Everyone at Pet Age is pleased to feature the third recipient of our annual Distributor of the Year Award, Pet Food Experts. Pet Food Experts was chosen by a panel of independent judges, and the company exemplifies the qualities of an outstanding distributor. Pet Age created this award to honor distributors; these are the companies that allow retailers to fill their shelves with the products pet owners need and want.
In the following pages, you will learn how this fourth generation family owned business rose from humble beginnings as a basement pet store to being a premium pet food distributor for 3,400 retail stores across 29 states. Through this phenomenal growth, the Pet Food Experts team continues to practice a familial style of business that builds strong relationships with its vendors and customers.
We hope you enjoy this close look at Pet Food Experts. We bring you a look at the history of the company, what it is doing now to serve its customers and some thoughts on its future.
For the third year in a row, the entire Pet Age team is proud to honor the industry’s top distributors. We’re looking forward to doing it again next year.
All in the Name
What’s in a name?
Quite a lot when your company takes on the name Pet Food Experts. According to owner Michael Baker, the name Pet Food Experts lets customers know the company wants to be their go-to source for quality pet food and treats.
“Pet Food Experts is a simple name that allows us to really focus on pet food and treats, with some ancillary items,” Baker said. “Whereas some of our competition choose to have a much wider array of products, we’ve chosen to be extremely focused on just food and treats—on high-end or luxury pet food and treats, for lack of a better description.”
It’s not a name that Baker takes lightly. He wants everyone in the company to live up to it in every interaction with their retail customers.
“I think the ‘experts’ part of the name puts pressure on my team and myself to keep up with the latest trends to make sure that we practice what we preach, meaning we can talk the talk with our ever-growing crowd of independent retailers who absolutely know what they’re talking about and expect us to be able to do the same,” he said.
Pet Food Experts didn’t start out with that name, or even with the emphasis on pet foods. The humble beginnings of the company were in the basement of the home of Herbert “Salty” Baker, Michael Baker’s great-grandfather. The original name was Rumford Aquarium, so the original focus was clearly not on premium pet foods. That business started in 1936, and in 1959 it moved to a location in East Providence, where Rumford Pet Center still operates.
“Our interest in the pet food industry was born in the early 1970s,” Baker said. “Because of our prowess in distribution and relationships with the independents in southeastern New England, we attracted the attention of one large pet food company at the time. I would say that my grandfather and his team reluctantly got into distributing pet food. But it turned into a great opportunity for my father, who focused solely on pet food with his career.”
In 1989, the company incorporated under the name Pet Food Express. That name changed to Pet Food Experts in the early 1990s because Pet Food Express was already the name of a West Coast retailer.
As pet owners started seeking better quality and more specialized pet food—organic, grain-free, all-natural—Pet Food Experts moved to offer those types of foods to retailers.
“With the humanization of pets movement, natural and organic have become all the rage and the emphasis of our customers, the independent retailers we serve,” Baker said. “It’s been very simple to follow their lead. Whatever they need to succeed and compete against the various folks that all want a piece of the action in the pet industry, we’ve changed with the times as quickly as we can to accommodate that shift. Our emphasis now is on a wide variety of brands. But it’s been a natural fit to do what our customers need.”
“Our evolution under my leadership has had a real emphasis on diversity for our sake and for my sake, so I sleep better at night not having all our eggs in one basket,” he said. “And also for the sake of our independents. They expect and really demand having diversity in their store, having whatever the most innovative products are. They bring those products to our attention many times. The hottest brands we’ve got have been brought to our attention by our independent retailers. From there, it’s my job to attract those brands into our portfolio and keep them happy.”
Much like the company itself, owner Michael Baker’s start in the pet industry was anything but glorious.
“My first job was bagging birdseed in the back of the original pet store,” he said. “The birdseed was the easy part. It was the charcoal for the aquarium filters that was bad; I’d come home looking like a miner at the end of the day. But it was a great way to learn the business from the ground up and to establish credibility with the nonfamily members in the business.”
Despite being the son of the son of the son of a pet businessman, Baker felt little to no pressure from his family to join the business. However, he felt that pressure coming from himself.
“My family is fourth generation in the pet industry,” he said. “It’s not common to be born into an industry or grow up in an industry from the crib, which is how I describe it. Without pressure from the family I always assumed, as the oldest of 11 grandkids, that it was going to be my duty to take over the business. It was interesting when it was just a pet store when I was a boy. It was very easy to be interested in going to work with Dad or Grandpa when you could be around live animals all day, every day.”
Maintaining Retail Roots
The Baker family still owns four independent pet stores in the Providence area. Baker believes that operating these stores keeps Pet Food Experts and him in touch with the challenges of being an independent pet retailer, providing a leg up on the competition.
“It’s great from a competitive advantage standpoint to do business with our competitors every day,” Baker said. “Getting deliveries from the local distributors here in the Northeast and understanding how difficult it is to run an independent pet store, there’s competition from all different angles today. Having our own stores and those pressures to survive and try to thrive gives us great insight into what our independent pet retailers across the country face every day.”
With these roots so firmly in the pet retail world, it isn’t surprising that Baker highly values the relationships Pet Food Experts has with its customers.
“The relationship with our retailers is everything to the company,” he said. “Our motto is ‘when you win, we win.’ It’s been that motto since I took over the business. It’s meant to be simple so we understand it and never forget what it means and also so our customers and vendors understand it. I think they feel it when they do business with us as opposed to it just being something that is written on paper or something that we repeat and memorize.”
“There’s something about the feedback I get on a very consistent basis from our customers,” Baker said. “It is just the way they feel when they do business with us. We’re easy to do business with, we have fun and we don’t take ourselves too seriously, which I think is different from a lot of bigger businesses these days. I see that continuing to give us the opportunity to take care of our retailers for many years to come.”
Perhaps because of his strong background in pet retail, Baker understands how critical it can be for the pet owner to trust their local pet store, especially when it comes to the food those owners give their pets.
“We understand the importance of dealing with the pet parents,” he said. “There’s a lot of pressure when you are recommending food for somebody’s pets and our independent pet stores have that pressure every day. Anything we can do to help them make that easier, either by choosing the right brand or making it easier to do business with us, allows them to focus on what’s important, which is the frontline interaction between them and the pet parents.”
This understanding of the pet food category combined with the strong relationship with their retailers has led Pet Food Experts to explosive growth in the last half decade. In that time, the company has expanded its reach far beyond its New England origins. Pet Food Experts now serves 3,400 independent pet stores in 29 states.
“The last five years have been fantastic for us,” Baker said. “We’ve had great organic growth here in the Northeast. Then we expanded down into the New York Metro market. In the last two years, we’ve expanded both to the Midwest and most recently to the Pacific Northwest. We’ve been greeted with open arms by the independent retailers. Our familial style of business with a real emphasis on relationships has worked really well across the country. Regardless of what peoples’ accents are or what sports teams they root for, we’ve really proven to ourselves that good business and good service can travel.”
Baker feels that one of the biggest challenges with such a rapid expansion is staying true to their original style of business.
“The biggest challenge for me is trying to take that same style of business and continue to scale it,” he said. “I’m not sure where we’ll end up, if we will ever be in all 50 states—certainly it would be nice to do business with independents across the country. What’s most important is that whoever we do business with, whether it’s a new customer or somebody who’s done business with us for generations, they have that same connection with us that’s really hard to describe.”