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Robert Peterson Featured

9:42am EDT July 22, 2002
Ask Robert (Bob) Peterson about his business —The Columbus Serum Co. — and the first thing he’ll tell you is that he runs it 50/50 with his brother Bruce.

Catching up with the Petersons isn’t easy. Their continuous circuit includes major trade shows across the country, with stops for site visits with the companies whose veterinary products they distribute.

“We like to see our manufacturing partners, to have a rapport with the management of the companies that we represent, to tell our story and keep open lines of communications,” says Bob Peterson, president of Columbus Serum Co. His younger brother, Bruce, is vice president.

That approach has built relationships that have contributed to the company’s growth as well as the Petersons’ professional and community involvement.

When Columbus Serum was established in 1922 by Dr. Earl P. Maxwell, the brothers’ maternal grandfather, its primary product was serum for the then-fatal hog cholera. Their father, Kenneth Peterson, assumed management responsibilities in 1948. Peterson’s job was tending the 500 or so hogs that were kept in pens behind the company’s building on South High Street.

“I always wanted to be involved,” Peterson says, but his father wanted him to gain practical work experience elsewhere first. Bruce joined the company after graduating from Ohio University in 1972 because a sales position opened up.

A 1971 graduate of Ohio University, Peterson had advanced to the position of distribution sales manager for the Peabody Coal Co.’s‚ Birmingham, Ala., office when in 1978, his family asked him to return.

“I had a terrific territory and enjoyed what I was doing, so the decision was harder than I thought it would be,” he says. “But I felt at that point in my life that if things didn’t work out, I could always do something else. A year after I returned, my former boss called and asked if I wanted to come back.

“It made me feel good, but I said no.”

Instead, he paired his skills with his brother’s to help the company grow from nine employees to about 150.

By the time hog cholera was eradicated in 1969, the company had shifted to the distribution of veterinary supplies. Columbus Serum now represents the veterinary divisions of leading multinational companies such as Bayer Animal Health, Fort Dodge Animal Health and Hills Pet Products, as well as smaller companies that specialize in animal health products.

The company’s distribution range has expanded to 14 states, including South Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa, which were added with the Feb. 29 opening of a 15,000-square-foot distribution site in Sioux Falls, S.D. About 20 employees will eventually be based there, with service expanding to North Dakota, Nebraska and Missouri.

The company runs about 35 trucks a day, making 2,000 deliveries a week to vet clinics and pet supply stores, with support from package delivery services.

Automation, including flow racks, conveyor belts and shipping computers in the warehouse, has allowed Columbus Serum to streamline operations and reduce manpower requirements.

“Use of computers in the warehouse allowed us to do zone pulling of orders,” Peterson says, noting that the streamlined operations eliminated five to 10 warehouse positions.

The adoption of new technology has enhanced operations in the main office as well, he says

“We have continually updated our computers to make sure we have the newest technology available to help with processing orders, running reports and communicating with our vendors,” he said.

Such strategic moves have paid off.

“We have enjoyed tremendous growth in sales,” Peterson says. “In 1978, we were at $2.2 million, with about 12 employees. Last year, we had about $89 million in sales. I anticipate going over $100 million this year.”

With the addition of the South Dakota site, the company employs 150 people serving 14 states. He credits the company’s growth to its employees.

“I quote Woody Hayes, who said, ‘You win with people,’ and we feel we have good people throughout the organization.”

That includes a middle management team and a five-person information services unit.

The brothers stress the importance of understanding their customers’ needs. That’s why they don’t have a Web site yet; they are assessing how one would meet customer needs.

“You also have to be fair and consistent in the way you treat people,” Peterson says.

Their strategies have earned commendations from their peers, as well as corporate honors, such as finalist for the 1999 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur Of The Year award. They credit their success to their mentors and predecessors — their grandfather and, later, their father, who ran the company for more than 40 years until his death in 1987.

Irving Shottenstein, whom the brothers consider a mentor, was very helpful in those difficult days.

“He took a very active interest to make sure we had a smooth transition,” Bruce Peterson says.

Bob Peterson says that gaining professional experience elsewhere before joining Columbus Serum was probably a good move, and he has taken that same approach with his five children and Bruce Peterson’s four stepchildren. Although the families are close, their children are working on their personal careers.

“It’s always in the back of our minds that they will be back,” he says, but recalls how hard the decision to return was for him.

In addition to his work, Peterson has made time to share his leadership skills in the community. He serves on the executive board of Pilot Dogs, a Columbus-based organization that prepares dogs to assist the blind; is on KeyBank’s advisory board; and recently completed a term as president of the Columbus Country Club. He has taken turns with his brother in leadership roles with professional organizations, such as the American Veterinary Distributors Association, for which both have served as president, and the National Association of Wholesale Distributors.

The brothers formed the Kenneth R. Peterson Memorial Foundation in honor of their father, funded with contributions from the company. The foundation provides an annual award to charitable organizations. They’ve also established a scholarship through Columbus State Veterinary Technical School in honor of Robby Harris, an animal health technician who worked for a Columbus veterinarian and was a frequent visitor to their offices.

“He had been murdered four years ago, and we wanted to do something to remember him,” Bob said.

The Petersons have been major donors to The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine, where their grandfather earned his veterinary degree. The Kenneth R. Peterson and Earl P. Maxwell Conference Room in the Daniel M. Galbraith Equine Trauma and Intensive Care Center is named in memory of their father and grandfather.

Their business and civic relationships reflect a sincere camaraderie between the two men —- they almost finish each other’s sentences, and each commends the other for his role in the business. The same thing happens when you ask others about them.

John Hoffsis, dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine at The Ohio State University, where Bruce Peterson serves on the dean’s advisory council, says, “We call on them often. They have terrific insights into the profession. And besides that, they are both just terrific people. It’s always a joy to be around them.”

Anna Rzewnicki is a free-lance writer.