learned at the conference to help inform WPA’s annual SuperZoo trade show in Las Vegas, to make it more relevant to both exhibitors and retailers. 

She also appreciated that PILC provided a forum for attendees to hash out disagreements on hot industry issues. 

“[The conference] brought to light differences of opinion about subjects such as the impact of the tariffs on our business, the live-animal issue and the pet population, making it even more important to continue the conversation to understand the different positions and point of views within our industry,” Moreau said. 

The conference kicked off with keynote speaker Kuehl discussing global and U.S. economies. 

“[He] did a great job of reviewing current economic trends in a way that was memorable and entertaining,” said Steve King, APPA president.

Celeste Powers, president of PIDA, agreed. 

“That is the first time I heard an economist that makes you laugh,” she said.

Thomas Marshall, CEO of the Hagen Group in Mansfield, Mass., who also said he enjoyed Kuehl’s presentation, has attended all four PILC events, and commended this most recent conference for its informative offerings. 

“I found this year’s event did a nice job of presenting relevant information based on critical issues that we’re facing in the industry—a good example would be the Monday afternoon breakout session on Tariffs and Trade Wars Effect On Pet Products Import/Export,” he said, in reference to the session delivered by Thomas Cook, managing director of the consulting firm, Blue Tiger International, based in East Moriches, N.Y.

Attendees also praised the widely attended bonus general session, “Independent Retail Chains on the Rise: Discover their Growth Secrets.” 

“It was nice to see the addition of the bonus general session on Monday afternoon, and to have the independent pet retailers from Kriser’s Natural Pet, Two Bostons and Mud Bay be recognized at this conference,” Marshall said.

Another presentation that resonated with PILC attendees was keynote speaker Neil Pasricha, the New York Times bestselling author of five books including “The Book of Awesome” and “The Happiness Equation.” 

Neda Khorami, owner of Independent Pet Supply, a distributor in Snohomish, Wash., lauded Pasricha’s direct and friendly approach. 

“I enjoyed his talk very much,” Khorami said. “He was very honest and passionate while he spoke about his painful ordeals and how he overcame them.” 

Moreau was a fan, as well. 

“Mr. Pasricha had three simple recommendations to be implemented every day; journaling our gratitude; reading, as he said, by reading everyday one can live a thousand different lives; and finally, walking 20 minutes a day—no doubts my dogs will also be happy about this one,” she recalled.

Tony La Russa, co-founder of Tony La Russa’s Animal Rescue Foundation (ARF) and Major League Baseball Hall of Fame manager, was also on hand at the event for a press conference announcing APPA’s $1 million pledge in support of the expansion of the ARF Pets and Vets Program, which pairs shelter animals with veterans coping with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injuries, anxiety and other service-related challenges.  

“The presentation by Tony La Russa was also tremendous,” King said. “Not only is he a legendary baseball manager, but his work with ARF and their Pets and Vets program makes him a truly special individual.”

Bober’s discussion on pet-trade-related legislation and how PIJAC is responding was a key conference highlight, as well.

“An understanding of the legislative and regulatory landscape—both in terms of specific actions and general trends—is absolutely essential,” Bober said. “We at PIJAC monitor hundreds of items every year at the local, state, federal and international levels so that we can provide that understanding and, in turn, work with executives and other leaders to shape the pet care community’s response. Whether it’s through presentations on positive and negative developments like the ones we give at PILC or through regular one-on-one updates, sharing what we see is one of the most important aspects of what PIJAC does.”

He also placed a high premium on the networking opportunities that PILC presents.

“At its heart, the [conference] is all about connections,” he added. “It’s an opportunity to get together with some of the most engaged and active people in the pet care community, share what we’ve seen and what we are expecting, and get their insights in return.”

One feature of the event that was missing this year was the inclusion of the vendor tabletops that allowed manufacturers to highlight their offerings. According to King, the omission may have resulted in a dip in attendance, but it was for a good cause.

“Attendance was down slightly this year after three years of growth,” he said. “We anticipated this decline when we made the decision to eliminate tabletop displays for industry suppliers. We did so in response to post-event surveys that showed this part of the program wasn’t best meeting the needs of our attendees.”

The time previously craved out for attendees to visit tabletop displays was reallocated to breakout sessions and less-structured networking breaks, which, Bober asserted, are particularly valuable.
“It’s the conversations and connections that happen during breaks and at the evening receptions that ultimately determine the success of a conference like this, and I had so many good discussions this year that I’m still following up with people a month later,” he said.

Ushering in New Leadership

The 2019 event marked King’s first in his new role as APPA president, following many years as president of PIDA.  

“Although my role has changed, my impression of the event has not,” he said. “The leadership conference provides networking and educational content that is unique in the pet industry. It is still something of a best-kept secret, as those who haven’t tried it, don’t know what they are missing.”

Having recently replaced King from outside the industry, his predecessor, Powers, attended for the first time this year. 

“I am impressed how the four industry groups together plan this leadership conference for the benefit of a variety of executives in the pet industry,” she said. “It was evident to me that this is a tight-knit group with many years of history together, which gives a ‘built-in’ value of networking.”

Powers added that she was delighted to see how well attended the sessions were, and noted that they provided insights for the attendees’ both professionally and personally.  She also felt embraced by the pet leadership community.

“What a great bunch of people,” she said. “Everyone was so welcoming to me.”

Specifics about the itinerary of PILC 2020, which will be held Jan. 13-16 at the Rancho Bernardo Inn in San Diego, are not available yet.  

“It is too early for insights into next year,” Powers said. “We need to get the evaluation forms, and then have a committee debrief. But I can say, from what I saw they planned this year, I am sure it will be another excellent program for all pet industry executives.” 

King added, “The San Diego location at the Rancho Bernardo Inn is a very special enclave in one of America’s most beautiful cities. We haven’t started planning the program yet, but you can be sure it will be content rich and attuned to the needs of business leaders in our ever-evolving industry.”

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