Home-grown businesses treat for local economy

Home-grown businesses treat for local economy

/ columbiatribune.com
Published Saturday, February 16, 2008

In recent years, economic developers have begun to embrace a new
approach to growing communities and regions. Rather than focus solely
on attracting big industry to a city, many municipalities are engaging
in efforts to grow their own locally owned firms, providing the
infrastructure and cultivation they need to succeed.

The new catchphrase for this is "economic gardening." Those of us who
have worked with small business for many years have advocated this
strategy all along. However, with larger industry downsizing and moving
offshore, the need to plant the local seeds of entrepreneurship and
nurture them has become even more critical.

With careful planning and savvy management, these "grown from the
ground up" companies can change the economic landscape in a region,
providing jobs and adding to the diverse fabric of businesses that make
communities great places to live. This week I want to tell you about
one of my favorites.

My two canine companions are discriminating consumers. They expect the
best food, treats and toys money can buy. Luckily for all of us, Treats
Unleashed in the Forum Shopping Center is just a few minutes from our
home. There, manager Travis Naughton and four employees bake more than
three dozen kinds of all-natural, high-quality, healthful dog treats
from scratch and offer a wide range of natural pet foods that do not
contain corn or wheat, which are hard to digest and can cause allergic
reactions, or animal by-products – what Travis called "mystery meat."
Needless to say, none of their products were caught in the pet food
recall last year.

Beds, toys, collars, leads, clothing and all novelty items are unique
and high-quality. Dogs are welcome in the store to sample and select
their favorite snacks. It can be a busy, furry place when a fresh-baked
tray of biscuits comes out of the oven.

Treats Unleashed is capitalizing on the enormous growth in the
companion animal market in the past few years. In 2007, Americans spent
$41 billion on their pets, including food, veterinary care, toys,
supplies and "bling." That number is expected to swell even higher in
2008. Credit, among other things, the aging baby boomers who have tired
of the empty nest and want more companionship. Whatever it is, it’s

The seed for Treats Unleashed actually was planted a few years ago in
the St. Louis area. Owners Ian and Teresa Miller were working for an
Internet startup in New York City in 2001. Teresa describes it as a
"fast-paced, cash-spending lesson in a start-up business."

"We learned lots of lessons – good and bad," Teresa said, "but it gave
us entrepreneurial fever, so when we decided to move back to St. Louis
to be close to family, we saw a way to combine our passion for our pets
with the opportunity to build a business our way and make a difference
in the market."

They started small, as many home-grown companies do, by selling their
hand-made treats at mall kiosks. That led to the opening of their first
store in Chesterfield. Shortly after that, the Millers learned that
locally owned Doggie Empawrium in Columbia was available for sale. A
deal was cut in 2003. To maintain a loyal customer base, the Millers
retained the Doggie Empawrium name until 2006, when the store
transitioned to become the Millers’ second Treats Unleashed location.
The creative retail seed planted in Chesterfield blossomed in Central
Missouri. Late last year, another store sprouted in St. Charles.

Obviously business is good. So how does a small, home-grown emerging company hold its own against the PetSmarts of the world?

"We’re dedicated to animal nutrition, and we have very knowledgeable
staff," Teresa said. "Everyone who joins our team is trained to
understand nutritional requirements so we can make the best
recommendations for every pet. We can even create treats – or canine
birthday cakes – based on an animal’s unique dietary restrictions. Our
buyers research products carefully before introducing them into the

"Columbia has been a great market for us," Travis said. "I think the
high level of education in this community is fundamental to our
success. Our customers do a lot of research before they buy and very
often find we are the best source for the best products available."

On any given day, you’ll see a different cast of characters – both
human and canine – at Treats Unleashed. College students, retirees and
families can fill the shop sharing dog stories and recommendations. On
the weekends, you’ll likely see adoptable animals there from the
Central Missouri Humane Society or Columbia Second Chance – an
indication of the Millers’ passion for adoption of rescued and unwanted

The Millers plan to continue to cultivate and grow their company, adding locations and features to respond to consumer requests.

"We really enjoy our customers and have formed so many solid
friendships," Teresa said. "I’m amazed at how fast the retail
environment can change. We work hard to focus on how Treats Unleashed
can evolve and grow."

Travis agreed. "It’s so satisfying to think that we have a role in the
long-term health of these companion animals," he said. "Good nutrition
means longer lives and more years for owners to enjoy their pets. It’s
nice to think we are a part of that."

We need companies such as Treats Unleashed in Central Missouri and
should nurture our local entrepreneurial talent. We’ll all be surprised
and delighted by what can thrive in our own backyard.

So, entrepreneurs! Come, sit, stay!


Mary Paulsell is the director of the University Center for
Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of Missouri. Reach
her at paulsellm@missouri.edu or visit www.missouribusiness.net.

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