The daughter of a veterinarian and a canine breeder, Ellen Lawson was raised to be a dog lover, but it was her husband's Pitbull mix puppy that inspired the Bloomfield Township couple in 2010 to launch Fluff & Tuff dog toys.
Raised in the Rochester area, Chris worked for Ross Roy Advertising for 18 years before retiring as CFO. The couple later moved to Georgia, where Fluff & Tuff was inspired.
"We had four dogs at the time, and one of them was Georgia," Ellen Lawson said, referring to the 65-pound dog she and Chris adopted from a small dog rescue outside Savannah, Georgia. "Georgia is hard on toys. The pet industry has come up in quality, but there were only a few that made high quality toys."
Working with one of Chris's friends in the children's plush toy business, Ellen came up with the first of dozens of dog toys designed to withstand the tearing, biting, pulling and tugging of the couple's pets. Today, Fluff & Tuff has about 60 different designs sold at nearly 1,000 retailers.
"We were lucky to get in with a manufacturer we knew for so many years," Ellen said. "It's a much thicker fabric – almost fur-like – and is a lot nicer and higher quality. They all have a mesh liner that is thick and stitched together. Everything that goes into the toy is better quality to make it last longer. The seams are a little stronger to give it a little extra protection."
Research for the toys included attending American Kennel Club dog shows and learning about different materials. The initial idea and launch was restricted to designs of real animals, such as squirrels, bunnies and other critters a dog might chase in the backyard. Later designs expanded to include unicorns, candy canes and reindeer – the latter two of which are highly coveted during holiday time.
Starting with the "Georgia Gator" plush toy, named after the dog which inspired the company, Ellen works with their manufacturer to create five to eight new designs each year. Designs include small and large plush toys, including Tico Sloth, Monty Python, Violet Unicorn and Ruby Rainbow Trout.
While the toys are built to take abuse from their furry owners, Ellen said the designs aren't meant to be indestructible.
"I'm always trying to come up with toys with different shapes and styles so dogs with different play styles will like them," she said. "Even though we strongly believe in our product and quality, I always say it's not for every dog. I almost undersell the durability because it's a plush toy, but it won't stand up to every dog.
"They have extended playability. We had a lot of luck with the fabric we use, which I didn't know about when we started – but dogs love it. Some dogs almost choose not to chew it up. We even have customers who buy them for their kids."
While Chris had launched other successful businesses after retiring as CFO from Ross Roy Advertising in 1996, including Atwater Block Brewery, the pet industry was uncharted territory for the couple.
"We didn't know what to expect. The pet industry has changed in the past 10 years, with the whole movement for higher quality food and everything owners give their pets, and that wasn't the case 15 or 20 years ago," Ellen said. "It wasn't a conscious decision of the pet industry being 'recession proof.' It almost started as fun."
Photo: Laurie Tennent