Outgoing APPA President Bob Vetere Reveals the Industry’s Best Kept Secret
After nearly 17 years at the helm of the America Pet Products Association (APPA), Bob Vetere is retiring, leaving in his wake a tenure as president and CEO distinguished for its thoughtful leadership and strong advocacy for the pet industry and its various participants—including the nation’s pet-owning public. Now, as he prepares to hand over the reins to successor Steve King, formerly the president of the Pet Industry Distributors Association (PIDA), Vetere looks back at the organization’s most notable accomplishments and forward to where the industry is headed, with sound advice for retailers on how they should prepare. Also, armed with a degree of insight that could only have been earned through decades of experience, Vetere reveals why it is critical that the industry learn from other industries’ mistakes and start shouting from rooftops its own best-kept secret.
Pet Product News: Congratulations on your impending retirement as president and CEO of APPA. Since you took the position back in 2002, APPA has seen tremendous growth. In your mind, what have been the most notable, most powerful growth spurts? And to what do you attribute this progression?
Bob Vetere: When I first arrived at what was then APPMA [America Pet Products Manufacturers Association], the total U.S. market for pet expenditures was just under $30 billion. The industry had been showing strong but modest growth. But trends were changing. People were beginning to make pets a more important part of their lives—what today is referred to as “humanization.” People were working in more isolated situations—cubicles with less and less interaction with other people. Long workdays were followed by a trip home, dinner and, soon after, bedtime. To fill the void of human contact, people began to turn to their pets as someone to talk to, sit with and generally have as a companion to fill the void. APPMA/APPA began to see that change in the types of products being exhibited at the trade show and reacted by highlighting those sectors more and more within the show.
On top of this humanization trend, which really reached a tipping point from 2006-2008, more and more evidence was surfacing validating that pets are good for health. Organizations like the Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) began to fund and uncover more studies showing that having a companion animal could extend your life and add to good health. This trend caused another upward spurt in pet ownership and spending that has continued to today and shows no sign of weakening. Human health companies and physicians are more widely recognizing these facts and are reacting in a way that continues to encourage pet ownership.
PPN: During your time in the pet industry, you applied much of what you learned in years past from working in other industries. They were very different industries, for sure, but your experience certainly wasn’t wasted in your role at APPA. Looking ahead, what lessons do you think the pet industry can still learn from observing the life cycles of other industries and how they’ve responded to both prosperity and challenges?
Vetere: Good question. You wouldn’t think that making plastic bags and antifreeze would lend itself to a learning experience in the pet world. On top of that, you would be hard pressed to bridge the changeover from the for-profit world to the not-for-profit world. But as it turned out, I had a very important experience in my prior life that I am working on helping our industry avoid.
When I first graduated from college, plastics were still on the upswing. We were saving trees and forests by substituting plastic products in place of paper products. But then some early studies were surfacing noting that plastic had a long life and discarded or abandoned pieces of plastic were accumulating in some areas. The plastics industry basically turned their heads and said we are way too powerful and don’t need to pay attention to these reports, so we collectively put our heads in the sand and plowed ahead. Then more reports were being generated indicating the problem was increasing. Again, no reaction. At that point, some of the more extreme environmentalists began to realize that touting the soon-to-come end of humanity due to plastic production was a great fundraising tool and began to generate all sorts of reports—some based loosely on facts and some written with the finesse of a great fiction writer. The industry laughed, thinking, “Who would ever believe this?” and still did minimal in response. Finally, some local and state legislatures were taking notice, largely because a small but vocal section of voters kept coming to them. With no clarification or opposition from the industry, plastics began to be banned, from plastic bags and bottles to just plastic in general.
As the bottom line of some of the larger companies was being affected, the industry began to take notice. Only problem was that so much momentum had gathered against the industry that they were finding it hard to get anyone to listen. After all, the industry was just in it for the money. They didn’t care that they were polluting the earth. So we formed the American Plastics Council, which morphed into the current American Chemistry Council. It was comprised of senior executives from about 15-20 plastics manufacturers. They finally decided to fight back. After all, plastics, in many cases, were a positive—they provided items used in heart surgery, protection in football helmets and other sports, and so much more. Except no one really paid attention to this because we had waited so long before responding. As it turned out, the initial budgets for the APC began at $20-plus million in the mid-1980s before even the slightest slowing of opposition began to occur. And, the budget grew quickly before finally making a difference.
All of that background is to relate it to what the pet industry is increasingly facing right now. We, as an industry, are allowing ourselves to be categorized by extreme animal rights activist groups. Until recently, we had been doing nothing to oppose, or at least correct, some of the misinformation getting so much press time. Plus, because the perception is that we are “only in it for the money,” the public and legislators paid little to no attention to our facts when viewed against the tug of heartstrings by extremists.
Thankfully, the plastics issue was different in two key ways. First, people rely on the industry for the health and well-being of their pets, so there is some base to begin to build credibility. Second—and this is the lesson I am learning from—we are beginning to change the landscape much earlier in the cycle. While there are pet sale bans and some restrictions on breeders, most of the impact has been a small segment of the industry. But it is growing. Facts showing a decreasing domestic supply of dogs and other companion animals are foreboding much larger problems if not addressed now. The Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, (PIJAC) does an admirable job of working on local legislative issues as they arise, but needs greater support and more resources to be able to make a national impact on some of the most important issues facing the industry. We are finally finding a growing group of very involved companies and organizations willing to step up on behalf of the entire pet industry to set the record straight. The good news is because we are starting earlier, it will be a much more manageable budget to make the kind of difference we need.
