In most cases, professionals in any sector of the pet industry end up in the market one of two ways. For many (the number of which might surprise an industry outsider), involvement in the pet market is multi-generational, as they are born and raised with family members running a pet business. For others, the path is a bit more indirect— though no less legitimate—but the promise of great potential ultimately draws them to the pet industry. For the owners of General Pet Supply, the story is a mix of both.
In 1970, Erwin Merar established The Merco Group, and it’s remained owned by the family ever since. His sons Bob and David Merar now own that holding company.
“[General Pet] was a prescription diet distributor, which was the forerunner of Hill’s Science Diet,” explained Bob Merar, president of General Pet Supply. “Then in ’68, they got Science Diet and they continued as a Hill’s distributor for all that time.”
Before purchasing General Pet Supply from the Albert family in 1989, the Merars were initially involved with other companies in different industries. Ultimately, though, Bob Merar and his brother, David, took the helm of General Pet.
“My dad started our holding company, the Merco Group, which owns General Pet,” Bob Merar recalled. “We ran an appliance distributor and we had a couple of other companies. Then in 1989 we bought General Pet, and in the ’90s we got rid of the other companies to concentrate on the pet side. So, right now it’s my brother and I running it; we’re second generation.”
So, why focus on the pet industry? Like many who end up in the pet market, the reason for the Merars’ decision can be summed up in one word: opportunity. “We saw a lot of opportunity—a lot of growth—still to come to the pet industry,” Bob Merar said. “We saw a really good need for good two-step distribution to help the independent retailers and veterinarians succeed. Growing up in the appliance business, we saw the big box stores like Best Buy, Highland and other big retailers take away the independent appliance dealer because it was much easier to ship appliances in truckloads than it is pet food or pet supplies. So we saw that as an opportunity to use our skills, marketing, promotions and customer service to give the independent pet store owner or veterinarian a platform that they could be successful.”
And success is certainly what General Pet Supply found in the pet industry. The company currently offers products for every major pet species (dog, cat, bird, small animal, fish and reptile), including both food and supplies. Though they prefer to keep their current sales numbers under wraps, Bob Merar did concede that “they relate to a high eight-figure number.” That’s up from the $2.5 million in sales that the company was earning in 1989 when the current owners bought General Pet Supply.
How It Works
If there’s anyone who understands the symbiotic relationship between all members of the pet industry, it’s the distributor. By establishing and maintaining close working relationships with both vendors and retailers to connect the two, companies like General Pet Supply are essential to the health of the market. The company currently employs 325 people, servicing an incredible 6,000 veterinarians and 2,500 independent pet store locations.
In many cases, the process begins with General Pet Supply representatives finding manufacturers looking to work with a distributor. Many of these partnerships are first forged at industry events and trade shows.
“We do attend Global Pet Expo, and we’ve [attended] SuperZoo looking for new and unique items while we try to find products that are not necessarily in Petco and PetSmart—that’s getting harder and harder to do,” Bob Merar explained. “We look for manufacturers that are willing to work with us in promoting and growing the [product] lines and keeping us and the independent retailers as competitive as they possibly can [be] with Petco and PetSmart.”
Once a vendor is found—during visits to tradesh
ows or speaking with some of the many contacts within the industry that the Merars and their employees have acquired over the years—the next phase of the process can begin.
“Our purchasing team goes through the line and determines what products [to distribute], if they’re not going to support the full line; there are some lines that are just way too many SKUs,” Bob Merar said. “We pick out what our product mix is going to be with that line and then they pick out our marketing team to come up with promotions… [and] ways for the retailer to promote the product, whether it’s through advertising in-store, point of sale displays, coupons, things like that. It eventually gets to the sales team to go out there and actually execute the programs, [and] purchasing and marketing is put together.”
Of course, there are a lot of moving parts when you’re managing at this level. In all, General Pet Supply covers 19 states for Hill’s Science Diet and Mars Petcare foods, Wisconsin for Purina, and sells over 140 hard goods lines in most of that area. According to the company’s website, General Pet Supply has expanded from its headquarters in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to establish branches in Burnsville, Minnesota; Wichita, Kansas; Kansas City, Missouri; St. Louis, Missouri; Dayton, Ohio; and Ann Arbor, Michigan. Th at’s a pretty signifi cant amount of growth for a company that used to service just 55 counties in Wisconsin for a little over 50 total hard goods and food vendors.
What Makes Them Great
Of course, it’s more than likely that successful companies do so well for a number of reasons. However, it’s probable that task prioritization does make a difference when it comes to good business. For example, does one value quality over quantity? Is it more important to expand or maintain close-knit partnerships? And it’s not hard to tell how much effort a company dedicates to customer service. For General Pet Supply, that last part is especially important. According to the company’s website, it was “founded with one goal in mind: to help our customers by providing quality products and prompt customer service.”
In speaking with Bob Merar, it seems that little has changed about that over the years.
