Tom & Cheri PiechNot that long ago, Tom and Cheri Piech were working from a table in the upstairs of their Overton County home.

Today, their startup business is now a company which has 23 employees and ships pet supplies all over North America. (To go to the company's website, click here.)

It is truly an “American dream” story that unfolded in Livingston.

“We have been blessed to end up in Overton County, Tennessee,” said Tom, whose title at is senior consultant.

His wife, Cheri, is the owner and director of operations while their son, Zachary, is company president and in charge of marketing and financials. (For more photos from inside the company, click here.)
Life-changing decisions

The story of the family business is a tale of two professional people from Buffalo, N.Y., who sought to relocate in a warmer, less taxed environment. Tom said they spent two years researching the subject and drew a triangle which encompassed part of the Upper Cumberland. They eventually landed in Livingston in 2002.

Tom was a pharmacist and Cheri operated kennels. They both knew they could make a living just about anywhere in America.

But a chance encounter by Cheri with a St. Bernard changed everything. It was that experience which led to the idea of possibly starting a business to sell pet supplies and pet treats. It was Aug. 1, 2004, when they set up that packing table in the upstairs room of their home and began selling some pet merchandise.

Not long into the venture, the entire house was overrun by boxes. One photo they have depicts packages for shipping sitting near the entryway of their home. On one side were packages for the post office and the other side had packages for FedEx. Another shows boxes stacked all around their living room. The stockings on the fireplace are the only indication it was Christmas time.

From that point, the couple then constructed a building behind their home and surrounded it with shipping containers commonly seen being moved down the highway by trucks. Tom said they painted them brown to blend in with the scenery, but it was hard to hide the constant traffic of trucks coming to their home to ship goods.

“We didn’t get one complaint from the neighbors,” said Cheri.

A growing enterprise

But they quickly realized the business was growing too fast to stay at that location and began scouting around for a new location. A building in the Livingston industrial park just happened to come open when a furniture company went out of business. The realtor sign had barely gone into the ground when they decided to make the move.

That building is 21,000 square feet and includes the warehouse and business office. Tom said they are receiving assistance from the state of Tennessee to come up with a better design inside the building because they are already quickly running out of room. He called Tennessee very “business friendly.”

The company markets pet supplies, food and treats for dogs, cats, birds, hamsters, ferrets and rabbits along with a large selection of aquarium and reptile products for hobbyists and professionals. The products are sold through and along with other Internet marketplaces.

“The website is the most important marketplace,” said Zach.

He also said email marketing to existing customers amounts to 20 percent of the business. They also utilize other websites which promote their business.

Marketing, Zach said, is crucial to the success of a web-only company. In doing that, they reach a large market.

“We do have a wide variety of customers,” he said.

Interestingly, Zach said the number one demographic for the company is older, single women.

“We’ve seen that from a number of tracking services,” he said.

He believes many of those customers live in high-rise buildings in large cities and aren’t able to take out their dogs on a regular basis. The puppy pads are essentially training pants for dogs.

Future expansion?

With a rapid growth rate during an economic downturn, it appears the company is poised to expand even more in the future. But Zach says his focus is now.

“I am very focused on the short term,” he said from his home base in North Carolina. “Our goal is to continue to grow the company.”

He believes they “can compete” with some of the larger players in the market and they are working toward that goal. However, one crucial step the company took was not getting into debt and operating a lean business focused on efficiency.

They also focus on “making decisions on what the right products are” for the market, he said.

They are constantly analyzing what products are selling and what products are not doing so well. If a product isn’t doing well, it is pulled from the market.

Zach admits the company hasn’t “gotten everything right,” but said the “entrepreneurial spirit” they utilize means they “never really think about failure.”

The company has also done a lot of market research and one key element is that Internet sales in America is a steadily growing category. He said they focused on pet supplies because it is something which people need over and over.

“We don’t want to sell you something you only need once,” he said.

They also realized that pets were a “growing market” in America and said it occupies a “big space” on the Internet market.

Zach said if you “combine that with the right products,” it should be a formula for success.

Serving the customers

Yet none of that success would be possible without accurate shipping and good customer service.

The business, officially listed as Piech Sales Company, does both quite well.

Tom said their shipment error rate is less than one-quarter of 1 percent — and it’s all tracked and double-checked manually by company employees.

As for customer service, Zach said they initially hired one of the top American call centers but it just didn’t work.

“Nobody will take care of your customers like we will,” he said.

That’s why the decision was made to have in-house customer representatives. They recently added live chat to that service and it has worked well.

He admitted the company has “a long way to go” in order to compete with the major American suppliers, but believes that can happen if they continue to provide quality service and quality products.

To do that, Tom says they have instilled a family atmosphere into the business. If an employee needs to watch his child play in a ballgame, they make it happen.

“We are a family business,” said Tom. “We’re all working on the same team, pulling on the same rope,” said Tom.

He also credited “wonderful people” in the company in helping make it a success. Besides Livingston, they also have employees in New York, Nevada, Florida and North Carolina.

“We treat all of our employees as family,” said Cheri.

The proof is in the pudding when you consider the company had a zero turnover rate in 2010.

“Folks tend to stay with us,” said Zach. “That is a huge reason for our success.”

A family operation

A family history with many successes is probably another contributing factor.

Cheri began her career in management with large companies before becoming owner of a kennel company which featured superior breeding dogs from around the world.

Tom is a graduate of Duquesne University School of Pharmacy.

Zach started his first company at age 14 and has extensive knowledge of computer systems engineering with a degree from Rensselaer� Polytechnic Institute.

Other family members active in the company include Cate Piech who has a bachelor’s degree in marketing from Siena College and Dr. Dana Leigh Piech who has a clinical doctorate degree in occupational therapy from Belmont University.

Another aspect of their business — and lives — is being involved in pet rescues. The company supports the efforts of rescue and adoption of animals, particularly from kill shelters, through its “Save Money, Save Pets” initiative. Persons can find pets for adoption in their area through the company’s website.

Tom said he believes the family’s strong background with dogs has helped lead to the success of the Livingston-based company.

No matter what the reasons, the fact remains the company has grown steadily through a tough recession, which is good for Overton County and good for pet lovers all over North America.