SturdiProducts owner Rich Van Engers has developed a demand for his niche pet products. Photo by Jim Bellamy, special to KP News

Business is booming for pet travel equipment manufacturer SturdiProducts, located in Key Center. The company’s brand of pet carriers, totes, tents and popup shelters has set the standard for travel bags for breeders and trainers, according to Executive Vice President Penny Johnson.

Their products are found at major dog and cat shows worldwide, in large pet-supply stores like PetSmart, and are known to carry famous pets from Morris the Cat to the dog on “Modern Family” television show.

“Famous dogs and cats buy our products,” Johnson said, “but most people think their pets are celebrities.”

It is her opinion that the reason they have grown busier during the years of economic downturn is because “buying pet products is like buying products for your baby — people will find the money to do it.”

The business has been so successful, it needs more space to operate and will be moving soon to South Kitsap. About a year ago, they purchased the largest building in Manchester, just past Port Orchard, and started making plans to renovate what they call a large, leaky 7,000 square-foot-box with a view of the Seattle Space Needle.

The owner of SturdiProducts, Rich Van Engers, started the business in the 1980s by cutting out patterns on his kitchen table. He was one of the first to patent the bag-sewing process and hired out the work to Seattle firms. He currently has 40 patented products.

He was featured in the publication of Exceptional People Magazine’s “Top 20 successful business icons of 2010 and 2011,” along with the likes of CEOs from Dell, Nike and PepsiCo. The company is officially celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.

Van Engers and Johnson moved to the Key Peninsula about seven years ago. They worked for a short time out of a barn on their property before moving into Key Center at The Landing. In that building, they received their first container of equipment from a Vietnamese factory. The switch to Vietnam came as a result of being unable to find companies in Seattle to sew their products. They were competing with military contracts.

“We did choose to go overseas and be able to stay in business,” Johnson said. “We were going to be competitive or go out of business.”

In 2007, Van Engers flew 39 round trips to Vietnam to oversee quality assurance at the factory level. Johnson has accompanied him on some of the recent trips.

“I was nervous about developing companies — labor stories,” she said. “I was really impressed with the new factory, the on-site living and meals provided. (It is) up to ISO (International Organization for Standardization) standards that are conducive to a healthy work environment. They hire no one under 18.” Van Engers now travels to Vietnam only for major productions about three or four times a year.

SturdiProducts has grown into an international business, with customers in 25 countries including Russia, Germany, Italy, France, Japan and the Middle East. During the company’s more than two decades in business, the focus on pet travel found a niche category. It is becoming common for people to travel with their pets. There is even an airline devoted strictly to pet travel, according to Johnson.

Personally, Van Engers’ favorite travel is to his homeland in Holland. He is a Dutch citizen born in Amsterdam and immigrated with his family to the United States when he was 6 years old. With the exception of one brother, Dwight, who works with him at the business, his brothers and sisters still live in Holland.

Van Engers and Johnson had originally planned to expand the business on their resident property but the property didn’t meet permit requirements. Kitsap County approved their architectural plans in April and they estimate it will take at least eight months to complete the move to the new facility once they start.

The pair view the move with mixed emotions. “We love Key Center and seeing people we know at the post office,” Johnson said. “It will be sad to leave Vaughn but it is beautiful in Manchester.”

They plan to have a big open house at their new location, which will incorporate retail space for walk-in customers. “We welcome the occasional visit (in Key Center) but we are not really set up for it,” she said.

The Key Center warehouse is located next door to the Roadhouse Restaurant. The hours are flexible and customers can call 884-2368 for information. The wide range of products for people who travel with pets is also available online at www.SturdiProducts.com.

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