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Behind the Scenes: American Distribution

Posted: May 6, 2011, 4 p.m., EDT


The More Things Change…

The more the 75-year-old company adapts and grows to stay ahead of the competition.

By Michael Ventre

They say that getting there is half the fun. But when it comes to delivering pet food and supplies, it’s also half the profits. In fact, maybe more--a lot more.

The folks at American Distribution, a division of American Business Group, understand this all too well. Just imagine a world in which retail stores and customers are pining for dog food and cat litter, but they can’t seem to flag down a truck to bring it to them.

American Distribution can’t imagine it, either. The company, based in Cottage Grove, Minn., services a sizeable hunk of the Midwest. It basically acts as a vibrant hub for manufacturers to get their products to, and then serves as a dispatcher to deliver those products to individual retailers.

The business model isn’t one-of-a-kind. It only seems that way, since American Distribution has been at it since 1936 and has the game plan down pat.

“Our strengths is as a distributor, and to develop sales, marketing and logistics,” said Jon Duclos, who is 47 and has been involved in the family-owned business in some capacity since he was 10. Duclos recently moved into the president’s chair after serving five years as president of American Logistics Services, a sister company.

“We’re trying also to partner with other distributors who might not have the same capabilities in other areas, but have the product knowledge and the vendor relationships,” Duclos said.

 Behind the Scenes: American DistributionIt is said that the only constant in life is change. That holds true for American Distribution, too, since the company is hungry to grow and expand. Right now it services North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois, and it is moving into Oklahoma and Arkansas. While it is looking to branch out, it is targeting only selective areas for growth.

“We’ve been aggressively looking at acquisitions of other distributors in our regions,” Duclos said. “But we’re not looking to just gobble up other distributors. We’re looking at it strategically.”

Duclos said his company wants to add on, but still retain the same level of efficiency and not get so large that business relationships are strained through overwork and inattentiveness.

“We’re in the process of implementing a whole new computer system, and we’re redesigning our websites to have online ordering capabilities,” Duclos said. “We want to continue to have great networking capability between manufacturers and distributors and retailers.

“We’re looking to have the capability to have all of the players in the supply chain in the pet industry to interact seamlessly,” he added.
If there is one aspect of American Distribution that stands out, said Duclos, he believes it is quickness.

“We take orders up to one o’clock (in the afternoon) for next-day delivery,” he said.

The foundation for all this quality delivery was started by Tony Duclos Sr., Jon’s grandfather, who founded the South St. Paul Feed & Oil Company in 1936. It was located between the area’s livestock yards and the local rail transit lines.

When businessmen needed feed and cattle transported to and fro, they went to Mr. Duclos. Because he was so close to the rail sites to offload product, he could get product to his customers at a lower price than his competitors, Jon Duclos explained.

Over the years, the company evolved but retained that basic model. Today, American Distribution services an area from the Canadian border to the Gulf of Mexico. And as for how far East and West?

“It all depends on what opportunities present themselves,” Duclos said.

To improve service, Duclos said the company now has two brand managers--one a core brand manager to focus on brands and vendors, dealing with high volume, competitive prices and more program-oriented issues; and the other more of a specialty brand manager, focusing on product lines that require much more product knowledge.

“I use the analogy that core brands are like the British armies, whereas specialty brands are like guerrilla warfare,” said Duclos, whose company also handles lawn and garden, and wild bird and wildlife products. “We have one central sales force, but two brand managers. Depending on what market they’re going into, they can customize their approaches to add value to that retailer.”

Wendy Bartz is the corporate buyer for Chuck and Don’s Pet Food Outlets, a chain that is set to open its 16th store in the Twin Cities area this spring, and another in Denver on July 1. She has been there for 19 years, and has worked with American Distribution the entire time.

“They have been very easy to work with,” she said. “They’re very friendly, very customer-service oriented and very knowledgeable. Their inside people, as well as their distribution portion, their truck drivers and dispatchers, their warehouse people, all are great.”

Bartz said American Distribution offers a wide selection of dog and cat foods and supplies as well as hard goods. But it’s their ability to adapt to changing times that has kept them at the forefront.

“Every distributor goes through ups and downs, but American Distribution has kept up with the times,” she said. “They’re always on the cutting edge of servicing customers.

“They do a great job adjusting to needs and changes,” she continued. “Technology changes all the time. We wouldn’t be able to do what we do today with the processes and procedures we had in place 20 years ago, so it’s definitely a part of the relationship that we really value.”

Duclos said the company continues to peddle goodwill and strengthen customer relationships through weekly e-mail or fax blasts, ride-alongs with manufacturing reps, inside sales blitzes, sample promotions programs, and other specials and promotions.

“We use a real diverse approach to marketing and sales,” Duclos said.

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