Who on earth would buy beautiful dog collars? Too fancy. Not necessary. But back in 1984, Alice Nichols thought otherwise. She was a teacher and administrator at a private elementary school in Rhode Island, and had been wanting to start a business. After looking into different industries, she was drawn to the potential of the pet industry – growing by 17% a year, despite lacking innovation or style.
Alice’s own newly adopted German Shepard was wearing a plain collar. The options at that time were leather or nylon, and Alice knew she could do better. She’d spent her junior year in high school as an exchange student, living with the family of an industrial designer in Sweden. The way the Swedish approach the most utilitarian objects – transforming them with color, pattern and texture – was not lost on Alice.
There were very few women in the field back then. The ad agency she hired to name her company was so sure that her venture would fail, they recommended “a generic, non-doggy name” so that Alice could use it for other products! But that was not to be. The collars and leads sold. Designer Donna Bodell came on board. The brand developed. And the company that nobody thought could…did.
“I’m so proud of our accomplishments,” says Alice, “especially the Henley clip.” She’s referring to Up Country’s patented pet tag holder, an easy-change system for switching tags. Alice developed it with an industrial design professor from the Rhode Island School of Design and it has helped to define Up Country as an innovation leader.
Alice has an undergraduate degree in European History/Economics from Wheaton College in Norton, MA, and a Masters degree from Brown University in modern British and American history. With a husband, two sons, three grandchildren, a few stray cats and an adorable new puppy, Alice’s life is hectic, but happy – and so are thousands of pet owners who never again have to settle for ordinary.
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Lesley Bowers was doing just fine. A great job in radio sales, a nice salary, bonuses – and a part-time faculty position at Howard University, teaching ownership and finance. Little did she know that an assignment she gave to her students would change her life.
The task was to write a business plan, and Lesley’s was for an imaginary pet boutique. Just then, as if by design, an acquaintance asked her the game-changing question. His retail space had become available and he wondered if Lesley wanted it. And so, almost overnight, P.U.P.S. (Pawsitively Unique Pet Shop) of Lewes opened in a tiny-but-charming retail space in Lewes, Delaware.
Today, seven years later, Lesley’s store fills a 1,000 sq. ft. space, on the Lewes version of Main Street. Her entrepreneurial success story has been told to a worldwide audience in the pages of Money magazine. Her “pet events” like the annual BarkFest and her regular Yappy Hours give the shop’s marketing a creative spin. And Up Country is so pleased that our collars, leads and accessories have been woven into Lesley’s success.
Lesley still teaches part-time at Howard University, in the School of Communication. The school’s strong emphasis on business is a great fit. The upperclassmen she teaches are learning first hand from the definitive entrepreneur, who encourages them to “follow your passion.”
And so the woman who once went to work every day in buttoned-down business attire now spends her days caring for customers who are decidedly more furry. Has she ever regretted her decision to leave the corporate world behind? We suspect you already know the answer, but we’ll let Lesley say it in her own words: “I’m the luckiest person in the world, because of my customers. I’ve never once had a nasty experience. Animal people are the nicest people on earth.”
Of course Lesley carries Up Country’s line. If you have a comment, a question on this, or any post, we are waiting to hear from you!
Looking back, it’s clear that Donna Bodell was in the right place at the right time. When she said hello to Alice Nichols 18 years ago – introduced by a mutual friend – she had no idea she would one day be Director of Design and Marketing at Up Country.
Donna has always loved art. She drew in grammar and middle school, and when she got to high school, her life’s direction would become clear. Guided by wonderful teachers, she was exposed to other mediums like batik, pastels, oils and even an etching press – and after graduation, she was accepted to one of the best art schools in the country.
At the Rhode Island School of Design, she was “a normal artsy kid,” surrounded by hundreds of eccentric, colorful students. All her hard work earned her a degree in Illustration and a wide-open future. “RISD teaches their students to be problem solvers,” says Donna. “And to this day, I’m thankful for that.”
Donna’s first job was at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, where some of the world’s most magnificent art stocked her toolbox. She designed posters, note cards and other paper goods for the museum gift shop. Before long, Donna fell in love, got married, settled in rural Rhode Island, began a family and met Alice Nichols.
Alice had a fast growing company that made dog collars. Almost immediately, the entrepreneur and the artist joined talents. Fast forward to 2012, and Donna still loves coming to work every day. She’s still living in beautiful rural Rhode Island, with her husband and three girls – one of which is a 10-year-old black lab named BeeBee who joined the family as a puppy.
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They come through our doors here at Up Country 3 or 4 times a week. Beagles, Chihuahuas, terriers, Collies and mutts whose new owners took one look at them and felt that unexplainable connection. When the owner and dog walk into the Up Country offices, their relationship is sometimes just hours old.
Up Country is located right around the corner from the Rhode Island Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. In fact, there’s no way to drive away from them without passing us.
So a few years ago, to celebrate our 25-year anniversary, we proposed a plan to the RISPCA: give every new adopting parent a certificate, good for a collar and lead of their choice. We couldn’t think of a down side to the plan, and neither could the RISPCA.
“We absolutely love seeing the dogs come through our doors!” says Design Director Donna Bodell. “Even though they’ve just left the shelter, there’s already an incredible bond between the dog and owner.”
The new “family” gets to choose the design that best suits them from the Up Country catalog, which holds 120 possibilities, so sometimes their visit takes a while. Then, once the collar is on, it’s time for a facebook photo! www.facebook.com/UpCountryInc
Almost three years and hundreds of rescues later, Up Country’s free-collar program has become a big part of who we are as a company. It’s always great to welcome a pair of new friends. To watch the new owner thoughtfully choose just the right design. But mostly, to know the dog will be going home to a family who’s waiting with open arms.
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