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Heidi Neal had a background in banking, but a love for dogs.
She combined her skills with her passion in January 2010, buying the original location of Loyal Biscuit, an independent boutique with dog and cat supplies.Today, Neal, who bought the store with her husband Joel, has seven stores in Maine.
Neal has deep roots in Rockland. She was born and raised in Rockland, went to Oceanside High School and has a degree from Thomas College. Her husband is a Rockland Police officer. They live in Rockland with their five dogs and a cat.
Neal’s background is in banking. She was vice president of branch operations at Midcoast Federal Credit Union and a marketing officer at Camden National Bank. Each gave her specific skills that she uses today in retail.
“My marketing job [at Camden National] gave me experience in database digging, direct mail, events. It gave me a great background. Prior to COVID we did a ton of events at Loyal Biscuit,” she says. “At Midcoast, I was a manager of people. I love my staff, but managing people is hard.”
In 2009, after 15 years in banking and so many new regulations after the Great Recession, she was ready for a change. She loved shopping at the Loyal Biscuit in downtown Rockland — the welcoming atmosphere, the fact that she could bring in her dog, the proprietor she knew by name.
She mentioned to her then-boyfriend-now-husband Joel that she’d be interested in owning a business like that. He suggested asking the owner of Loyal Biscuit if she wanted to sell.
“Loyal Biscuit was my favorite. My only dog at the time, Fenway, and I would go in there. By 2009, things really changed. I was burned out on banking. I was set to go back to school to become a teacher,” she says.
As a matter of fact, Loyal Biscuit’s owner at the time, Lauren Hinsman, was ready to sell. That was December 2009.
“It was one of those cases of right place, right time,” Neal says.
She took over the business on Jan. 19, 2010.
“I had a ton to learn,” she says. “I’d never learned to use a [point-of-sale] system. I had to learn about ordering and inventory, what we carry and why. Those were some big things.”
The previous owner trained her over three weeks, and Neal “depended heavily,” she says, on her outside sales rep at a distributor and training offered by companies whose brands were sold in her store.
She bought the store with proceeds from selling her house earlier in the year, before she and Joel were married. She also had financing provided by the previous owner.
“So off the bat I didn’t need financing,” she says. “It grew from there.”
A year after the ownership change at Loyal Biscuit, the previous owner returned wanted to open a similar store in Camden. Their deal had included a non-compete clause, so Neal worked out another deal, asking the previous owner to buy out the non-compete and release her from the owner financing — in effect, freeing her from the terms of the original deal.
She also received right-of-first-refusal if Hinsman wanted to sell the Camden store, then known as Destination Dog.
With barely time to breathe, Loyal Biscuit had expanded to Belfast, opening a store downtown.
As luck would have it, by December 2011, Hinsman was ready to sell the Camden store. So by February 2012 — just two years after the original deal in Rockland — Loyal Biscuit had three stores.
“We were not ready for a third store, by any means. But we couldn’t let someone else come in and buy Camden,” Neal says. “We were getting better pricing [from wholesalers], but we didn’t have a procedure book or employee handbook. It was crazy for a while, but we made it.”
By 2014, her Belfast manager, Chelsie Herrin, was getting married and wanted to open a store in Waterville, launching in August of that year. The store is now at 99 Main St., but the original site didn’t work out, ending badly.
“For me, it was my first real negative experience dealing with someone who wasn’t nice. I have lived a sheltered life. I’ve never been in circles where I’ve been exposed to mean people,” Neal says.
By moving two doors away, she got a lot of help from some nice people.
“We turned it around in 10 days. We had 40 people come and help us move on a Saturday night,” she says. “We adapted.”
Since then, she has bought the buildings housing two stores, in Rockland, at 408 Main St., using an SBA 504 loan, and in Camden.
Stores in Brewer (2017) and Hallowell (2019) followed. The breakneck pace continued with an expansion into downtown Bath earlier this year.
“I don’t truly plan things out. It’s more for me about taking the opportunity when it’s there and it feels right,” says Neal. “There are not a lot of places in the state that need an independent store of this kind. Unless someone closes or sells — there are not a lot of places I’d think of. I want to grow but it has to make sense.”
Kate McAleer, a friend and founder of Rockland-based Bixby & Co., said Neal “has built out her retail go-to market strategy with amazing execution. Heidi has created an extraordinary business that serves a need. Her customer service and pet relations are incredible.”
One thing the pandemic forced the company to do was add online shopping — and the Loyal Biscuit staff did it in its customary speedy fashion.
“We did that in three days,” Neal says of the online buildout.
With more people getting dogs during the pandemic, the stores have been busy.
“More and more people are getting dogs because they are home and looking for companionship and all that,” she says. “Now that people are allowed back in stores, definitely seeing a lot of puppies.”