The Tampa Bay area provides the dream demographic for Paws Aboard: People love their dogs — and their boats.
The 6-year-old company makes doggy life jackets, dog boat ladders, ski rope dog leashes and nautical-theme canine toys. Its sales hit $1 million in 2008, with revenue projected to hit $1.4 million in 2009 even with a dicey economy, said Amber McCrocklin, president of Paws Aboard.
"Dogs are part of the family," McCrocklin, 37, said. "They become children."
McCrocklin, owner of a yellow Labrador retriever named Bo and a Cavalier King Charles spaniel named Sydney, launched the business in Indianapolis six years ago with $350,000. She moved the company to Tampa in 2005.
The idea came about after McCrocklin struggled to get 95-pound, 7-year-old Bo into her boat in a reservoir in the Indianapolis area. The incident inspired her to create the doggy ladder — and the company.
"It was because of him that I started the business," McCrocklin said at the Paws Aboard Tampa headquarters, where $300,000 worth of inventory sits in a 5,000-square-foot space in a business park on Benjamin Road north of Tampa International Airport. "He was too heavy to lift into the boat from the water."
In 2008, the company sold 3,000 ladders in stores around the country at $199 to $229 each.
Matt McMahan, boating gear center sales manager for MarineMax in Clearwater, said the Paws Aboard ladders — at 8 pounds and 64 inches long — were popular at the Miami Boat Show last month. He sold eight of them.
From the start, revenue increased about 50 percent annually until 2008, when the revenue increase dipped to 20 percent, she said. High fuel prices in 2008 prompted boaters to cut back on their time on the water and purchases of Paws Aboard products.
The company has 20 distributors supplying Paws Aboard products to hundreds of retail locations in the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia and New Zealand, including giant pet retailers Petco and PetSmart.
The Paws Aboard life jackets are a favorite at many of the stores. They sold 60,000 in 2008 and McCrocklin expects sales of an additional 50,000 this year.
The life vests, which retail for $18 to $35, are canine fashion statements, coming in designs such as pink polka dots and camouflage. They're also utilitarian, thanks to handles on the back that allow owners to pull the dog from the water.
Jaime Calderbank, owner of the One Lucky Dog pet store on Fourth Street N in St. Petersburg, said she sells three or four life jackets per week.
"People would be devastated if something happens to their dog," said Calderbank, whose three dogs all have life jackets. "If they go overboard, there's not much of a chance of survival, especially the little dogs."
Sales spike in June and July, the warm-weather boating months. McCrocklin said the company is working on ways to ensure the products are sold more consistently year-round, especially during the Christmas season.
That means developing new Paws Aboard products, such as leashes, pooper scoopers and toys, to tap into the $44-billion-a-year pet industry.
"We want to be more of a pet company and less of a marine company," McCrocklin said.