By Wendy Bedwell-Wilson
Sixty years ago, many pet product distributors and wholesalers supplied farm or building products to the marketplace. The greater need was for agricultural supplies rather than pet products in the early to mid-20th century, when the pet market was in its infancy.
As the pet industry grew, so did the need for supplies. Those same distributors that once supplied farms with feed, building materials or fuel shifted their focus to pet and garden products. Livestock wholesalers, too, grew to fill an expanding niche.
"Not too many people have cows in their back yard anymore, so we've changed with the times," says Scott Click, owner of Tomlinson's Feed and Pets Inc. in Austin, Texas. "When my dad bought the company in 1971, Mr. Tomlinson's words of advice were, 'You change with the times, or you don't stay around.'"
This month, Pet Product News International features a handful of distributors and wholesalers that have been operating for 60 years or more. From humble beginnings to where they are today, they've changed with the times and benefited from it.
J. Mollema & Son Inc.
Grand Rapids, Mich.
"The pet industry is where the lawn and garden used to be 40 years ago," says Steven Doren, product manager. "The distributor network is still very strong. Generally, distributors have very good salespeople who are well versed in their craft. They're a wealth of resources for what's happening, the new trends and what's coming."
Founded by John Mollema Sr., J. Mollema & Son Inc. began as a lumber, building material and coal supplier to the Grand Rapids, Mich., area. As more lumber suppliers moved to the area, the company shifted its focus to coal and firewood in the 1940s and 1950s.
In 1958, the company became an Ortho distributor, which opened the floodgates for a new category of products.
"During the 1960s when the lawn and garden craze started to really get going, they were looking for something different to sell, so they started selling fertilizer and some hard goods, like shovels," Doren says. "They offset the slow season with the building materials trade."
As the lawn and garden segment of the business blossomed, the company ceased distributing coal.
Today, the company distributes a range of water garden and wild-bird feed and products from its 100,000-square-foot distribution center. Its staff numbers 75, and its territory spans the Midwest.
Mount Parnell Fisheries Inc.
"The industry has become a lot more competitive," says Michael Rice, owner. "The world is much smaller. There's more competition from China, Israel and Italy. We used to raise more feeders, but now we're into ornamentals. We're raising import-quality fish that the body conformation compares with Asian imports."
Fish farming has been a way of life for the Rice family. Company founder Earl Rice learned the trade from his father around the turn of the century. In 1923, he began raising goldfish in three earthen ponds in Mercersburg, Pa., expanding to 35 by the time his son Richard took over in 1956. He managed the business for 40 years and grew those 35 ponds to a staggering 300. That's when Michael, the current Rice in charge, took the reins.
"Today, we have 300 ponds and 25 full-time employees, and we have probably 75 customers worldwide," Rice says. "We ship almost 90 percent of the fish air freight to distributors and wholesalers."
The company's focus on ornamental goldfish, koi and rosy red minnow production prompted construction of a new 6,300-square-foot closed system.
"Five years ago, we built a closed system, recirculating system, all temperature controlled, to raise an even higher quality fancy goldfish," Rice says.
Loveland's Bob Johannigman, 1940s
Loveland Pet Products
"This is a business built on relationships," says Roger Johannigman, president. "How we serve the independent retailer has evolved. New technologies continue to streamline our operations. But the mission remains the same as it was the day we sold our first goldfish in 1924: If we dedicate ourselves to strengthening relationships through responsive service, business follows."
When Loveland Pet Products founder Joe Johannigman began his business in 1924, he serviced both wholesale and retail markets, selling goldfish and pond supplies to retailers during the week and to hobbyists on the weekend. In 1945, his wholesale portion expanded to include tropical fish hobbyist equipment and tropical fish out of Florida.
By 1959, Johannigman decided to focus on serving independent pet retailers, becoming one of the first pet product distributors in the nation.
"The company pioneered the concept of being a full-line wholesaler, selling fish, fish hobbyist equipment and small animals," says third-generation president Roger Johannigman. "We expanded the product line to include dog, cat and bird products."
By the 1980s, the company dropped live fish to concentrate on pet supplies and premium foods. It relocated to a 112,000-square-foot facility in 1989, and by the 1990s, it expanded from a local to a regional wholesaler.
Today, the company has been recognized as one of the Cincinnati 100, one of the largest privately held companies in the Cincinnati area.
"The next evolution for the pet industry is most assuredly just around the corner," Johannigman says. "The Loveland Pet Products team is ready to meet the next challenge and embrace the next opportunity to better serve their core customer: the independent retailer."
WMC:Waterloo Mills Co. trucks and office in the mid 1920s
Waterloo Mills Co.
"Being in the wholesale business for more than 80 years, we have definitely seen some major changes," says Don Michels, president. "But customers still demand excellent service and competitive pricing. We have strived to be honest and have integrity. We just want to treat our customers the way we would want to be treated."
