The Man Who Re­fused to Quit

With sheer tenac­ity and a bro­ken-down van, Rich Van Engers grew his “aha” mo­ment into an in­ter­na­tion­ally rec­og­nized pet com­pany

Modern Cat - - Inspire - By J. Leslie John­son

Rich Van Engers was down on his luck. He had re­cently emerged from a com­pli­cated di­vorce, and along with the usual heart­break came dev­as­tat­ing fi­nan­cial loss. “I had noth­ing,” re­calls Rich, adding, “I had to to­tally start over.”

But he had an idea. One pleas­ant sum­mer day, while bi­cy­cling in the sea­side com­mu­nity of Ed­monds, Wash­ing­ton, Rich saw a woman come out of a nearby pet store. She was car­ry­ing a squirm­ing cat who was fall­ing through the bot­tom of the box. At the same time, he caught sight of a can­vas awning ex­tend­ing from the build­ing. Rich thought that per­haps he could make a flex­i­ble pet car­rier, shaped some­what like the awning.

At the time, most pet car­ri­ers were ei­ther heavy and hard­shelled, or so soft that they would threaten to col­lapse when peo­ple picked them up. His imag­i­na­tion was sparked: While Rich con­tin­ued his day job driv­ing a semi-truck for the Team­sters, his evenings were re­served for his pet car­rier project. Us­ing his kitchen ta­ble, he cut fab­ric and de­signed pat­terns, en­list­ing his mom’s help to sew the pieces to­gether.

Soon he had a pro­to­type—the first Sturdi bag, a car­rier that was flex­i­ble but, as the name sug­gests, still sturdy and strong. It was ideal for travel and it worked es­pe­cially well for in-cabin flights be­cause its flex­i­ble height en­abled it to fit under most air­line seats.

Rich started tak­ing his Sturdi bags to lo­cal pet shows, gain­ing not only ex­po­sure but in­valu­able feed­back. Peo­ple who stopped by his booth would com­ment, “That’s re­ally great, but can you put a flap on it, or can you add a shoul­der strap?” Rich re­mem­bers.

Rich wisely took their sug­ges­tions to heart, and af­ter each pet show would set to work at his kitchen ta­ble, adding a flap here or a strap there. At sub­se­quent events he would en­counter the same peo­ple, and they were pleased to see he had lis­tened to them.

Still driv­ing trucks dur­ing the day and work­ing on his pet project at night, Rich steadily built his prod­uct line. That’s when he caught wind of a prime op­por­tu­nity—a large pet show, big­ger than any he had at­tended be­fore, in Kansas City, Mis­souri. It would be full of pet lovers, breed­ers, train­ers, ex­hibitors, and ven­dors.

There was, how­ever, a slight prob­lem. He was lo­cated on the west coast of the United States, in Seat­tle, Wash­ing­ton. Kansas City, smack in the mid­dle of the Amer­i­can Mid­west, was a dis­tance of some 1800 miles. He would need to travel through Ore­gon, Idaho, Utah, and Colorado to get there.

Since his bi­cy­cle—his only mode of trans­port out­side of his work rig—clearly wouldn’t do the job, Rich scraped some money to­gether and pur­chased an old beater of a van. He set off, mak­ing it about 300 miles be­fore the van broke down. He fixed it. Then he drove about an­other 500 miles. The van broke down again. He fixed it. Rich even­tu­ally made it to just out­side of Boise, Idaho,

I was re­cently di­vorced, I didn’t have any credit cards, I didn’t have any more cash, I was down to noth­ing.

when, as he rec­ol­lects, “the van re­ally broke down.”

Rich set to work, crawl­ing un­derneath the van in the wet and cold. It was rain­ing so hard that his hands seized up from the chill. He re­treated into a nearby wash­room, stuck his hands under the dryer to warm them up, and then got back to work. Rich spent “ev­ery last dime” fix­ing the van and then got back on the road, ev­ery mile tak­ing him closer to Kansas City, and the all-im­por­tant pet show.

Rich was about 50 miles out­side of Kansas City when he ran out of gas and money. “I was re­cently di­vorced, I didn’t have any credit cards, I didn’t have any more cash. I was down to noth­ing,” says Rich. Never one to give up eas­ily, the for­mer mem­ber of the U.S. Marine Corps re­al­ized he had some­thing valu­able in the van: a brand new set of tire chains. Rich re­turned them at a lo­cal dis­trib­u­tor and was handed the princely sum of fifty dol­lars, which he used to gas up his van, get a shower, and buy a burger.

Rich made it to the pet show, and the rest, as the say­ing goes, is his­tory. He sold all his prod­ucts and emerged with $17,000 and a “whole bunch of ideas.” The man who re­fused to quit rein­vested his earn­ings back into his bud­ding com­pany and set about build­ing it into what it is to­day: a leader in the pet car­rier in­dus­try, with a full prod­uct line of over 40 items in­clud­ing flex­i­ble car­ri­ers, por­ta­ble pop-up pet shel­ters, and dis­plays for pet ex­hi­bi­tions.

To­day, tens of thou­sands of Sturdi Bags are sold an­nu­ally, and Sturdi does busi­ness in 25 coun­tries with the strong­est sales in Ger­many, Rus­sia, and Japan. Sales at e-com­merce re­tail sites are ro­bust and are now out­pac­ing trans­ac­tions at brick and mor­tar stores. Clearly, the com­pany is go­ing strong. And Rich, now in his six­ties, has no plans of stop­ping.

“When you love what you do, it’s not re­ally like work­ing,” Rich ex­plains. “And when I walk through an air­port, and I see some­one us­ing my prod­ucts, I still get that same warm feel­ing.”

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