Interview with Penny Johnson of Sturdi Products
Pet Professional, Penny Johnson of Sturdi Products, talks about design innovation and making the career switch to pet product manufacturing.
Pet parents spend billions of dollars on their pets. They are investing in pet furniture, pet fashion, unique veterinary treatments, pet health supplements and stylish, sturdy and beautiful pet carriers. And when traveling with their pets—whether by plane, train, automobile, or RV—they want their pets to be safe and secure; many pet owners want to be stylish as well.
We caught up with Penny Johnson, CEO of Sturdi Products and maker of the SturdiBag™ to ask her how she got involved in the pet industry and to learn more Sturdi Products.
Q:What drew you to a career in the pet industry?
A:This is a second career for me. I was a nurse for more than thirty years and ran my own medical-legal consulting business. I met the owner of Sturdi Products, Rich Ven Engers, about fourteen years ago, at a time when I was ready for a career change.
Boy, oh boy, was manufacturing pet products different! Before I met the owner, I’d only had cats for pets. So, I needed to get up to speed on dogs, quickly. In my prior business, I had consulted with Fortune 500 companies; and in business, it’s always about processes, plans, and procedures. I brought that knowledge to Sturdi Products and helped put infrastructure in place and developed processes to propel the company forward at an even greater pace.
I joined the company as the executive vice president and became CEO in January 2015. I love seeing how the company has grown. I love the work and love wearing multiple hats. I’ll be sixty-five in February and continue to learn—especially from the younger team members.
Q:How did you come up with the idea for your product? Was it a pet that you owned who inspired it?
A:The company had been thriving before I started, under Rich’s direction. I have helped introduce new products to the market and work with our team to develop new products that pet parents request.
Initially the Sturdi Pet product brand started with a Sturdi Product Pet Carrier bag. The carrier was designed and brought to many cat shows, where cat owners were asked for input. The input received was incorporated into the cat carrier bag design, which made it both functional and durable.
We now have Lisa Maria Padilla working with us and she’s helped design a cat walking vest. The vest specifically fits the unique anatomy of a cat. We listened to Padilla, our cat performance expert, and she helped design and product-test the cat walking vest. We worked on it and perfected it for two years before we took it to market.
Q:Is there a pet who’s inspired your work in the industry?
A:The “best man there is,” Ringo, our Welsh Pembroke Corgi, whom I share with Rich. Ringo has opened my eyes to why people call themselves pet parents. Ringo is my boy, my baby. He is sweet and kind and I just love him. He makes me better at what I do.
When I was growing up, pets weren’t indoor animals. They lived outside and they all had “jobs.” Ringo helps us adapt products to bring to market. He travels everywhere with us and because of that, many of the products we’ve created were based on our needs with his travel. Ringo has been from coast-to-coast in the US and has also attended a trade show in Germany. Ringo is also a welcome addition at the cat shows we attend; he loves cats and cats love him.
Q:What advice would you offer to a business owner in the pet space?
A:When starting a new business, whether in manufacturing, retail or the service industry, make sure you have processes in place. You don’t want to have to play catch-up with items like reconciling bank statements and credit cards. It is no fun to have to go back months and do that.
Have processes in place from the beginning. Manage your inventory. Keep proper records because your accountant will love it. If you have inventory, manage it carefully and don’t let yourself get overwhelmed with too many products; bring in the best sellers and bring them in carefully so your inventory doesn’t get out of control.
If you’re thinking of going into business, you might be inspired by someone you meet; ask that person if he or she would be your mentor. Work with someone who has already “been there, done that,” because their knowledge can save you hours of mistakes along the way of your start-up.
Q:Is there anything I didn’t ask that you’d like to mention?
A:Caring for people and pets and doing humanitarian work is a passion. Because we travel so frequently with Reggie, I love that Sturdi Products offers safe containment for him. We focus on safe pet travel. In fact, our mission statement is to: “provide products that are safe, durable and decrease the stress of the pet and the pet parent during travel.” And as more pet parents take to the roads, we are happy we can be along for the ride, protecting their pets.
Robbi Hess, award-winning author, is multi-petual: She shares her home with two Devon Rex kittens, three adult rescue cats, a mini poodle, a Goldendoodle, three lizards and two ferrets. When not caring for her pets, she is an editor, speaker, time management and productivity guru, content creator, social media manager and blogger. She writes at All Words Matter, My Divas Dish, and is the story editor and chief cat herder at Positively Woof.