Waterloo Mills Co., established by Carl Orsinger and Glen Bound in 1924, began as a flour mill that ground wheat into baking flour for shops in eastern Iowa. Before long, area farmers requested agricultural products, including salt, soybean meal and bran.
"Then they got into chicken feed," Michels says. "At one time, they had 25 percent of the turkey feed business in the state of Iowa. They were a good size company for being a distributor."
In 1965, the growing city of Waterloo asked the mill to move south of town. The downtown facility generated dust that proved unsightly.
"In the long run, it turned out good because they got a brand-new warehouse and feed mill," Michels says.
The company continued to focus on agricultural products, but in the late 1980s, Waterloo Mills began its business relationship with Iams.
"At that time, we were the exclusive distributor for Iams in Iowa, and things grew from that," Michels says. "We just kept adding more hard goods."
Today, they no longer distribute Iams, shifting instead to premium pet foods and products. The company distributes 35 percent pet products and 65 percent agricultural products, and covers the upper Midwest from the Dakotas to Illinois.
"We're pushing harder than ever now," Michels says. "We're getting more lines of pet products in here."
"Ozark has made several contributions to the fish industry over the past 80 years," says Jana Cleveland, sales manager. "We developed the packaging to ship fish that is now used industry-wide, and we produce high-quality fish all year round."
F. Lawrence Bailliere and Charles A. Furrow established Ozark Fisheries in April 1926. Perhaps the biggest change through the years has been the shipping process. In the early days, almost all shipments were made in heavy metal cans that were delivered by Railway Express. Large containers of 500 goldfish could weigh as much as 100 pounds. To cut expenses, Ozark Fisheries developed the Goldfipak, which mixes goldfish and water in an oxygen-inflated plastic bag. This method proved to be lighter than the earlier shipping method, making air freight possible. The Goldfipak is now in general use in both the Goldfish and Tropical Fish industry.
Cleveland says Ozark has seen the business change in the way they sell their products. Ozark had transitioned from selling to individual businesses to selling mostly to distributors, but now seems to be focusing on individual businesses again.
After 80 years of continuous operation, the business is now run by the third generation. Ozark owns and operates two production and shipping facilities, one in Missouri and one in Indiana. Both locations produce goldfish and koi, which are shipped to customers throughout North America. Goldfish, which were the main product in the early days, have continued to be the main product of Ozark Fisheries today.
ABGOldBuilding:American Distribution and Manufacturing Corp.'s old building.
American Distribution and Manufacturing Corp.
Cottage Grove, Minn.
"For 70 years and three generations, we have seen many changes in products, transportation methods, technology, the marketplace and our customers' needs," says Gary Duclos, president. "In recent years, change has been rapid and constant. We are constantly reinventing ourselves in order to better serve our customers."
Tony Duclos Sr. opened his retail farm store in Newport, Minn., in 1936, and partnered with a grocer-fuel oil delivery service owner shortly thereafter. Together, they opened South St. Paul Oil and Feed Co. in the stockyards near St. Paul.
Duclos was drafted and fought in World War II, returning to continue his business. When his partner died in 1953, he bought out his half of the business and dropped the "oil" from the business name.
St. Paul Feed Co.'s location in thestockyards ultimately proved profitable.
"There were several rail-freight rate advantages that allowed Tony Sr. the opportunity to buy at a discount," Gary Duclos says. "He had friends in farm store retailing and began selling to them wholesale. As the farming community continued to move farther from South St. Paul, retailing declined and wholesale business grew."
By 1970, the company distributed feed, animal health products, hardware, fencing and a small amount of pet food. The market was growing, however.
"As farm size grew and large farms started to buy direct, retail farm store customers were starting to expand product offering to take advantage of a growing hobby farm market," Duclos says.
Tony Duclos Sr. changed the company's name to American AGCO Inc. in 1982 to lose the local identity connection. In 1990, the company expanded into pet food and products, creating American Distribution, a sister company.
"Now we carry 12,000 pet SKUs servicing many types of retail customers that sell pet products," Duclos says.
PhillipsBest: Phillips old building and delivery truck
Phillips Feed and Pet Supply
"It has been an exciting journey transforming our company from a small feed store that serviced the local farming community into a major pet food and supply distributor servicing stores from the Canadian border to Key West, Fla.," says Blaine Phillips, president and chief executive officer. "Our success would not have been possible if it wasn't for the dedication of our employees and support from our loyal customers and vendors."
Formed in 1938 by Ralph Phillips in Germanstown, Pa., Phillips Feed began by servicing the agriculture trade, distributing feed, fertilizers and seed to the farming community in eastern Pennsylvania. Business increased steadily. Ralph's son, LaVerne Phillips, started working with his father in 1956.
