By Eric Butler
You can usually find Kirby Leitner behind the counter of the pet store that he owns, Mill Creek Pet Food Center. Greeting dogs that are headed to the grooming area to be cleaned up or showing a customer the newest dog food, Leitner and his store have become a pillar of the local community. Relocating no more than a mile from its old location in 2004, Mill Creek can now be seen on a busier part of Two Notch Road. Leitner’s goal is to be competitive while also offering something he says most other pet stores do not. Customer service. That has always been important to Leitner, the personalization of the shopping experience.
Business partner and long-time friend, Eric Austin, says that is just how Leitner was programmed. “The product is of course very important, but so is the experience. Customers can get the supplies they need anywhere, including online now, so you need to provide a reason for them to keep coming to your store, and Kirby makes sure that he does that.”
Austin has been Letiner’s business partner for all 15 years the store has been open and claims Kirby is, “everything I’m not.” When asked to elaborate he smiled wide while setting down his cup of coffee and said, “I just did.” Austin paused for a moment and then laughed. “Kirby knows how to deal with the sales reps and the banks. He is just a very smart business man. I am so fortunate to have him as my partner.”
One of the sales reps Austin is referring to is Bob Clark, a regional rep for Phillips Supply Company. Clark said he has known Leitner for many years and that he knows he has to bring his A-game when dealing with him. “Kirby is a very tough sell; I mean that in a positive way. He is always very well-prepared to discuss product and pricing with me and I know that before I meet with him.” One thing Clark says Kirby does well is predict how well a product will be received by his customer base. “He can figure out how much he will most likely sell the product and at what price he feels he would be able to, and most of the time he is right.” Clark also says Kirby makes his job easier because he does not have to spend as much time talking pricing because he knows Kirby will already be prepared.
Leitner did not always want to be the owner of Mill Creek Pet Food Center. Growing up in northeast Columbia, Leitner always wanted to be an architect. After graduating from Richland Northeast High School, where he played quarterback on the football team, Leitner enrolled at Clemson University. Leitner was a member of the Kappa Alpha Fraternity at Clemson and worked many late hours at the local bar on campus to help pay for school. Leitner says he would go to school all day and then work all night, a routine that he says would help him later in life when he needed to work late. While in his senior year at Clemson, Leitner had a change of heart and decided that architecture was not for him. He switched his major to business management and graduated in 1988.
After college, Leitner began to work as the manager of a cafeteria at a big business. An experience that has created a prejudice against Wise potato chips. For Leitner, it is Lays or nothing. Leitner ran this cafeteria for a few years, but knew he wanted to have a business of his own one day. Leitner was married and is now a father, so he knew he needed to make a change that would give him the opportunity to support them.
His close friend and future business partner, Eric Austin, would help change Leitner’s path forever. Leitner jumped at the opportunity to open a pet store on the rapidly growing northeast side of Columbia. Austin had been running a Mill Creek on the downtown side of Columbia and wanted to expand. So, the two of them partnered and created Leitner-Austin Incorporated. This was a huge leap of faith for Leitner, and he jumped in feet first.
Fast forward a few years and Leitner’s business is flourishing. Leitner used his business skills and personality to grow Mill Creek each year and today it is one of the most well-known stores in Columbia. Mill Creek has won multiple awards from local magazines and newspapers for “Best Customer Service” and “Best Groomers.” The awards are displayed on the windows and around the store. “We work hard for those, what do you see when you go into a sports arena? A bunch of banners listing accomplishments and that is what we do here. Too much hard-work has gone into earning those and we will put them up proudly” Leitner said. Along the way, Leitner has had plenty of competition. Three pet stores within a few miles of his store have all gone out of business selling the same products he does, in the same area. So how does Leitner manage to stay open for so long? Leitner insists it is customer service and reasonably priced supplies.
He has also always been very involved in the community. Whether it is a fundraiser for the local schools or charity work being done by a local church, Leitner always takes part, “This community has supported me for years and it is the least I can do,” he said. People in the community recognize that and it makes them want to shop and support Mill Creek.
Of course, Leitner does not accomplish all of this by himself. Working for Leitner is also a pleasant experience. Current employee Joey Hyngi, says, “Kirby is the best boss I have ever had, and I have had a few.” Hyngi also said that seeing the boss man show up and work like he does makes you not want to be the weak link. Leitner leads in a way that makes you not want to let him down, according to Hyngi. “He is very fair and goes beyond the responsibilities of being the boss on a daily basis,” says Hyngi. Leitner has been known to help his employees pay for college, get auto loans and is almost always used as a reference when employees are moving on.
And, Leitner is also a family man. Despite being as busy as he is on a daily basis, he still is there for his family. Leitner picks his son up from school every day and never misses a ball game, recital or family dinner. “My dad is my hero,” Leslie Leitner says. Leitner says her dad was always there for her growing up. Now an 18-year-old, Leitner says her dad attended every softball game and is her biggest supporter. “I know that he will always be there for me and that whatever I need, he will do what he can to help.” Leitner says her father’s work ethic has rubbed off on her and that she applies herself to her everyday responsibilities the same way her father does.
Kirby Leitner is a father, businessman and major part of his community. He contributes his time and money to make his community a better place while giving customers a shopping experience they continuously return for. Eventually Leitner will sell the store and start the next chapter of his life. Whatever it is, it is safe to assume he will do it well.
Butler is a senior broadcast journalism major