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Preuss looks back on 40 years of ‘magic’ between people and pets

Lansing pet store owner receives international lifetime achievement award

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Rick Preuss surveys the Pacific Ocean during a break at a convention in San Diego.
Rick Preuss surveys the Pacific Ocean during a break at a convention in San Diego.
At the corner of Caesar Chavez Avenue and Cedar Street in Lansing’s Old Town stands a brightly painted edifice that invites folks into the land of Preuss Pets. There’s a towering waterfall display and a rainforest facade painted on the outside wall, a mural from a local artist.

Inside, a panoply of pets ranging from saltwater fish and corals to reptiles and exotic birds of all sizes are on display in the Caribbean island-themed store. It’s a destination for families looking to introduce their children to extraordinary animals and pilgrimage location for hardcore pet enthusiasts, including some who drive to the store from nearby states to shop the saltwater section of the store.

The pet shop is the culmination of more than four decades in the pet industry for the multigenerational Preuss family, including Rick and his wife, Debbie. Their daughter, Kirbay, is also being groomed to eventually take over the store. She has been a key asset in connecting the store into the social fabric of the community. The store stages fundraisers for various charities and often hosts small groups of young people for education — all from Kirbay’s work.

And the iconic shop also represents decades of a family commitment to the philosophy of love, Jean Preuss, Rick’s mother, told The Towne Courier in the late ‘90s before she died of cancer.

A young Rick Preuss.
A young Rick Preuss.
At the time, Jean Preuss said the driving idea behind the pet industry was simple: It’s about love. And nothing was more pure, more healing, than the bond between a human and a pet.

The story of Rick Preuss, his family and Preuss Pets is also a story about love. And not just the love of animals — although there’s certainly a lot of that there — but the love for people as well.

“My dad regularly speaks to classes at MSU,” Kirbay said. “At the end of his speeches he always asks the group what they think his favorite animal is. There are lots of guesses, from guinea pigs to saltwater fish. But that’s not it. It’s human beings. They are his favorite animals in the world.”

In August, the World Pet Association honored Rick Preuss and the store for a lifetime of advancing the industry. The store was named pet retailer of the year for a full-line pet store, meaning they offer not only animals for pets but all the equipment and food to support them in healthy ways.

“It doesn’t excite me to say simply we’re a successful pet store and here’s the number,” Preuss said. “We’re a successful pet store, and the evidence is in the smiles of the people coming in the door and the return customer and the customer who says, ‘I was failing and you helped me out.’”

Preuss himself was also honored with a lifetime achievement award for more than 40 years in the industry. And this week, the state honored him as well in a resolution issued by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

One his earliest memories is standing beside his mother, a force in her own right, as she sold fish from a 300-square-foot fish shop in Pennsylvania, where the family grew up. He said there was a “magic” in the connection between people and the animals that fascinated him.

Preuss excelled in school as a kid, but he also had a secret. He struggles with a reading disability.

That disability prevents him from quickly reading and comprehending what he has just read. And while he hasn’t been formally diagnosed with any specific condition, Preuss said he’s always open about his struggle with his diverse team of employees.

It’s an irony of sorts, as Preuss’ struggle has also served to foster a deep listening capacity and memory that helps drive his learning and passion to pass that information on to his clients. He can explain the complex biochemical reactions building or harming a reef system or whip off the information about the bacteria that help stabilize and keep a freshwater aquarium healthy.

“How I compensate is I can multitask and process things coming at me from different angles,” he said. “It provides me with a strong sense of empathy for everybody around me.”

His focus and attention to those details has lifted him into a leader in creating a greening of the industry. His retail outlet was one of the first to be certified as a sustainable retailer when it came to saltwater fish — many of which still cannot reproduce in aquariums. The certification means that from the wild reef to an aquarium in his store, Preuss and his team can document the humane care and collection of the animal, assuring consumers the animals were harvested in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way.

In the early 1990s, when it was discovered that Lake Victoria in Africa was facing an environmental disaster as the result of the release of a non-native predator, Preuss worked with scientists at Michigan State University to create a system to save the biodiversity of the lake in aquariums across the county. Dozens of species of fish, found only in Lake Victoria, are now plentiful in the pet industry. Hobbyists continue to breed them to retain the genetic diversity.

In 1988, when fish from larger breeding ponds in Florida and southeast Asia — like swordtails, mollies and other livebearing fish and mainstays of the aquarium trade — continued to come in sick because of a parasite for which there is no treatment, Rick worked with a Cuban immigrant, Antonio Comas, to develop a breeding program at the store. Comas was able to create new color variations. His new strains have won awards locally, statewide and across the country.

Preuss is also still a highly sought speaker at big-time pet industry conferences, major universities and fish clubs across the country. To this day, he also has a deep love for guinea pigs — an animal that he raised while a child working at his family’s store in Pennsylvania.

Rick Preuss inside Preuss Pets during its construction.
Rick Preuss inside Preuss Pets during its construction.

When the family packed up and moved to Lansing, it was a return to their roots. The Preuss family has a long history in Lansing. An ancestor, Frank J. Preuss Jr.,  served on the City Council in the ‘50s and ‘60s. He owned a store in Old Town, and his father, Frank Sr., opened a butcher and grocery store in 1900 in Old Town. Another family member, Harold, also had a store in Old Town. Three buildings in Old Town also have the name Preuss engraved on the facade, memorializing the family’s investment into the former center of Lansing’s economic activity.

 

The pet store hosts about 14,000 square feet of retail space, and thousands more for storage and fish husbandry behind the scenes. That building also had a tie to the family. Wife Debbie has a direct lineage connection to the former car dealership that once operated at the building.