"LaVerne Phillips opened up a second location in Bath, Pa., in 1969," says Blaine Phillips, LaVerne's son. "Again, the primary focus was to service the agricultural community."
In 1981, when Blaine finished college, he came on board and focused on the wholesale distribution portion of the business. Working with Purina Mills prompted the pet connection.
"We were one of Purina Mills' first distributors, which predominantly at that time was to service lifestyle feed products and Pro Plan pet food to other feed stores and branch into pet stores," Phillips says.
From there, the company continued to grow. It transitioned out of agriculture market and dealt exclusively with animal feed and pet products.
"By 1984, we were totally out of servicing the ag trade, and our focus was primarily on wholesale distribution," Phillips says.
Today, after many acquisitions and consolidations, the company services the entire East Coast, from the Canadian border to Florida, with a full line of pet supplies, sans aquatic products.
Wolverton Pet Supply Co.
"Wolverton is a service-oriented company stressing high-quality products for its customers, with great emphasis on customer service," says David Rinckey, company president. "With these goals in mind, we are confident about our continued growth and leadership position in the pet industry."
Mayo Wolverton established Wolverton Pet Supply Co. in 1940 as a retail outlet for gardenand pet supplies. The company entered the wholesale market 11 years later when it began supplying garden and pet supplies to other retailers in the Lansing, Mich., and surrounding areas.
Leonard Parks and Donald Rinckey purchased the company in 1965, forming Wolverton Inc. They closed the retail outlet and discontinued their garden supplies, choosing to devote their full attention to wholesaling pet and veterinary supplies.
Today, the company has three distribution centers and services eight Midwest states. In 1998, Leonard's and Donald's sons "Jerry Parks, Perry Parks and David Rinckey" took over ownership of the company.
Royal Pet Supplies
"In today's world, the pet business is on the front of the financial page, even on Wall Street," says Stephen Augenstein, co-chief executive officer. "I've seen a lot of changes. When my dad started, distribution was pure distribution. Today, it's foggy between retail, distribution, and manufacturing and importing. The channels are not clear anymore. We stayed just dealing with the distribution, and we've grown just about every single year."
Royal Pet Supplies began in Dave Augenstein's garage in the New York area in 1945, after he was released from the Navy. From aquarium manufacturing, the company eventually focused on pet product distribution.
"We started basically in the New York metropolitan area, and as the years went on it would grow," says Stephen Augenstein. "Then he started doing Connecticut, New Jersey, and it just kept growing."
The small family-run company grew even more when Stephen and his brother, William, graduated from college and joined the organization. Profits grew annually, and the area they covered expanded. Stephen opened a distribution center in Florida in 1978. William took over the New York operations in the mid-1980s.
Though Dave and William Augenstein both passed away in 2004, the business continued. Stephen took the helm and currently serves as co-chief executive officer.
"We have close to 500 employees with about half a million square feet of warehouse space between the New York and Florida locations," he says.
Stephen attributes the company's success to his family's hard work and dedication. His mother, Irene, stood alongside Dave and continues to support Stephen today from her home in Florida.
"My dad always said if it was easy, everybody would already be doing it," he says. "And my dad worked very hard, my brother worked very hard and even I work hard. Some people will say you were lucky, you were in the right place, but it was hard work."
Tomlinson's Feed and Pets Inc.
"There's more professionalism in the pet industry," says owner Scott Click. "People are more concerned about how they take care of their pets, and there are big changes in the way animals are treated by the wholesalers. People who stay in business are the ones who keep a professional attitude and run it like a business, and run it because they care about pets."
The roots of Tomlinson's Feed and Pets Inc. trace back to Austin, Texas, in 1946. Owned by T.R. Tomlinson, the business began as a chick hatchery and farm store, one of several in the area. As demand for pet products increased, the retail store began carrying more pet food and supplies.
The shop changed hands in 1971, when Liniel Click bought it.
"In 1971, it was just an un-air-conditioned feed store," says Scott Click. "Lots of cattle feed, horse feed, lots of chickens and ducks and rabbits and all that kind of stuff. Times change. At that time we were on the north side of Austin. Now we're in central Austin, but we haven't moved."
The company hasn't moved, but it has moved its focus over the past 30 years. It dropped the farm-related products and livestock, choosing to focus exclusively on the pet market in its four retail locations across Austin. It also built its wholesale bird business, shipping out more than 100,000 birds per year and bushels of feed to various locations across the country.
"Mr. Tomlinson sold birds wholesale when we bought the business, and it grew from there," Click says. "When my dad bought the business, the broker said, "I've got this business that is for sale, and they sell parakeets." And my dad said, "Parakeets? I don't want a business that sells birds. I want something that will last." Who would have known we'd sell 100,000 birds a year?"
Wendy Bedwell-Wilson is a freelance writer in Hawaii.