Ruff stuff

A Worcester company’s toys delight its canine clientele

By Pamela H. Sacks

TELEGRAM & GAZETTE

2002

An Australian shepherd named Jill carries a favorite rock around in her mouth as she crisscrosses her Flagg Street yard. She would keep it with her all the time, if permitted. She would chew on it, retrieve it and sleep with it.

Nothing unusual about a love affair between a dog and a rock — except that, rather than stone, this particular object is made of 100 percent solid rubber in a fashionable mottled green.

Jill’s cherished rock is one of four toys designed and manufactured in Worcester by Ruff Dawg, a division of Jefferson Rubber Works, which makes custom molded rubber products.

Ruff Dawg toys began coming on the market four years ago; tens of thousands are now sold in pet stores across the country. Along with The Rock, Ruff Dawg makes the K-9 Flyer, the K-9 Flyer Jr. and The Stick, all in bright colors or tie-

dyed.

`OUTSIDE THE BOX’

How Ruff Dawg came to exist is a tale that demonstrates the value of that favorite entrepreneurial expression “thinking outside the box.”

Dave Pentland, who is owner and president of both Ruff Dawg and Jefferson Rubber Works, is not given to boasting. In written material, he claims that his company “inadvertently found success in the pet products industry.”

It seems, though, that the products were born of sharp observation, several lively imaginations and a keen business sense.

“It’s amazing how often you stumble into things, or walk past great opportunities,” Mr. Pentland said. “We’re sure glad we caught this one.”

Ruff Dawg began this way: Jefferson used to make a 9-inch diameter rubber membrane used in wastewater treatment plants. Jefferson workers were disposing of scrap discs by flinging them like Frisbees into the trash. Mr. Pentland noticed that the discs flew with speed and precision; the membrane toss soon became a favorite activity at break time.

In 1998, however, the customer that ordered the membranes was bought by a competitor, and a good chunk of Jefferson’s business dried up.

Mr. Pentland knew he had to scramble to make up the lost revenue, and it seemed that there ought to be another use for the membrane. He and three managers formed a team to brainstorm. They recalled that in the 1970s, Jefferson had made ultratough rubber bones for a promotion for Purina dog food.

Why not make the membranes from similar material and carve out a market in the pet industry under a new division called Ruff Dawg? They smoothed the edge, embossed a Ruff Dawg logo in the center, and the membrane became the K-9 Flyer.

“When we first came out with it, we didn’t know how durable it would be,” Mr. Pentland said. “We gave it to two 2-year-old Labs, and they haven’t destroyed it yet.”

The Jefferson team went outside for help with packaging and promotion, hiring sales representatives to get the flyer into pet stores in New England.

The Pet Barn on Park Avenue was one of the first stores to carry Ruff Dawg merchandise. The store’s operators recognized the quality of the rubber toys right away.

“There’s a nice series of colors, and they’re long-lasting,” said Bhikkhu Dhammapiyo. “People do notice them, but we also tell people it’s a local product, and they get very excited because they like to support local businesses. It becomes a pretty easy choice.”

Soon, there were requests for a smaller version of the durable disc, and the K-9 Flyer Jr. hit the market.

Mr. Pentland and Michelle Sellers, who heads customer service, began attending trade shows and quickly learned that Ruff Dawg would need more than two items to make serious inroads in the pet product industry. They asked themselves, “What else do dogs chase?”

Veterinarians told them that many dogs race after sticks. In their enthusiasm, they sometimes get the wood jammed in their mouths and end up in need of veterinary care.

Half a year later, The Stick, which floats and comes in six bright colors, began appearing on the shelves of pet stores.

Focused on providing “safe, fun toys for dogs,” the team inquired further and learned that many dogs chase and chew on rocks. Before long, Ruff Dawg was offering its own hardy version.

Mr. Pentland laughs when he recalls that he went out into the woods behind his home in Princeton and carefully selected models for The Stick and The Rock, which resemble the real thing in feel and form.

Although the toys are intended to be used for retrieving rather than chewing, they are made of solid, nontoxic, Food and Drug Administration approved rubber and are safe if ingested. Jill, the Australian shepherd, can attest to that.

ACROSS THE COUNTRY

After cracking the local market, Ruff Dawg sales representatives spread out across the country. Independent pet stores in all regions carry the products, according to the Ruff Dawg Web site (www.ruffdawg.com), which lists by address and phone number 43 stores in Massachusetts, 30 in New York, 24 in California and 26 in Florida.

Last year, 50,000 were sold, and sales have doubled each year for the past three years, Mr. Pentland said. Although retailers can set their own prices, generally, the K-9 Flyer sells for $10.99; the K-9 Jr., $7.99; The Stick, $11.99; and The Rock, $9.99.

The Ruff Dawg division is now quite profitable for Jefferson, which employs 55 and has annual sales of $7 million. Jefferson serves the automotive, military, appliance and construction industries, among others.

“It’s now 7 to 10 percent of the business,” Mr. Pentland said of Ruff Dawg. “We want it at 15 to 20 percent.”