By Stephen Betts Bangor Daily News, Maine.
Heidi Vanorse Neal said a random conversation at a Christmas party led to her starting what has become a successful chain of pet supply stores across coastal and central Maine.
Five years later, Neal has been named Maine's Small Business Person of the Year.
Neal had worked for 15 years at the Midcoast Federal Credit Union but said she was burning out in that job. The Rockland native considered going back to school to become a teacher when she had a conversation with her now husband, Joel Neal, at a Christmas party.
"I said I would love to own the Loyal Biscuit Company and bring my dog to work all day. Joel encouraged me to contact the owner and I did," Neal said.
The then owner of the Main Street Rockland business, Lauren Hinsman, replied and said the business was for sale and that she planned to close it by Christmas if she had not received an offer.
"It was a totally random conversation," she said.
A little more than a month later, she and Joel Neal became the owner of Loyal Biscuit, which Hinsman had founded in January 2006.
Neal said that running a store was a completely different experience for her. She said her only previous retail experience was working as a clerk at a Hannaford supermarket in Waterville while she was in college.
The first expansion came in June 2011 when she opened a store in the Reny's Plaza in Belfast.
"Belfast was the next logical location," Neal said. "They have a great dog community with a dog park."
A third was opened in Camden less than a year later. The original owner of Loyal Biscuit had returned to the midcoast and had opened the pet store Destination Dog in Camden. Hinsman decided to close it and move away again, and Neal agreed to purchase the business located in the Knox Mill.
The fourth store on Main Street in Waterville opened last August. The manager of the Loyal Biscuit store in Belfast was getting married last year and was moving to Waterville. Neal said she was familiar with Waterville because she had gone to Thomas College and has relatives in neighboring Winslow.
Neal said she plans to eventually open more stores but none are planned at this time.
In addition to the four Loyal Biscuit stores that she and her husband own, Neal is part owner of two other pet-related businesses that she has started during the past few years.
In June 2011, she and April Thibodeau created Fidelis Biscuit Company which makes organic and Maine made treats. The treats are sold both at the stores and wholesale to other stores across the country. Thibodeau cooks the treats in her home oven where she also has a dehydrating machine for making the pet food.
The other business is Loyal Biscuit Tug Me Toy, which she and her husband started in October 2012. Heidi's father David Vanorse cuts the felt for the toys then sends it to the Maine State Prison where inmates hand braid them.
Both the treats and toys are certified made in Maine products, Neal said.
The business woman is a pet lover, having three dogs and two cats. The silhouette of the Neals' dog Fenway is used on the logo of the business. Fenway has also had success in the annual boatyard dog competition held during the summer at the Maine Boats, Homes and Harbors show in Rockland.
Neal said the successes of her business has been due the focus on community. Neal works closely with the local animal shelters. Three of her stores are satellite adoption centers for cats. More than 300 cats have been adopted during the past two-and-a-half years. She has also participated in fundraisers to help out the shelters.
Neal said she does a lot of research to make sure that the products she sells in the stores are the best products for the pets. The products she sells must come from the United States or Canada. There are only a few exceptions, such as veal from New Zealand. She said she will work with pet owners to get the best diet for their pets. She also is in close contact with area veterinarians.
Neal's success has also been recognized by national trade publications -- Pet Product News named Loyal Biscuit as its national community outreach award winner. Pet Age Magazine named it the top retailer of the year. Loyal Biscuit also was recognized at this year's Penobscot Bay Regional Chamber of Commerce as the Small Business of the Year.
Neal will be recognized for her success at a Small Business Administration reception on May 5 at the Augusta Country Club in Manchester. Neal was nominated for this award by David Hill of the Small Business Development Center in Wiscasset.
Hill said Neal was a natural entrepreneur.
"She has done a fabulous job with the community and her customers," Hill said.
A national winner and two runner-ups will be selected from the 50 state winners and honored in Washington, D.C., on May 8.