A person does not think of pet supplies when they think of great American success stories, but perhaps they should. Drs. Foster and Smith pet supplies is one of those stories. Begun over thirty years ago in the northwoods of Wisconsin as a way to help veterinary clients obtain pet products, veterinarians Dr. Race Foster and Dr. Marty Smith have grown their company into the nation’s largest catalog and online seller of pet supplies. While the first product catalog distributed in 1983 was a 16-page flyer sent out to 1,500 customers, today the catalog comes in multiple pet division versions for dogs, cats, fish hard-goods, caged birds, wild birds, small pets and ferrets–even a catalog for ponds—and is mailed out to millions and millions of pet owners each year.
The DrsFosterSmith.com Internet site, which has millions of visitors each month, includes the same pet division products as their catalogs, but also lists the full line of products from the Drs. Foster and Smith pet pharmacy and items for horses and reptiles as well. Not satisfied with catalog success the direct marketer became a national leader on the Internet, and is presently ranked by Internet Retailer at #135 of all retail websites in the United States, #6 in the Specialty/Non-Apparel category, and #1 in terms of websites devoted specifically to pet supply sales.
Providing products for furry and feathered friends isn’t where it ends either. LiveAquaria.com, also owned by Drs. Foster and Smith, is the nation’s largest business-to-consumer online seller of fish and saltwater coral. LiveAquaria sports perhaps the nation’s largest indoor aquaculture facility, where even on an ice-cold day in February in the frozen tundra of northern Wisconsin, a visitor can experience the warmth of the tropics. It is there that aquacultured coral are grown and fish and coral from exotic places all over the world are cared for, readied to be sold online, and shipped to customers across the contiguous United States.
Dr. Race Foster and Dr. Marty Smith proved to be leaders in another field as well, becoming essentially the fathers of the modern online pet pharmacy. Anticipating changes in the pet pharmacy arena, they were the first to hire and train already licensed pharmacists rather than veterinarians to fill pet prescriptions. Today their pet pharmacy is Vet-VIPPS accredited (Veterinary-Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Site)—one of only twenty-three such accredited pharmacies in the country—and all of their pharmacists are required to take training in veterinary pharmacology.
The Doctors Foster and Smith story of success is a remarkable one, the saga of two entrepreneurial veterinarians who had a vision to help consumers find the products they need. At any one time there may be more than 20,000 pet product items for sale at Drs. Foster and Smith, giving them perhaps the largest product selection of any pet retailer in the United States.
How did they grow this company to be the leader it is today? As the old saying goes, it all began in a small town. . .
More than thirty years ago Dr. Rory Foster and Dr. Marty Smith operated several veterinary clinics in northern Wisconsin. Upon graduating from veterinary school, Dr. Race Foster, Rory’s brother, joined the practice and their clinics grew. Exhibiting the entrepreneurial spirit and concern for good pet care they have become known for, their clinics were the first in the United States to offer free spay and neuter services for their clients. While the free spaying and neutering helped with pet overpopulation, it also developed relationships with appreciative customers who then came back for other services at their clinics.
An idea was planted in those early years to grow the business through a catalog, and the Drs. Foster and Smith catalog was born. Orders were filled out of storage rooms at their clinics used to keep inventory. The doctors took the photos for the catalog, wrote the copy and, with family members helping, fulfilled the orders.
A 100% Satisfaction Guarantee was included from the beginning. “We always felt, both as veterinarians and in our pet supply business, that if we took care of our clients and customers, they would take care of us,” said Race Foster. “Customer service was king at the clinics and in our catalog sales,” Marty Smith added. That philosophy was solidified after visiting a catalog conference to consult with catalog “experts.” The experts explained to the veterinarians that they were devoting too much space to pet education in those early catalogs. The per-square-inch-analysis would show that the doctors needed to cut down on articles and add more products, they said. Race and Marty came back from that conference and decided to ignore the expert advice.
“We are veterinarians. We care about animals not just sales. So we wanted people to know how to care well for their pets. We decided we would keep the articles and devote a certain percent of our catalog space to them,” commented Marty.
“That proved to be a good move,” Race added. “People understood better how to care for their pets, trusted our veterinary expertise, and trusted us to provide good products for their pets. It was a win-win for the customer and we have stayed with that philosophy over the years.” That philosophy grew the business and in 1985 volume was such that the company needed to build a separate facility to house inventory and fulfill orders.
