When, why and how did you start West Paw?
I really wanted to be in the pet trade, so I bought Pet Pals in 1996, which was a sewn plush toy manufacturer in Montana.. My wife and I were passionate dog people--we wanted to be able to apply that passion toward a business. I didn’t change anything for six months, then began the process of reinventing the company. In 1999, we changed the name to West Paw and added bedding.
One of our biggest breakthroughs was when we started making mats fit the majority of other companies’ crates. Also we brought Berber to the pet industry, taking the idea from the outdoors industry--like North Face. Our Nature Naps were the original Berber mat in the pet industry.
How do you differentiate your product from your competition?
We think outside the big box. I never wanted to be the largest, just the most profitable. One of our core values is relationships-- we build slowly over time, for the long term.
It is very important to keep our pet specialty customers happy--we get good solid feedback from them. It’s a relationship we really value and helps grow our business.
We absolutely have to make very practical, useful things. I believe we are highly regarded for being unique….but also safe and practical. We don’t create junk.
Another thing that differentiates us is that our products are made in the USA, we actually make the product right in our Montana factory. We design, market, sell and manufacture the product in our building. Not many manufacturers can make that claim. There are no finished goods from outside of Montana.
I also believe that our profit sharing plan is critical to our success, it unifies a very diverse organization. We have contributed every year. Last year was our biggest contribution ever!
What are some of the biggest lessons you have learned since starting your business?
You have to keep innovating. For us to be of value to our dealers, we must bring new products to market, and support our products with innovative press and programs for our customers.
I would be sure to invest in people with very strong skill sets. Our people are not an expense on the income statement but an asset on the balance sheet. It is important to look toward people who can bring new knowledge and experience and incorporate that skill set into our long-term growth plan.
What advice would you give a new entrepreneur in the pet industry?
Anyone coming in to this industry has to be very clear what you want your business to be. Do you want volume? High profits? Where do you want to be in five years? There is a world of opportunity in this industry!
Be true to your organization; don’t try to be something you are not.
What’s next for West Paw?
We will continue to emphasize the safety and value of our "Made in the USA” products. As a matter of fact, we are working on a campaign to encourage more people to understand why that is important.
And we are excited to say that there are new innovations in textiles and injection-molded products coming out in 2011. Stay tuned!
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