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October 15, 2012

Stephanie Volo keeps Planet Dog on track with its mission and market

photo/TIM GREENWAY
photo/TIM GREENWAY
Stephanie Volo, president of Planet Dog, walks her dog Maximo in front of the retail store in Portland

VIEW: Stephanie Volo at work and play

Planet Dog

Address: 85 Bradley Drive, Westbrook

President: Stephanie Volo

Founded: 1997

Employees: 25

Products: designs, develops and sells high-quality dog products

Annual revenue: North of $5 million

Contact: 761-1515

www.planetdog.com

When Stephanie Volo, the "top dog" and president of Planet Dog in Westbrook, answered the phone one day in 1997, something about the way friend Alex Fisher described his idea for an innovative, multi-channel, socially responsible business told her it just might be a success.

She was right.

Fifteen years after its inception, Planet Dog, which designs, develops and sells premium dog products, has grown into an award-winning, well-known and socially responsible leader both locally and in the pet industry as a whole. And Volo has played a key role in that evolution and growth. Following that initial phone conversation, she continued at her "real job" with Stonewall Kitchen, carving out whatever time she could to help Fisher and partner Stew Maloney launch the company. She would join Planet Dog full-time within two years.

Had things gone a little differently, Volo says, the company might have had a completely different focus. But a blend of creativity, brainstorming and a collective love for dogs provided the right inspiration.

"There were several ideas we were talking through, and as we were doing that, there at our feet were our 'best friends,'" she says. "None of us had kids, so our dogs were our lives. And because it was all about our dogs, we started to think about what we do with our dogs, and that led to talking about the products we used with and for our dogs."

After surveying the dog products landscape, the three found very few choices available, and there were even fewer differences among manufacturers' products. They decided to create their own — and do it in a way that would be responsible to the environment, a philosophy that continues today.

"We try to find a void or a place where a solution is needed and design and develop something that's functional and beautiful, and it needs to be durable — whether it's a bed or a chew toy," she says. "And if we can't make something that's certified organic or at least eco-friendly, we find other ways to incorporate that philosophy. Maybe it's the way we manufacture it or how we use packaging."

After two years of planning, Planet Dog launched in 1999, selling to consumers through its website and catalog. At that time, Volo says, pets were becoming big business (think Pets.com). Unsurprisingly, Planet Dog grew along with the trend.

"We were experiencing double- or triple-digit growth up until 2008. The pet industry was booming, which made it easy, but 2008 hit us hard," she says.

By then, Planet Dog was operating its Portland retail store, which opened in late 2004, and the number of employees had grown from the initial three to about 50. When the going got tough, Planet Dog begrudgingly tightened its belt and made cuts at all levels of the company.

"Tough decisions had to be made because we were no longer the only eco-friendly company, and we started to realize that others were jumping on this bandwagon that we'd pretty much built," Volo says. "And we're at the top of the price chain, especially with our molded products — which are about 75% of our products — that are made here in Maine. That's something we decided we weren't willing to move overseas. It's better for the company, our customers and our product development team to have that here. We know the ins and outs of the process and the materials that go into them."

The challenge became how to balance good products and good prices when people had limited funds for dog supplies, Volo says.

"We don't want to pass our costs on to our customers, so our margins are affected, which means slower growth," she says. "Why would people want to buy from us? We're staying true to our mission and giving 2% to the foundation, our products are made in our backyard, and we guarantee our product forever, no questions asked."

Volo says the Planet Dog Foundation, the company's philanthropic endeavor, has also helped Planet Dog weather the economic storm. Two percent of the company's revenue funds the foundation, which supports working dogs, ranging from service, therapy and assistance dogs to search and rescue, police and bomb-sniffing dogs.

"We decided to dedicate our efforts toward supporting nonprofit organizations that support, train and place working dogs in a place of need," she says. "Because of our mission [philanthropy] is why we're here. Our customers appreciate that, so they're committed to helping."

Since 2000, the Planet Dog Foundation has donated nearly $900,000 to nonprofits through grants and in-kind donations. The grant-writing process has wrapped up for 2012, but Volo is hopeful the foundation can cross the $1 million mark in 2013.

A very visible project Planet Dog has supported is Portland's Bayside Trail, the 13.2-acre former railroad property that runs through Bayside, connecting Deering Oaks and the Eastern Prom Trail. When the Trust for Public Land approached Planet Dog in 2006 to help finish the trail, part of which runs behind the company's store, "we bought in instantly," Volo says. Working with organizations including TPL, Portland Trails, Bayside Neighborhood, East Bayside Neighborhood and Bangor Savings Bank, Planet Dog helped raise the money to finish the trail — and pitched in to help get the work done as well.

"We gave $101,000 plus 101 dogwood trees that we planted along the trail," she says. "When the recession hit, it was touch-and-go, but we kept pushing."

While she may be at the helm of Planet Dog and the public face of the company, Volo is quick to deflect any individual praise and accolades to her team. The company has won several recent awards, including the Maine Governor's Award, the Portland Development Corp.'s Small Business of the Year and Fast Company magazine's Champion of Innovation award.

"Those are the true successes that reflect on the team, not just one person or one product. It takes a team for success," she says. "I'm very blessed. I rarely talk about 'I'; the team is the engine. There's much more value, excitement and success with a team, and in return you get this amazing buy-in."

Derek Rice, a writer based in Saco, can be reached at editorial@mainebiz.biz.

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