It was about that time that sadness visited the burgeoning business team of three veterinarians when Rory Foster was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease, ALS. He fought it valiantly for two years but passed away in 1987. The remaining two-man leadership team put its trust in one another and trudged on, carefully and smartly growing the business. Eventually they brought on a key merchandiser named John Powers to help them. John was experienced in the pet business and became a minority owner of the company helping them broaden their selection and working with them to develop a line of private label products they envisioned, a role he still fulfills to this day.
Over the years they surrounded themselves with key employees who had expertise in their fields. Ann Mapes oversees Catalog Marketing; Tanya Tischendorf – Operations; Gordon Magee -Internet Marketing; and Kevin Kohen – LiveAquaria. Along with Marty and Race, these four form an executive management team that provides direction for the company. Each has been with the company for double-digit years, which says something itself about the company’s stability as well as its future. Peggy Orgeman, head of the accounting department, is literally employee #1 and has been with the company from the beginning over thirty years ago. All five of these company leaders are products of and proponents of the Drs. Foster and Smith pursuit of excellence in the pet supply business.
“Focusing on customer service is how our company began and it is still at the top of our priorities,” said Tanya Tischendorf. “I have been here more than twenty years and I can tell you that if even one customer has a concern, we want it resolved for them. We empower our call center agents to handle customer service issues in one phone call. Our 100% satisfaction guarantee is real.”
“Challenges from increased postage and paper costs have resulted in changing the way we print and distribute catalogs over the years. As a company, we work hard to control costs so we can provide low retail prices for our customers, including free shipping. Ultimately, providing quality, affordable pet care products and information to help pet owners make the best decisions regarding pet care is our main focus. Catalogs have been a key element in accomplishing this,” commented Ann Mapes.
Kevin Kohen added, “Speaking of shipping, when I mention to people that we mail ornamental aquarium fishes and coral direct to customers’ doors across the United States, they just shake their heads wondering how we do it. It takes experience, planning and hard work; but we figured out how to do it in a manner that is safe and healthy for the aquatic life—our number one priority—and so it is economical for the fish and reef aquarist. We have a trademarked “Arrive Alive – Stay Alive” guarantee. We guarantee that fish will arrive alive and stay alive for 14 days after delivering them, or your money back. For our Drs. Foster and Smith Certified Captive Grown Corals, the guarantee is for 30 days. Once fish and coral arrive at a person’s home, it is up to them to care well for them, but we know that the aquatic life we offer our valued customers are healthy, expertly packaged and shipped in a safe and effective manner. So we are proud to offer our guarantee.” Kevin was the 2012 Marine Aquarium Societies of North America (MASNA) Aquarist of the Year, and is well known to aquarists around the world as one of the leading authorities on fish and coral husbandry. He knows what he is talking about.
“I’m lucky enough to work in the ever changing world of Internet marketing,” commented Gordon Magee. “From websites, to email, to social media, to videos, to paid search and search engine optimization, I have the fun of sharing our story and products with people in a variety of ways. It is great to be part of a team that works with products for fuzzy animals, or cute little small pets, reptiles or fish and coral. It makes the day interesting, and because of the internet we are able share our products and our story and get feedback almost instantly. That helps us with our number one goal: customer service with a 100% satisfaction guarantee.”
“An important customer segment that some may not readily think of because they are customers in a different sense, is the group of vendors we work with,” added chief accountant Peggy Orgeman. “In order to satisfy the customers we sell products to, it is important to have vendors we trust. For example we have a relationship with our dog bed manufacturer that goes back over twenty years. While there is a business relationship that keeps us both sharp, there is also a long-standing track record of trust and of them being able to deliver the quality products we develop.”
The decisions made by Race and Marty to take care of their customers is reflected in the character and the philosophy of the management team they have chosen.
1993 – Launches Drs. Foster & Smith Brand Products
1993 was a pivotal year for the company. With the development and release of Vita-Min Tabs, the doctors launched what would become the nation’s leading veterinarian-formulated pet vitamin. As their product selection grew, the Drs. Foster & Smith brand name would soon become synonymous with superior quality products and excellent values.
