By Maggie Menderski
Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Fla.
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Afer being laid off from several jobs, Joanne Wood-Ellison decided to become her own boss. She launched “The Artful Canine” in 2009 with an idea and a sewing machine. She has since grown the “The Artful Canine” into a small manufacturing business producing dog collars, leashes and accessories.
The Great Recession left Joanne Wood-Ellison in need of a new career.
It took collars and leashes to pull her out of that slump.
Wood-Ellison had been laid off three times from marketing jobs, and her skills just weren’t in great demand in the Sarasota area.
So she decided she needed to create a job rather than look for one.
She started The Artful Canine in 2009 with an idea and a sewing machine in her spare bedroom and has since grown it into a small manufacturing business producing dog collars, leashes and accessories.
Today she and her four employees sew 50 to 60 products a day in their workshop in Venice, then sell them directly to customers through Amazon.com and Wood-Ellison’s own online shop.
“I started my own website because I was an online marketer, so I knew how to do my own website,” she said. “I knew how to market it and advertise it.”
There are a number of manufactures in the Sarasota region, said Kevin Cooper, president and CEO of the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce.
The area has a few big, well-known company names, like Tervis and PGT, that manufacture here, but many smaller operations are thriving in anonymous industrial parks in the area, too. If there’s a gap, it’s the mid-sized companies, he said. But Southwest Florida has the resources for these companies to be successful.
“I think it’s more common than some people would think,” Cooper said.
Technology has given entrepreneurs like Wood-Ellison a way to take their products directly to consumers in national and even global markets.
Wood-Ellison began by designing fashionable and highly functional collars. Martingale collars that tighten if a dog pulls during a walk are useful for dogs that can slip their heads out of traditional collars, but six years ago it was tough to find a stylish one, she said. So she began splashing them with patterns, colors and holiday themes, and the company grew steadily.
She also advertised for people who knew how to sew, which is a difficult skill to find today, she said.
“It’s not complicated, but there is an art to it,” Wood-Ellison said. “I call them collar crafters because there is a certain art to handling the material.”
Her first hire was Cynthia Ginkinger, a North Port resident who needed a job that worked around her son’s schedule. Ginkinger had started sewing years before as a hobbyist, and she made things like children’s Halloween costumes and curtains in her spare time. She’d never sewn professionally but had the basic skills she needed.
The operation was small enough that Ginkinger could pick up a batch of collar materials, sew them at home and return the finished product. But that didn’t last long.
Wood-Ellison refinished and air conditioned her garage in 2010 so they could work there. The duo outgrew that space quickly and moved into a small Port Charlotte retail space with a large back room they used as a workshop. As she added more people, machines and designs, the business needed another new home and it moved into an industrial space in Venice.
Now Wood-Ellison and her four employees have the industrial building well stocked with racks and boxes of the nylon base, narrow decorative fabrics and small metal pieces used to make the collars.
The company has changed dramatically since those first few home-stitched collars that Ginkinger made for The Artful Canine.
“I love watching this evolve and I love being a part of it,” Ginkinger said. “I’m evolving with her. I’m still hanging on and going with her. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything grow that fast.”
Made in Venice
The collars are manufactured in Venice, but some of their pieces are produced overseas. The plaid fabrics, for example, come from the United Kingdom. The metal fasteners come from Asia.
There are five steps between when Wood-Ellison receives the materials and when a customer finally gets one of her products in the mail.
Her employees cut and pair the fabric with the nylon before the two are attached with an industrial sewing machine.
Then those pieces are grouped with fasteners and sent to a tacking machine that secures the hardware.
The company manufactured about 20,000 products on a 1960s Singer tacking machine until Wood-Ellison finally upgraded this July.
The Artful Canine ended its first year with a minute $5,000 in sales. That number grew 400 percent in 2010 and then by about 100 percent a year in the years that followed.
Growth slowed to 12 to 15 percent last year after the move to the new Venice workshop. The company’s new space at 752 Commerce Dr., Suite 11, in Venice, has plenty of room for expansion, and The Artful Canine could feasibly quadruple its output there.
A piece of a big industry
Jeremy Ellison, Wood-Ellison’s son, expects the growth to continue. He runs the tacking machine for the company, and he believes his mom has found a strong niche in the canine product’s industry. Even when people are cutting corners elsewhere, they will still pamper their pets.
Americans spend billions of dollars on their pets every year, and the total has more than tripled in the past two decades, according to the American Pet Products Association. The industry is expected to reach a record $62.75 billion this year, which is up from $60.28 billion in 2015.
“They’re like children and actually sometimes people like their pets more than they like their children,” Ellison said. “It’s a smaller, cuter, fuzzier and less difficult.”
Wood-Ellison already has plans to move into the Canadian and United Kingdom markets through Amazon.com, and, eventually, she’d like to sell them wholesale to retailers. She’s avoided that up to this point because she knows the wholesale market would more than double the cost of her final product to consumers.
Today, the collars sell for $13 to $22, based on size and design. She won’t wholesale to retailers, she said, until she can get the overall cost of her materials down.
“That continues to happen each year,” Wood-Ellison said. “Each year we find ourselves with more buying power, so we can eliminate distributors and work directly with the manufacturers.”
And that’s the kind of hands-on, personal approach that has propelled the business thus far. Wood-Ellison, typically, works six days a week. She does all her own books, designs her own new collars and even runs the sewing machine regularly.
It’s a different life than the marketing career that brought her here, but it’s a welcome one.
“It took that struggle and that recession for me to see it,” Wood-Ellison said. “I’ve often said I wish that this had happened to me 30 years ago because I probably would have done it 30 years ago. I just never thought of that, and I like it. I like it.”