WORCHESTER, Mass.—Some of the best business ideas started out as ones that were considered "dogs."
That's not the case with Ruff Dawg, a manufacturer of high-end pet toys and a division of Jefferson Rubber Works Inc., located in Worchester. Ruff Dawg in March announced the purchase of Astro Manufacturing Co., also based in Worchester, for an undisclosed sum.
It's a logical fit from a manufacturing and operational side, said Dave Pentland, Jefferson Rubber Works CEO. The Ruff Dawg line of products are toys that cost $7 or more and sold to distributors or specialty pet stores directly, from "mom-and-pop" stores to large pet store chains such as Pet Supplies Plus and warehousing clubs such as Cost¬- co.
Astro Manufacturing's pet toys generally are priced less than $7, Pentland said. Manufacturing these products will allow Ruff Dawg to sell or distribute to grocery store chains and more general consumer stores, which carry lower-priced pet toys.
"Traditionally, our brands have clashed a bit, but we will evolve the Astro line of products eventually to be under the Ruff Dawg brand," according to Pentland.
Over time, Ruff Dawg will manufacture more of its newly acquired lower-cost products to a point where both lines of business will comprise around 50 percent of total revenue, Pentland said.
The deal came together in a little more than two months, Pentland said. Astro Manufacturing had a small staff of five, and two or three are expected to join Ruff Dawg.
Toys will be manufactured at Ruff Dawg's 30,000-sq.-ft. facility in Worchester, and some production will be outsourced to other companies in the region, he said.
All Ruff Dawg toys have been and will continue to be made in the U.S., Pentland said, a major selling point with customers.
"A few years ago, you had the pet food scare where pet food made in China was bad, and some pets died because of it," Pentland said. "People are really conscious of what they will let their dogs eat and play with, so being a completely (American) company is really an advantage for us."
Another advantage is that Ruff Dawg is an eco-friendly company producing "green" pet toys.
The pet toy industry has grown at an average rate of 4 to 7 percent each year since 2000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics, about twice the percentage growth of the economy as a whole.
"I think there's a great opportunity for revenue growth with this acquisition, and we would expect to add some more jobs over the next few years," Pentland said.
From disks to pet toys
Jefferson Rubber, established in 1975, produces custom-molded rubber products for the automotive, wastewater and medical industries, and makes rubber gas masks for the military. Ruff Dawg, which comprises more than one quarter of all Jefferson Rubber employees, was established as a part of Jefferson Rubber Works in 1995, when a customer who contracted for rubber disks for wastewater treatment plants went out of business.
That bankruptcy left thousands of disks, as well as molds made for the client, according to the company. Employees began throwing the disks around the office, and the company tried to turn them into a sort of Frisbee—which didn't work in the competitive sports market. However, the pet toys market became a logical destination.
Ruff Dawg was interested particularly in acquiring the AstroBone line of pet toy products. Pentland said he was advised the firm needed more than one product to be successful, and over the years the company has added items such as a rubber stick and a variety of throw-and-retrieve toys.
Ruff Dawg will add Astro pet toys to its line of more than 30 products, including the K-9 Flyer, the SuperTug and the Wabbit, Pentland said.
In the manufacturing industry, the pet toy business has proven to be as stable as any in the last 15-20 years, Pentland said.
"People will go without food for themselves over not taking care of their pets, and now with the economy improving, things are looking even better," Pentland said.
"It's a competitive market, but now we have a bigger (market share)."