PPN: Looking back, what are your proudest achievements working with the pet industry and APPA? And in what ways have the organization and the people within it made you proud?
Vetere: This one is a little bit tricky to respond to. Virtually none of “my achievements” would have been possible without the amazing staff and board I work with, plus those other forward-looking people in the industry willing to partner with me on what sometimes looked like a wild goose chase. I think the one project I take the most pride in is the formation of HABRI. This was a labor of love that took two to three years to come to fruition, and shows the willingness of others to work with me to make it happen. Besides the APPA board allowing me the time and dollars to work with Dr. Alan Beck at Purdue, I had three early whole-hearted supporters—Charlie Piscitello of Petco and Mike McFarland and David Haworth from Zoetis (then Pfizer). With their help—and with the work of Steve Feldman—HABRI has become a well-respected player in the world of human health benefits from companion animals.
One of the most important pieces of the pet industry that continues to make me proud is the unbelievable commitment to ensuring the health and well-being of companion animals that is shared by such a large majority of those in this industry. While it was important to many in my previous jobs to make good/safe plastic bags and antifreeze, it was not the same. You can speak to virtually anyone in our industry and the conversation inevitably will center around the good things their products are doing to make sure your pet is well taken care of and healthy. So many times you will hear of someone leaving a company, and then very quickly showing up again in another pet-related organization. It is their pride in making this industry different that is a great source of pride for me to say I am a part of it.
The only problem we have had—that, thankfully, we are working on correcting—is that our commitment to animals is one of the world’s best-kept secrets. We all know it, but we have been remiss in not letting those outside of the industry know it. That secret is starting to get out and is very much to the advantage of the industry. People, legislators included, are starting to realize when we speak about upcoming legislation, bans or whatever, we really are speaking on behalf of the welfare of the animals, not to just protect our profits. As someone who spent a lot of years outside of the pet industry, it is an incredibly positive step we are taking.
PPN: Personally, what has been the most rewarding aspect of your time at the helm of APPA? What will you miss the most?
Vetere: Easily the unbelievably amazing staff I have had the pleasure to work with. I have had many truly supportive board members over my 16-plus years that have trusted me to accomplish all of the things that APPA has accomplished. Virtually none of that would have happened without my staff. They continue to make me proud every day. Starting with Andy Darmohraj, the brains behind so much of the day-to-day successes we have, and Edith Martignetti, the key individual who keeps me from getting in my own way, and going through every single member of the staff, I have been blessed. The stability they show in coming to work at APPA, and then staying with us is impressive. With very few exceptions, we have kept the team together, and they continue to perform and make it a pleasure to be at work. I am so fortunate to be able to say that and truly mean it. While I enjoy so many elements of my job, I will very much miss being a part of my staff. Walking out the door for the last time is going to be one of the more difficult things I have ever had to do. They are an important part of it all for me.
PPN: What is your projection for the future of the pet industry? Do you anticipate stagnation, continued growth or development in new directions of some kind?
Vetere: Although predicting the future is an art form I am not necessarily expert in (see the trail of my losing lottery tickets as proof), I think with the pet industry it is a little easier. One of the big worries everyone has been monitoring over the past few years was the behavior of baby boomers like me. The oldest members of this generation reached 70 a couple of years ago. A concern is that as pets pass away for these folks, will they be replacing the pets with the same enthusiasm? Although it is still a bit early to know for sure, the drop-off in ownership is not nearly as dramatic as first feared. New products and services are making it much easier to maintain pet ownership, and boomers seem to be willing to take advantage. There is, of course, some noticeable drop-off. But the good news is that millennials are turning to pet ownership at an unexpectedly high rate. In fact, the latest APPA National Pet Owners Survey shows that millennials are now the largest segment of pet ownership. And while boomers traditionally have spent the most money per pet, millennials, at this point, are showing a willingness to equal that rate and more.
Given that these two dynamics seem to have developed some momentum, I feel pretty confident in saying that the industry is set for continued meaningful growth. The only caveat is to watch for changes in what people are buying as opposed to worrying if they are buying. Millennials are treating pets as family members, even practice families while getting ready for children, and their purchases reflect those needs and services. Boomers, on the other hand, are looking more to products enabling them to sustain ownership. All of the marketplace, including the generally ignored gen Xers, are looking more than ever at products and services aimed at creating a healthier life for their pets.
PPN: What parting advice do you have for our readers, today’s independent pet retailers?
Vetere: Building off of my comments above, my advice to today’s independent retailers is to pay attention to the demographic that shops in their stores. Noting whether you have more of an older crowd or younger crowd can help focus the bulk of your stock and promotions. On the optimistic side, because so many more pet owners are concerned with the health and well-being of their companions, they will be looking for someone to talk to when they come in to make a purchase. This is where smart pet store owners have an advantage. Shopping online or in large mass-merchandise enterprises can be helpful from a pricing standpoint in some cases, but feeling confident that you have someone you can turn to for advice and suggestions is becoming even more important. Setting yourself up as the one they can turn to will only help give your outlet credibility and solid repeat business.