The road to success for the owners of Lupine, Inc. was certainly a winding one. It was paved with ingenuity, resilience, a bit of good luck … and a really cool dog named Blaze.
By Christine Thompson
Dave Jensen and Scott Badger were roommates at Dartmouth College in the 80s. Dave graduated in four years, while Scott pursued a five-year engineering degree. After college, Dave started working as an assistant manager at a Pizza Hut and Scott worked for Snowmax International, a snow-making company. During a casual conversation with Scott’s father, the late real estate mogul, Dick Badger, Dick mentioned that a small local business, Valley Video, was for sale. Scott called Dave and asked if he might be interested in partnering with him and buying the business. Dave said yes and became the co-owner and manager of Valley Video in 1989. Scott eventually left his job at Snowmax when the video business became profitable enough to open another store.
This same year, Valerie Meunier came to the Valley from France to explore in the U.S. and visit with her aunt, Marie Meunier, from Wild Things gear shop. Valerie and Marie liked to rent movies, so they were frequent visitors to the video store.
Scott’s dog, Blaze, a beautiful wolf hybrid, was a fixture at the video store, and soon became the store’s unwitting mascot.
Valerie was taken with Blaze, and with the help of her aunt, designed a dog collar for him using the same jacquard webbing Wild Things used for their own products, which had patterns woven into the material. That first collar was modeled after typical climber’s gear of the time. It had a three-pass buckle like those used on a climbing harness.
Blaze, being the influencer that he was (before influencers were a thing), wore the collar in the shop. As Scott tells it, “Fifteen to 20 people a week would say ‘Wow, where did you get that collar?’ And that’s where the idea for Lupine was born.” In fact, the Lupine logo is a silhouette of a howling wolf, a touching tribute to his beloved Blaze.
A few more prototypes were made, and Dave and Scott decided to drive to Portland, ME to try and sell the idea. Scott reflected, “Neither of us were salespeople. We showed them our product and gathered it back in our paper bags and left.” That could have been the end of it, but three notable events happened that helped make Lupine the thriving business it is today.
From national catalog mailings to online sales, Lupine’s continued growth forced the need for more efficient productivity. Facing the typical challenges and growing pains of any business, Lupine turned its focus to production. The foundation that they laid helped them navigate through those difficulties.
Progress—Three Notable Events
The first notable event that changed the trajectory of Lupine was when ski rep, Andy Shaw, an independent ski industry rep whose lines included Vokl, stopped by the video store to say hi. Scott showed him the collar. Shaw, an accomplished salesman, agreed to see if he could stir up interest while vacationing on Cape Cod. He set up more than 20 accounts that week. Realizing that this could be a viable venture, they rented space above Video World and began the official work of production, assembly, folders, files, and accounts. Scott, Dave, and Valerie did all of it. Little did they know, they would eventually grow into a company with 80 employees.
The second notable event involved the design of the collar. The webbing company they were using saw the potential in using the webbing for pet products but knew Lupine needed help with design. They had a connection with a designer from TEVA, Nadine, and that is who Lupine has used ever since.
Creating designs that work in webbing is a unique skill set that few other than Nadine possessed, and up until that point, the vast majority of nylon dog collars were solid colored. The materials were plain and cheap, and for the most part, the pet industry had not yet caught on that there was a new breed of pet owners more interested in quality and style. Nadine’s colorful and fun designs, coupled with materials and components used by the climbing industry, made Lupine an industry leader from the start, if not in size, then in direction.
From that point forward (1992), the first catalog was printed and the first trade show attended. There was nothing else like it on the market and it attracted a huge amount of attention. Wholesale price lists were higher than most because of the creativity, design, and materials used. Selling retailers on the idea that there was a market for higher-priced, higher-quality products proved difficult, even though the customers were out there. The first stores willing to take the leap were independent stores.
Lupine instituted a lifetime guarantee, which became one of the best marketing tools they had. The guarantee and stress-free exchange process brought them loyal customers (the writer of this article may or may not have had a puppy that ate through a few leashes and can attest to the ease of the exchange process).
