An interview with Starmark Pet Product’s Keith Benson
In my daily interactions with pet company CEO’s and owners, I often hear them remark about their desire to make more of their products in the U.S., but then follow that on with the difficulties and challenges of actually doing so. “Made in the U.S.A” has become an increasingly popular slogan over the last several years, but how realistic is it to make a product in the U.S. that is priced competitively with those made in China? Starmark Pet Products, a leader in innovative and interactive dog toys, recently moved a significant portion of their production from China to their facility outside of Austin Texas. I was fortunate to speak with their co-founder and President, Keith Benson, about how he was able to successfully make the switch:
You are the president of one of the largest dog training and behavior centers in the world, Starmark Academy. How and when did you decide to enter the dog product business?
We started in 1994 in Tucson as a backyard training kennel. I have a degree in psychology, so I figured I should be able to learn to train a dog! After training over 20,000 dogs, we took our expertise and great testing ground to start creating products to enhance the lives of dogs throughout the world. Our first dog toy was launched in 2003 at the APPA show in New Orleans, and it won 2nd place for best dog toy, so we figured we were on to something.
What makes Starmark’s product uniquely different from your competitors?
We have trained over 30,000 dogs and their owners and that experience has allowed us to learn first hand how dogs think, play, and learn. In addition, we have trained over 4,000 rescue dogs using the products we develop at Starmark with remarkable success.
You recently moved production of some of your products from China to your facility in Texas. What was the driving force behind that decision?
The main drivers behind that decision were to minimize lead time, reduce shipping rates, and eliminate tariffs. Our manufacturing facility is right here on our ranch, so we can test and iterate in real time, instead of it taking weeks or months going back and forth with China. It also allows us to better align with our material and process engineers to make the best possible products.
That said, we still have some great partners in China, where we continue to both manufacture and sell Starmark products.
What have been some of the biggest challenges you have faced in making that move?
Anytime you are starting from ground zero, the processing hurdles are huge. There are so many multi-faceted production challenges – i.e. raw materials are a little different here then China, the machines are configured differently. Also, getting qualified labor has been quite challenging, so we have automated as much as possible, which has helped us mitigate the labor shortage. Utilizing newer technology has really allowed us to streamline production and give us flexibility to ramp up or down production. Anything that requires a lot of hand labor just can’t be done here in the U.S., so we concentrate on injection molded products.
What % of your products are now made in the U.S? Are there plans to move more products to Texas?
Currently 55% of our products are made in the U.S, with plans to add additional injection molding machines. We have had an overwhelmingly positive response from our customers regarding this move, especially since the price increase has been minimal.
We will always have products made in both the U.S. and China since we have a strong presence in the Asian market.
What advice would you give an entrepreneur who is interested in launching a pet product?
Launching new and innovative products is getting more and more challenging. I recommend developing a product that you are very passionate about. Something that is missing in the marketplace, then invest resources to get a patent with the strongest claims possible.
We have over 20 patents, and we always try to develop products that can garner some type of IP.
Do you offer private label manufacturing at your facility?
No, because currently all of our bandwidth is taken with our product lines, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon because we have so much innovation in our pipeline.
Anything else you’d like our readers to know about Starmark Products?
Our primary mission is to improve the quality of life for people and their pets. We have a responsibility in the industry to make mentally stimulating toys to keep pets busy, out of shelters, and in the homes where they belong. We are preparing to leverage our intellectual property to create products for many other types of animals, not just dogs.
About Keith Benson: Keith is the President and Co-Founder of Starmark Pet Products, Inc. With 25 years’ experience as a training and behavior specialist, he helps the company develop a line of award-winning products that reflect the way pets think, play and learn. He is the also the Academy Director for Starmark’s International School for Dog Trainers. Keith and his wife Emily share their home with three well behaved, but spoiled rotten dogs. When not supervising the Animal Behavior Center outside of Austin, TX, they are likely to be found on a back-road motorcycle adventure.
Carol Frank of Boulder, CO, is the founder of four companies in the pet industry and a Managing Director with BirdsEye Advisory Group, where she advises pet companies in M&A transactions and Exit Planning. She is a former CPA, has an MBA, is a Certified Mergers and Acquisitions Advisory (CM&AA) and holds Series 79 and 63 licenses. She highly values and incentivizes referrals and can be reached at email@example.com.