With social and environmental responsibility as a compass, Planet Dog aims to lead the pack into a dog-friendlier world.
By Virginia M. Wright
Photographed by Cait Bourgault
[dropcap letter=”T”]he catalog model has a habit of walking on the conference table during staff meetings. He bounces around from person to person, poking his nose in their faces. Sometimes — get this — he even sits on a colleague’s lap. And no one minds! They welcome it! But who wouldn’t? The guy’s an irresistibly cute, 10-pound Yorkshire terrier named Tasker, one of a dozen or so dogs that regularly accompany their people to work at Planet Dog’s product-development and wholesale headquarters in Westbrook.
“Tasker’s a little like his mother in that he takes charge,” says his “mom,” CEO Colleen McCracken, as she flips through Planet Dog’s wholesale catalog and proudly points at a photo of Tasker, head cocked and feet planted assertively atop his tabletop runway. McCracken turns the pages, pointing out other members of the Planet Dog pack. On page 8, Charlie, customer service manager Tom Simmons’ Kooikerhondje, swims to shore with a bright-orange Squeak Ball in his jaws. Page 11 finds Callie, a beagle mix, suspended in midair as she snatches a toy from accounting specialist Stacy Eby’s outstretched hand. On page 4, Penny, a chocolate Lab, is nosing a miniature planet Earth on the beach. (He’s Mr. Penny on first introductions, director of product Coleen Franzel says, to head off potential confusion from a name bestowed by her 2-year-old daughter.)
The earthlet that Penny’s nudging in the catalog was a breakthrough for Planet Dog 17 years ago. Determined to build a better fetch ball, Alex Fisher, founder of the then-three-year-old company, “gathered all the best-selling balls on the market, sat down with local engineers, and tried to put better numbers on them: How high do they bounce? What’s their memory? What’s their tensile strength? How buoyant are they? Can they be recycled? Then we found a better product by building a better material.”
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Marketing director Elizabeth Fagan on break with her shih tzu, Apollo; trophies for employees’ dogs; Callie visits product director Coleen Franzel; CEO Colleen McCracken and founder Alex Fisher; the “dog park” conference room.
They called their stuff, a thermoplastic elastomer, Orbee-Tuff — Orbee for “orb” or “orbit,” and Tuff because that’s what it was. On every test, their earthlet, dubbed the Orbee Ball, bested the competition, most of which were imported and contained environmentally hazardous rubber or toxic materials. Plus, the Orbee Ball could be made to glow in the dark and smell good, like peppermint. Today, Planet Dog makes nearly all its products from Orbee-Tuff, including its newest toys — Tug, a stretchy, bone-shaped tug toy with hand-friendly handles, and Link, a set of transparent, interlocking, treat-dispensing tubes designed to give dogs a mental workout.
A native of Brooklyn, New York, with a master of fine arts from Bard College, Fisher says he became a pet-product entrepreneur not because he loved dogs (though he does), but because he wanted to create a business like the socially and environmentally responsible companies he admired. “I was an early corporate fanatic,” he explains. “In my teens, I didn’t necessarily love ice cream, but I loved my Ben & Jerry’s shirt. I wasn’t doing a lot of hiking and climbing, but I loved anything made by Patagonia. It wasn’t the fashions that I loved; it was the companies behind them.”
In 1997, Fisher, living in Portland with two canine companions, scouted the corporate landscape, saw a void in the pet-products industry, and founded Planet Dog with patent and trademarking specialist Stu Maloney (Maloney left the company in 2004). That first year, they introduced 14 products — a line of recycled-fleece squeaky toys and 100-percent-hemp dog beds — and carved a philanthropic niche around funding and advocating for programs that improve the lives of people and their pets. “We gave 50 cents away before we made a dollar,” Fisher says. “That was our lead thing; we wanted to hang our hat on that. It was easier to give a dollar away than it was to make a really good product. That takes a lot of skill and talent and time. To be able to make a good product, sell it, and still be able to give money away was the hardest challenge of all, but we’ve been doing it now for 20 years.”
To date, the Planet Dog Foundation has donated more than $1.5 million in products and grants to programs such as Portland Trails and various Maine pet adoption initatives. Last year, America’s VetDogs and Portland-based K9s on the Front Line were the beneficiaries of $80,000 raised at the first-ever Planet Dog Ball, a dog-friendly, black-tie affair at the Westin Hotel in Portland (some 30 canines schmoozed at their own treat and drink bars). This year’s ball, in April, will benefit the Hoyt Therapy Dog Program at Maine Medical Center’s Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital. “We’ve done these good things, but embarrassingly, we haven’t been that great at climbing to the mountaintop with a megaphone to shout about it,” Fisher admits. “I think it’s catching up for us positively now though.”
Many locals think Planet Dog is just a big store on a prominent Portland street corner and are unaware that 80 percent of the business is wholesale. Seventeen of the company’s 26 employees work at the Westbrook headquarters, a drab corrugated-steel building in Five Star Industrial Park. Most of the structure is given over to warehousing and shipping products — mostly eco-friendly molded toys manufactured at G-Pro Industrial Services in Biddeford — to 3,000 to 5,000 independent retailers around the country. Tucked at one end, the corporate office contains the first-floor “Dog Park,” a large conference room occupied by the ring-shaped table on which Tasker struts his stuff and shelves full of brightly colored toys and prototypes. Upstairs, employees work in a central area surrounded by a suite of management offices, all outfitted with dog gates. Barks ring out when marketing director Elizabeth Fagan shows me around.
With the arrival over the last five years of CEO McCracken, director of product Franzel, and Fagan, Planet Dog has sharpened its business strategies to ensure it’s not only innovating, but also filling a market need. McCracken, who spent several years at the helm of another iconic Maine brand, furniture-maker Thos. Moser, says she’s focused on honing Planet Dog’s niche within a sprawling industry “that has so many opportunities, it was hard to know which to focus on.” One that the company recently seized: a partnership with Canopy, Hilton’s new chain of dog-friendly hotels, where guests are greeted with bags of Planet Dog toys and their rooms are outfitted with Planet Dog bowls and beds. “We are true believers that dogs change people’s lives for the better, and we realize that the day is coming where dogs will be coming with us everywhere,” McCracken says.
Fagan and Franzel tag team on the front end of product development. Fagan, whose résumé includes several years at Portland advertising firm VIA and a consulting gig in Beijing for Mercedes-Benz, analyzes the market, looking for trends and openings for new products. Franzel, who previously worked in product development at Life Is Good, develops prototypes and tests them — with stringent monitoring — at both the Portland store, where customers and their dogs offer feedback, and the office. “I like to use Penny as the heavy chewer, because he pretty much will destroy anything,” she says. “Callie was huge in our development of Squeak. She is obsessed with Squeak. She wants to get the squeaker out of the ball and kill it. We knew if Callie got it out, it still wasn’t right. It took us two years to refine.”
It’s up to Fisher, the chief creative officer, and his team to engineer products that have all the desired attributes at an acceptable price point. “What’s more fun than trying to design and develop a product for a dog?” Fisher says. “It’s so absolutely silly. In the Dog Park, we surround ourselves with all these colorful ideas we’ve had in 20 years, so we’re surrounded by inspiration. And then of course, we have the dogs. They’re on the table. They’re on the floor. We’re living it, and that’s why we’re so good at it.”