BY LEXI CHURCHILL CONTRIBUTING WRITER
PHOTOS BY LIZ SPARLING AND PROVIDED BY THE SCHELL AND KAMPETER FAMILIES
Weaving between the old wooden structures of the factory, a group of boys, BB guns in hand, tracked down rats. Among the hunters was Michael Kampeter, who would grow into the man who took the reins of the company that would run within those walls, Meta Feed and Grain. But that was decades down the road.
That company, now known as Diamond Dog Food, advanced several times under the original owners, brothers-in-law Gary Schell and Richard Kampeter, Michael Kampeter’s uncle and father. A hunter had told them in the 1950s that the food made his dog’s coat shine like a diamond, thus the change in the company name. These original owners bought the company 50-50 on April 1, 1970. As manufacturing technology progressed, so did the factory and its products, evolving its focus from what used to be on animal feed to the highest-quality dog and cat foods. However, it always remained in the same spot in Meta, Missouri, just south of the family’s home in Jefferson City.
Kampeter worked his way up from the bottom in the family business. When he was in high school, he traded in
his BB gun for a shovel. Instead of his youthful play, he shoveled and stacked feed, dog food and raw ingredients. e job was solely manual labor, although if his uncle and father ever went on a family vacation, he stepped up as the eldest sibling to fill orders. The business was small then — simple, too.
After he graduated from high school, Kampeter headed to Lincoln University in Jefferson City, while his younger brother Tommy went straight to the factory. After continuing to work at the plant part- time while studying, Kampeter soon realized college wasn’t for him. His next move was obvious — he went back to the factory and picked up where he left off , with brother Tommy, while John and Andy were still in high school. He did not, however, return to the same labor-intensive job to which he had grown accustomed as a teenager.
In the fall of 1985, Kampeter became Diamond Dog Food’s first official salesman as he hit the road to spread word of its products. Prior to him creating this position, the company mostly sold its goods locally or by word of mouth. Given the immense responsibilities at the plant, there was no time for employees to make cold calls. is transition into travel and sales gradually grew the company and shifted its focus to producing dog food.
As a sales representative, Kampeter spent up to 50 weeks of the year on the road, traveling from coast to coast and everywhere in between. He planned trips to the South that took him to Louisiana, through the Gulf states and into Florida, then back up the East coast. From there he worked his way back through the Midwest. He usually was gone for up to a month at a time, but he was single and had no kids, so he didn’t mind the travel or the grind.
Over the next seven years, Kampeter traveled to every state except Hawaii and Alaska, as well as to most countries in Europe. From place to place, he visited trade shows where customers had never heard of the product before. His main focus remained on cultivating wholesale relation- ships with other companies.
Perhaps his most signi cant connection came with Costco. e relationship all started when Glory Ball, a Costco buyer in the Los Angeles region, purchased a puppy from a breeder who recommended the Diamond Dog products that he had used.
At that time, Diamond Dog was selling small bags of “Nutra Nuggets” in grocery stores. Costco is all about buying in bulk. us, Diamond Dog Food ended up supplying the chain’s Kirkland signature line, and after a few years, it scaled nationwide.
With that rapid growth from the Costco connection, the dog food company needed quick adjustments. The company bought its rst extruder in 1982, a machine that cooks the whole formula. From there, the plant only became more industrialized, adjusting its infrastructure as needed.
Kampeter married his wife, Paige, in 1993. at year he also transitioned from sales represen- tative to sales manager. He hired several new representatives to take his place.
Over the next few years, despite the new family additions, including three children—Trey, Brandon and Claire—travel didn’t slow for Kampeter. Instead, he continued laying down the wholesale relationships that would scale the business nationally.
In 1999, the company had grown too large to maintain sales and distribution out of only the Meta location, so a new site was opened in Lathrop, California. A third location was launched in Gaston, South Carolina, four years later. Although none of the locations are ideal, according to Kampeter, the company makes them work as well as possible.
Around this time, travel nally slowed down for Kampeter. He stayed in Missouri more o en, leading up to the time of the most signi cant change the company had yet seen.
In 2007, the second generation of Kampeters and Schells bought the company from the original owners. It was a time of transition.
“It was just the right time to do it,” Kampeter says. “We were a smaller company then. It was a good time for an evaluation to buy out.”
With the now-grandparents longing for more time on the road and to spend with their grandchildren, the shift let Kampeter as the new president of the business. However, for him, the new title didn’t seem to bring much extra weight.
“As far as learning other sides of the business, when you grow up in a facility for that long, it’s all you’ve ever known,” Kampeter says. “ There is no transition.”
In comparison to an equivalent alteration in the corporate world, Kampeter feels only slight shi s. Instead of managing sales representatives in the field or linking up with companies on the road, his days are now more predictable. He believes business and surprises don’t mix well.
Kampeter and his close advisors speak daily about future growth opportunities, and deal with production issues on the sales side. ere’s no need for scheduling conference calls or executive meetings because their o ces are strung together down one row. Whenever they need to meet, the employees simply pack into one o ce.
If the president has noticed an overarching change in his position, it has nothing to do with the additional tax return papers he signs at the end of the year or the position that precedes his name — but with his vision. Kampeter thinks more “big picture” now, claiming his attention to detail has faded.
Luckily, he is surrounded by employees who manage the details for him. In fact, many of his close advisors are family members, in- cluding his three brothers. The second-oldest, Tommy, serves as vice president of purchasing, while John runs the sales team. His youngest brother, Andy, is vice president of transportation and packaging.
His 28-year-old son, Trey, works mainly at the base plant in Meta, and his nephew covers a Midwest sales territory that stretches from Missouri to Oklahoma to Arkansas. Kampeter’s cousin Mark holds the office of vice president of operations.
Even employees such as Mark Brinkman, a general manager who doesn’t share the Kampeter or Schell blood, is still considered family, as are Ken Wegman and Randy Steinlage. According to Kampeter, the family-like closeness of its employees is the oil that keeps the company running smoothly.
“I don’t know who I’d replace them with,” he says. “ There are a lot of qualified people in our company, and they all do their jobs and that keeps it working.”
As a whole, the company has grown four times as large over the past decade, becoming the largest pet-food manufacturer in the world. Out of those, Diamond Dog is one of only two that are family owned.
It is their hard-working network of employees that has made the company’s exponential growth possible. After the third opening in 2003, the company opened new plants in 2012 and 2016. The new factories run out of Ripon, California, and Dumas, Arkansas. According to Kampeter, another site is set, but the details remain con dential as they are still in the works.
Despite the company’s evolution over the past decades, Kampeter continues to make that same 35-minute drive to Meta from Je erson City, after sunrise and before sunset. Before each workday he travels down the two-lane road with occasional turkey and deer sightings.
The transition from his manual labor teenage job to the head of the company only took a few decades, a generational shi of power and thousands of miles in sales connections.
He has now replaced his BB gun in the back, with a cell phone in his hand.•