Today the doctors’ private label products are the preferred choice of their customers. They comprise a diverse offering, including joint care supplements, dog and cat foods, dog beds, cat furniture, and many other pet care essentials for a variety of pet species, namely products for dogs, cats, fish, wild birds, caged birds, small pets, horses, even Drs. Foster and Smith brand products for ponds.
1997 – Expands Veterinary Staff
Keeping their growing business grounded in educating pet owners, in 1997 the doctors added a staff of veterinarians and specialists to help write articles, train Customer Service Agents, and provide backup for customer questions requiring pet care expertise. Today, along with Dr. Race Foster and Dr. Marty Smith themselves, the company employs two additional veterinarians who provide veterinary expertise for company staff and customers.
1998 – Enter the Internet
With the advent of the Internet and consumers testing out this new way of shopping, Drs. Foster and Smith launched DrsFosterSmith.com and PetEducation.com. PetEducation.com is a site devoted to veterinary written or screened articles on pet care. Although PetEducation.com is a non-commercial site—you can’t buy anything there—it was launched in keeping with the company philosophy of educating pet owners in good pet care. The company’s YouTube channel would come into being years later with that same philosophy and lists hundreds of informational videos for pet owners to access at no charge.
LiveAquaria.com was added in 2001 with the purchase of Pet Warehouse, and the main trio of websites that are Drs. Foster and Smith’s Internet presence today was complete: DrsFostersmith.com, LiveAquaria.com and PetEducation.com. When social media evolved, Drs. Foster and Smith evolved right with it, launching Facebook pages, a blog, communicating via Twitter accounts, and postings on Pinterest.
2003 – Drs. Foster and Smith become the fathers of the modern veterinary pharmacy by hiring and training already licensed pharmacists to fill veterinary prescriptions
Although the company had a veterinary pharmacy since its beginning in 1983, Drs. Foster and Smith foresaw changes coming in the area of dispensing pet prescriptions. To meet those changes and to help make pet care more affordable for all pet owners, the company was the first to hire and train already licensed pharmacists rather than veterinarians, to fill pet prescriptions. Still today every one of the fifteen Drs. Foster and Smith pharmacists is required to take additional training in veterinary pharmaceuticals.
As pet prescription dispensing on the Internet grew rapidly at Drs. Foster and Smith, the company again foresaw changes coming in the pet prescription dispensing industry and became the first pet pharmacy to apply for VIPPS certification. VIPPS stands for “Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Site” and is an accreditation of the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP). The NABP eventually developed a veterinary version of VIPPS known as Vet-VIPPS. Today Drs. Foster and Smith is one of only twenty-three Vet-VIPPS accredited pet pharmacies in the United States, an accreditation that requires that pharmacists, not veterinarians, fill prescriptions. Drs. Foster and Smith saw this coming and was prepared in advance.
The veterinary trained team of pharmacists at Drs. Foster and Smith fill millions of dollars of prescriptions each year, filling only those prescriptions that have been authorized by a veterinarian, and is one of the industry leaders in filling pet prescriptions online. The foresight of Dr. Race Foster and Dr. Marty Smith and their pursuit of excellence in veterinary pharmacy practice has made them the fathers of the modern online veterinary/pet pharmacy.
From the storage room of a veterinary clinic where they shipped out products in the early days, to today’s state of the art fulfillment center, the company has prospered under the leadership and vision of these two savvy veterinarians. There have been national honors like being named Cataloger of the Year in 2004 by Catalog Success Magazine and the website being listed in the top five nationally for customer satisfaction alongside giants like Amazon and Netflix. In 2012 and 2013 DrsFosterSmith.com was awarded Bizrate’s Circle of Excellence ranking, a designation given to only 1.8% of over 5,200 retailers in the Bizrate network.
The northwoods of Wisconsin—an improbable place for such a national leader—has benefited along the way. As Oneida County’s largest employer with over 500 employees, Drs. Foster and Smith has a positive impact on the economy of Rhinelander, the location of the corporate offices, 300,000 sq. ft. fulfillment center and their single retail store. Still going strong after more than thirty years in the business, Drs. Foster and Smith pet supplies is one good reason that when thinking of American success stories, the pet supply business should come to mind.
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