The third notable event occurred as the business was growing. They started to explore different ways to expand the product. They looked at all the other possible items, but ultimately decided to keep their focus fairly narrow. They tried to market a few snowboard leashes. A Burton buyer got a hold of one and then, lo and behold, the Burton company was interested in carrying snowboard leashes made by Lupine. The size and timing of their orders were most fortuitous, in that they helped Lupine limit the amount of bank funding needed to expand dog collar production, marketing, and sales. The Lupine team started sending national catalog mailings, which proved very fruitful. They realized they could dial up their growth by the number of mailings they sent out.
When COVID-19 hit, Lupine shut down production for a few months, but web sales were still coming in. Once again, they had to adapt. Now, instead of pods of several employees, each pod is individualized so that each production worker is responsible for all components of productivity.
Productivity Is the Key to Success
Threaded throughout all these events, Lupine and its owners had other successes: Valley Video was sold, Lupine relocated to a warehouse in Center Conway, Dave and Valerie were married in 1990, Valerie became CFO of Lupine in 1991, and Dave became the driver of production and engineering. Dave had everyone on the team read the book, The Goal by Eliyahu M. Goldratt. The overarching theme of the book is that productivity is the key to success. “Productivity is defined as bringing you closer to your goal. Every action that brings you closer to your goal is productive.”
With this in mind, they adapted the kanban method. Kanban is a Japanese word that refers to a lean method to manage and improve work across human systems. This approach aims to manage work by balancing demands with available capacity, and by improving the handling of system-level bottlenecks. In layman’s terms, Lupine did not adopt the “Laverne and Shirley” assembly line method. Instead, they used multiple pods of four to five employees. Each pod could do most (80 percent) of the aspects of assembly, and each worker within each pod could do each aspect of assembly. The result is more productivity and fewer bottlenecks. In 2010, Lupine started selling its products online, giving an overall boost to sale, and thus, a need for more productivity.
Lupine faced the typical challenges and growing pains of any business, especially around production. The foundation that they laid helped them navigate through those difficulties—and it all worked really well until March of 2020 when COVID-19 hit. Lupine shut down production for a few months. Once again, all the elements that the team worked so hard to perfect sustained them. Even though the warehouse was closed for a few months, web sales were still coming in so, once again, they had to adapt. Now, instead of pods of several employees, each pod is individualized so that each production worker is responsible for all components of productivity. Lupine weathered the storm and has emerged stronger for it.
Decades later, Dave Jensen, Valerie Meunier, and Scott Badger, still work together daily and employ an average of 50 full-time staff from the Mt. Washington Valley.
Giving Back in the Blueprint
In addition to proving themselves to be a production powerhouse, Lupine also feels strongly that giving back is an integral part of living in a community.
They focus their philanthropy on Tin Mountain Conservation Center, Conway Area Humane Society, and Jen’s Friends. Wendy Holmes, board member of the Jen’s Friends Cancer Foundation stated, “The cornerstone of Jen’s Friends Cancer Foundation is the continued support of local business, supporters, and our volunteers. Lupine has been a sponsor of our signature event, the Climb Against Cancer, for 16 years.
We really appreciate their willingness to support us all these years, and help to keep our organization going strong during good times and bad.” Executive Director of the Conway Area Humane Society, Tim Westwig, echoes this sentiment, “Lupine is the most long-standing corporate sponsor CAHS has. Their monthly donations over the course of many years speak volumes to their commitment to the community.” Lupine certainly has figured out the special sauce for success in the Mt. Washington Valley.
Asked if he had any advice for any fledgling entrepreneurs, Scott stated, “Have faith that your customer wants quality! You can create a quality product, offer competitive wages and benefits, and you can be successful.”
For more information, check out their website www.lupinepet.com.
Catch this article in the Fall 2021 print edition of Mt Washington Valley Vibe!