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Houston Chronicle She Aims Help Sleeping Dogs Lie

She aims to help sleeping dogs lie
Maker of deluxe canine beds decided on El Salvador to make her product after weighing pros and cons of other countries
By JENALIA MORENO Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle
Oct. 13, 2007
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Dog lover Michele Hedges searched the globe for a manufacturer to make her pet beds.

The U.S. was too expensive. China was too far. El Salvador turned out to be just right.

As more and more companies look for overseas firms to make their products, they find themselves in the same situation as Bella Creature Comforts — weighing the pros and cons of each market.

Businesses must consider a variety of factors, such as tariffs and trade agreements, said Tony Grijalva, chairman and chief executive officer of Houston-based G&A Partners, a human resources firm that helps companies manage risks.

“Labor and material costs are obviously important, but distance from the source and related shipping charges are also a consideration,” he said.

Rising labor costs in the U.S. have led to a shrinking U.S. textile industry, which also faces competition from foreign factories. And Hedges couldn’t find a skilled U.S. work force to make the dog beds in mass.
Some companies choose to have their products made in China because of its cheap labor.

But for Hedges, manufacturing in China meant a three-month wait for her product to arrive back here, and new to this business, she didn’t know how many customer orders to expect. Checking on production quality in China could take weeks out of her schedule.

Hedges picked El Salvador, in part because last year the nation was the first of six countries to implement the Central American Free Trade Agreement, which reduces tariffs on goods.

“I think a lot of people overlook the advantages of Latin America,” Hedges said, ticking off a list of reasons for her choice, such as a less-than-four-hour flight to San Salvador from Houston, her ability to speak Spanish and the cost savings offered by the trade pact.

“Obviously, if I were having to pay tariffs and the like, this product model would be significantly more costly.”

Sewing the colorful bed and blankets required specialized equipment that few of the more than 1,000 textile companies she checked in Latin America offered.

“I looked at so many places it was unbelievable,” Hedges said. “This was due diligence on steroids.”
She ultimately chose manufacturer Royal Textiles in San Salvador because of its specialized machinery.
And in August 2006, Hedges used her own money to launch her cat and dog bed and blanket business.
Trying to keep her costs down, she has only hired a few contract workers and does everything from marketing the product at pet trade shows to visiting the plant in El Salvador to check on production quality.

Not even paying herself a salary yet, she hopes to earn a profit in 2008.

Former attorney

For two decades, Hedges worked as a corporate attorney but yearned for something more creative, and she turned to her dogs to lead her to a new career path.

She had long sought a more comfortable pet bed. Hedges learned dogs have a burrowing instinct and prefer to have a recessed area for nap time. That’s why they scratch at their beds.

So she designed cave-shaped beds to support the musculoskeletal system of the pet. And she had a cadre of stay-at-home moms sew beds out of recycled materials.

Before contracting with Royal Textiles, she shuttled across Houston, dropping off materials and picking up the finished product from local seamstresses.

Then she conducted research with her “Woof Team” made up of her dogs — Bella and Caleb — and other dogs and cats.

The design made travel agent Dixie Bowers’ dog Lily happy.

“She has just loved it,” Bowers said of her vizsla breed. “Until we had this bed, she would tear up every single bed she had.” Now, she added “she’ll drag the bed into every room.”

Pet spending grows

Last year, Hedges began selling her beds on her Web site, with small ones retailing at $79.99 and the XXLarge beds priced at $205.99.

It may seem like a hefty price tag for pet owners who shop at big box stores, but more and more consumers are developing expensive tastes for their four-legged friends.

Last year, Americans shelled out $9.9 billion on pet products, excluding food. That’s up from $7.5 billion in 2002, according to Packaged Facts. More Americans own pets, with 35 percent of households serving as dog houses and a quarter of households giving cats a place to curl up, the report said.

Spending also increased because more Americans think of their little Fidos and Whiskers as members of the family, and they opt for more expensive products for their pets, the study found.

1,000 beds a month

Hedges now sells about 1,000 beds a month to boutiques and places like the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, which stocked them beginning with its recent dog exhibit.

She also sells to other online retailers, such as Houston-based greenergrassdesign.com. The Web site that sells unique designs began carrying the beds and blankets at the beginning of the year.

“Everyone seems to love their beds,” said Cindy Madi, who runs the business end of the company while her business partner, Karen Justice, curates the site. “We haven’t had any returns.”

And when greenergrassdesign.com faced a bow wow emergency, Hedges immediately stepped in to help. A designer asked for three Bella Creature Comfort dog beds to be delivered to a customer’s Miami vacation home overnight.

Hedges put that emergency to bed with no problem.

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