And transforming an old car dealership into a piece of tropical paradise in Lansing was not easy.

“I remember standing there looking at this empty building and thinking: How are we going to do this?” Preuss said, looking back to when bought the current Old Town store location in 2005. He renovated it with the help of the Lansing Economic Area Partnership, the city and tax incentives.

Rob Preuss (left) and Mike Wendt pause while constructing the waterfall feature in front of Preuss Pets in Old Town.
Rob Preuss (left) and Mike Wendt pause while constructing the waterfall feature in front of Preuss Pets in Old Town.

Rick provided the design ideas, while his brother Rob Preuss served as project manager and did the interior work — taking out walls, finishing floors and creating the river that runs through the middle of the store. He’s also responsible for the large waterfall in front of the store.

The Preuss Pets school bus before it was renovated and placed in the store.
The Preuss Pets school bus before it was renovated and placed in the store.

Rob Preuss also carved up the festively painted bus that now hosts small animals like ferrets, rats and gerbils. Instead of an engine in the former hood area of the large bus, there are guinea pigs.

Getting there was a struggle. When the family decided to open a pet store in Haslett in 1982, it was strapped for cash. He said an investor had cut them a check to pay the rent for the first month at their store in Haslett — but that check bounced.

Though the store had years of difficulties, Rick thought the store was destined to succeed.

Rick Preuss poses with a guinea pig during his radio show on WILS.
Rick Preuss poses with a guinea pig during his radio show on WILS.

“I talked about how hard it was, but also I want to make sure it is clear they understand that it was always going to happen,” Rick Preuss said in a recent interview. “It was always going to work out.”

Preuss said he and his family initially reinvested all of the earnings back into the store, constantly increasing its size and offerings. The store also grew with people, attracting a loyal following of eclectic employees — some with brightly colored hair, body modifications and larger-than-life personalities that kept the store filled with infectious laughter. He said he is always looking for people with compassion for people and a passion for the pets they will be “representing.”

A customer checks out a reptile display at Preuss Pets.
A customer checks out a reptile display at Preuss Pets.

“Just look at people for the heart that they have beating, and look at the person in front of you,” he said. “The last thing you can do is prejudge how they are dressed, the color of their skin, their sex, their sexual orientation — you better just throw that way out otherwise your pool will be too small.”

He laughed, adding: “That’s kind of how the sausage is made, as they say.”

Debbie Preuss with her Congo African grey parrot.
Debbie Preuss with her Congo African grey parrot.

One of those employees was a quiet woman with an extraordinary ability to bond with birds. Debbie caught Rick’s eye, and eventually they were married. Their only child, Kirbay, followed. By then, Preuss Pets had outgrown its Haslett shopping plaza and needed space. The dream of a Lansing location was born in 2004. Preuss said he and his family surveyed several locations throughout the city of Lansing before landing in Old Town — a spot that drew some initial hesitation from some. Back then, that particular block wasn’t quite the bustling, high-end artists’ enclave like it is today.

Kirbay Preuss feeds the catfish at the miniature river installation inside Preuss Pets.
Kirbay Preuss feeds the catfish at the miniature river installation inside Preuss Pets.

At the time, there were few retailers in the small area, and the late Robert Busby was laboring to expand the offerings with anchor stores. The “mayor of Old Town” was a cheerleader for the relocation.

They bought the building in 2005. When the store opened in 2006, animals were in by police escort — lights flashing — all the way from Haslett to Lansing, which created quite a stir.

Preuss compared the origin story of Preuss Pets to a Bob Ross painting, where you start with selecting a base color and then fill in the rest of the canvas with a landscape of your choice.

Rick Preuss and Emily Schaefer inspecting a fish tank at Preuss Pets.
Rick Preuss and Emily Schaefer inspecting a fish tank at Preuss Pets.
“Historically, the backdrop color when we were painting, it has to do with love, but it has to do with compassion of people,” Preuss said. “Who people are, what they are about, what makes them tick and how pets are interrelated to that.”

Preuss’ greatest teacher has been understanding his failures. That was something he learned as aquarium science was still only just being established and understood. He called that period the “pioneering days” of the industry, which often included many more failures than successes at that time, not because people weren’t trying but because the industry was so new.

Rick Preuss poses with former employee Jen Platz. Preuss said the store’s success would not have been possible without the contributions of the hundreds of people he’s employed over the years.
Rick Preuss poses with former employee Jen Platz. Preuss said the store’s success would not have been possible without the contributions of the …

As a result, Preuss ensures that his customers walk out of his store prepared for success with a new pet. He pointed to his wife’s ability to work with those interested in large birds as an example. She’s known to spend hours working with customers before the purchase.

It’s vitally important for new bird owners to first understand the personality of their future pets, to connect their behavior in ways for people to understand the bird’s wants and needs and ultimately foster a real bond. The result is a powerful connection that lasts a lifetime for the bird, the client — and often with the Preuss employees and family members, Preuss explained.

Rick Preuss in an ornamental Koi pond in the store’s pond area.
Rick Preuss in an ornamental Koi pond in the store’s pond area.

“There’s a lot more energy that goes into a situation when you want to absorb the energy of that other person,” he said. “To simply ask three questions to figure out where we need to go, that’s pretty simple. But to look the customer in the eyes and have a sense of compassion and interest and understanding where they’re at or where they’re not, that’s kind of what makes that matchmaking work.”

And that is a philosophy Preuss imbues in all of his team members in every department.

“We have to be masters of our art,” he said, noting that the underlying connection between people and pets, that compassion and love, is the base color of the painting that is Preuss Pets.

Click here to watch a full video interview with Rick Preuss. 

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