SMALL BUSINESS – Shall we dance?

Posted on Nov 1, 2012 :: Small Business Spotlight
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Harvey the cat enjoys the original Cat Dancer toy. The simple combination of wiggly wire and corrugated cardboard developed by Jim Boelke has been irresistible to many cats for the past 30 years.

“Any day now, I’m going to be in the black.” That may be Jim Boelke’s playful (and modest) joke about his company’s success – but there’s no disputing that his 30-year-old Cat Dancer Products in Neenah has done well, selling more than 8 million of the company’s eponymous products.

How has he done it? “One step, one day, one customer at a time,” says the 58-year-old feline fanatic. “I was lucky.”

And to think that all it took was a little nudge – and some scrap wire and corrugated cardboard.

Here, kitty kitty

In the late 1970s, when Boelke was in college, one of his three jobs was maintenance work at a factory. “One day, I picked up a piece of wire that was too big to sweep; it kind of bounced around erratically,” he recalls.

He took it home to his two shelter cats and, Boelke recalls, “Darn if the cats didn’t just go nuts. It was just hilarious to watch.”

Soon all his friends were asking for one for their cats. So Boelke began buying inexpensive 20-gauge spring steel wire, topping it with a twisted nugget of corrugated cardboard and fashioning his own toys. “Over the next few years, I gave away thousands of them,” he says. But after working sundry unsatisfying jobs, Boelke finally listened to his friends and turned “the cat toy thing” into a career.

“It just started doing really well,” he says. “I really started to see that it had some unique marketing to it. It was very lightweight and very small.” For very little money, Boelke could put samples of the toy on the desks of buyers throughout the country.

Boelke launched Cat Dancer in 1983, financing the venture with $1,500 of his own money and using a Commodore 64 computer to compile his mailing list. The company, housed in a 6,000-square-foot factory off Hwy. 41, now has a dozen products and sells worldwide.

“We created a few (production) machines…they are very simple, but they’re the only ones on the planet that do it,” he says.

“My original product, Cat Dancer (originally called “Kitty Flip”), is a very inexpensive product both to produce and to purchase,” he adds. Cat Dancer retails around $3; the company also offers other iterations of the Cat Dancer toy as well as a $70 automatic Mouse in the House toy.

No trivial business

While non-pet owners might think such products are luxuries, statistics show differently. According to the 2011-12 American Pet Products Association (APPA) National Pet Owners Survey, 62 percent of U.S. households includes a pet (that’s 72.9 million homes).

And last year, $50.96 billion was spent on pets, for everything from food to veterinary care to accessories like clothing and toys. The APPA estimates that number to grow by more than $2 billion in 2012.

That doesn’t surprise Boelke (or his feline associates Otis and Spike). “The pet industry has weathered the recession very well,” he says. “Cat toys are a relatively inexpensive indulgence.”

Cat owner Natalie Vandeveld of Green Bay agrees. “Cat Dancer’s simplistic design is its best feature,” says Vandeveld, who serves as the Door County Humane Society Volunteer Coordinator of the Green Bay Petsmart Adoption Center.

“My cats can’t take their eyes off of it. I can engage all my cats in play by using this one toy. And I was impressed that the Cat Dancer was made locally, which strengthened my choice in being a long-time customer.”

Boelke admits that having an American-made product, especially in the pet industry, has helped his company grow. “That has become far more important to people in the last few years. Our retailers appreciate that.”

While the industry has consolidated over the years, he admits, “It’s hard to be a competitor no matter where you are. You have to have products that have innovation…and have their own personality.”

In short, his philosophy is one his 22-pound Maine coon Otis might ascribe to: “Be different.”


Born to be an entrepreneur

Jim Boelke comes from a family of entrepreneurs. His father ran his own real estate firm, buying and refurbishing distressed properties, in the 1960s and 1970s. And 30 years ago, Boelke started a video production company (“Everybody was doing that in the 1980s,” he says). But his most interesting family tie is his great uncle, who Boelke says invented the “fuzz” on paint rollers.