“Well, we have a couple [of driving philosophies]; one is customer service,” he said. “We want to make sure the customer gets what they order, when they ordered it. It’s like accurate, on-time and damage free orders—we try to be easy to do business with and we like to say that we are a small company feel with big company capabilities.”
That seems to be the other part to the General Pet Supply puzzle: big-company capabilities with a small-company experience. And while maintaining partnerships in this way can prove difficult as a company grows, the close-knit nature of its current partnerships is something that General Pet Supply is not willing to turn its back on in the name of expansion.
“In some cases it’s been a struggle, but I think in a lot of cases both the vendors and the retailers recognize what we’re trying to accomplish and what we’re working toward in growing the independent business and growing the veterinarian side of our business,” Bob Merar said. “I think it’s very difficult to keep the relationships [healthy]—you got to work at it all the time, but that’s really what we do is we build the relationships both with the vendors and the retailers and veterinarians to have them feel comfortable that we’re going to do a good job for them and they can count on us to execute what they’re asking.”
According to Bob Merar, one of the most essential tools to cultivating that close-knit, small company feel is, of course, the employees. With nearly 30 years in the pet product distributing business, many of the company’s longest standing employees have formed strong and trusting relationships with their retailer and veterinary partners.
“I think a lot of it has to do with our people—we’ve got longevity in our sales people, we’ve got longevity in our marketing group and our purchasing [group],” he said. “And they’ve developed relationships and rapports with either the retailer or veterinarian that the [client] can call them up if they have a problem. You don’t have to call the 800 number and get someone that you’ve never talked to; you can either call directly to your sales representative, you can call the marketing guys. They’ve all known our employees for so long through trade shows and other events where they’ve met them where it’s a comfort level.
“It’s a relationship business, and if you can keep good people and keep the relationships with the accounts going over long terms, it’s a lot easier to do business with people that you know and have met and trust,” he continued. “And that keeps that small family business-type of feel that the independent retailers really like. We try to keep it more contained to, ‘You know us; call us—here’s our numbers.’”
An Eye on the Industry
No matter what segment of the industry one calls home—be it retail, distribution, manufacturing or otherwise—it’s crucial to stay abreast of the industry’s trends. And though the pet industry is often characterized as particularly competitive, one might be surprised by how much information sharing goes on between contemporaries in the business.
“Well obviously we monitor what’s going on in the trade; our marketing group and our sales people are always looking at new items, talking with new vendors—different vendors, vendors that we don’t do business with—[and] talking with retailers to see what they’re noticing or what their customers are asking for,” Bob Merar said.
As someone who has been quite involved in industry-wide organizations and networks, it’s unsurprising that the Merars would have developed many useful contacts and cultivated helpful business relationships over the last 30 years, the benefits of which are passed on through his company and employees to his retailer and veterinary partners.
“I talk with other distributors. I was on the board of PIDA for 12 years, and I was chairman for two years, so I got to know most of the distributors and I’ve got a pretty good relationship with most of them—I can call them up and ask them what’s going on and what they see,”Bob Merar said. “So it’s a lot of networking that we do, obviously, at the trade shows. They’re really good for finding… the new high tech item—sometimes you’re good at it, sometimes you’re not good at it. There’s a lot of different ways that we keep abreast of what’s going on in the marketplace. And you have to, because it’s always changing. Trends are always changing.”
Rules of Engagement
And as much as we talk about trends within product design and what customers are looking for, what’s just as important to note are changes in the way pet professionals do business. Luckily for General Pet Supply’s customers, company leadership has a keen sense for morphing business practices and how to adapt to these new rules.
“I believe that as we move forward, we’re all going to need to be more efficient,” Bob Merar said. “We need to find efficiencies and streamline what the retailer is going to stock on the shelves and find unique items that consumers can find only at independent pet [stores], not online. I know that becomes a very difficult challenge because online is growing so quickly that all the manufacturers want to be there, so we have to find ways to work with the manufacturers to keep their pricing to us competitive.
“I think as we move forward, MAP [minimum advertised price] pricing is going to become an important part of the strategy for a lot of the vendors,” he continued. “I think it’s an educational process for everybody, [and] I think distributors will remain strong because going to the pet store is still an experience that a lot of the pet parents like, to bring their pets in [the store] to show them the toy or the chew or the treat to see what their feeling is. So I feel good that independent pet will continue to flourish, because they offer some services that other people don’t.”
As retailers and veterinarians weather the new challenges that are emerging in the pet industry, it’s important to know that your partners are just as dedicated to the health of your business as you are. When that dedication is combined with forward-thinking ideas and experience in the business—as in the case of General Pet Supply—it’s no surprise that the company has found success.
“I’m very bullish about independent pet [stores], the vet business and [General Pet Supply] continuing to grow,” Bob Merar concluded. “I think it’s going to be a challenge making sure we keep everybody competitive and we find ways for them to compete with the online.”
See a video celebrating General Pet Supply here.