ANCHORAGE — Lawyer Brett Gibson found inspiration for a new career by looking deeply into his dog's eyes.
Gibson was in his kitchen, filleting Alaska salmon and tossing the scraps to his boxer, Kila, when a television news report caught his attention. It told how fishermen who couldn't find a market for less-flavorful Alaska pink salmon were stripping the eggs and discarding the fish.
Gibson thought, "What a waste." Then he looked at Kila gobbling up the salmon scraps. And it clicked.
"I thought, 'Why aren't we making dog food?' So I turned to dog treats," he said.
Gibson, 36, founded Arctic Paws in 1997. The business makes Alaskan Salmon Yummy Chummies, semi-moist dog treats from whole Alaska pink salmon that have a fishy smell only a dog could love.
There's original flavor and chicken and bacon too. Gibson also sells salmon jerky. Two new products, salmon oil and a multivitamin, will be on the market by Christmas.
The company churns out about 15,000 pounds of dog treats a month from a warehouse here where the smell of salmon filters to the parking lot. Inside, blue plastic drums are filled with Yummy Chummies. White shipping boxes with yellow and red labels line the walls.
"The only thing that limits my production now is the size of my oven," Gibson said proudly.
Arctic Paws began turning a profit in 2001, money that goes right back into building the business, Gibson said. He makes $1,500 to $2,000 a month.
At first, his customers mostly were Alaskans. But Yummy Chummies are gaining popularity in the Lower 48. Two-thirds of Gibson's customers are outside Alaska, many of them in Western states, particularly California and Washington. The company also sells to Wal-Mart, Sam's Club and Fred Meyer stores in Alaska and Pet Food Express, a 20-store chain in Northern California.
Yummy Chummies are a big hit with the dogs at the Monadnock Humane Society shelter and dog training school in Swanzey, N.H., said Caleb Bleau, who manages the society's store.
"We use treats and praise as a reward. Generally speaking, the better the reward, the better the response," he said. "When we got the salmon treats, the dogs went nuts for them."
To get the word out, Gibson targeted the 2,500 to 3,000 dog trainers nationwide in a direct mailing. He attends trade shows. Free samples are tucked inside every order.
"It's all marketing now," he said.
Gibson knew he needed a new direction when at age 30 he was a successful lawyer making a nice income but also had an ulcer and a bad feeling at the end of the day.
"I just decided I had enough of suing people for a living. It didn't make me feel fuzzy," he said.
He began fooling around with ideas for the perfect dog treat in late 1997. He was brimming with naive enthusiasm when he bought 100 pounds of salmon and ground it up -- skin, bones, fat, blood and all -- in a meat grinder. The first batch tested well with dogs but had no shelf life and turned moldy.
Gibson asked his father, a retired baker in Canal Fulton, Ohio, whether he knew anyone in the dog food business. His dad remembered that when Gibson's sister was crowned Canal Days queen in high school, the runner-up's father worked in a feed factory.
Gibson flew to Ohio. He toured the feed factory and visited a rendering plant. When he returned home, he heard about a St. Louis feed company that had a free advice line. He peppered the person with questions for three hours.
Gibson began his business in an old gas station he got rent-free from a former legal client who owed him money. He got a $33,000 bank loan and bought a little pizza oven and an electric cookie cutter and began making 300 pounds of dog treats a day.
"I thought, 'I'm on my way. This is going to be great,' " he said.
In 1999, Gibson moved into a bigger warehouse. He spent $50,000 to $60,000 he'd made as a lawyer on a bigger oven and other equipment, including three meat grinders, a 16-lane conveyer belt and a drying oven with three decks.
Then, Gibson said, he made a strategic mistake that almost cost him the business. He thought he could get rich by getting a contract with one of the pet superstores. In summer 2000, he had an order from Petsmart Inc. for 40,000 packages of Yummy Chummies. It was a promotion the company did not renew, and Gibson was left with equipment that he was still paying for and 200,000 bags he couldn't use.
"It cost me," Gibson said.
What really hurt, however, was that his customer base suffered.
"We didn't focus on the little guy. And then we lost them," he said.
Gibson changed his attitude.
"If not for their purchases, I would have been out of business years ago," he said of the smaller customers.
Gibson said doing business in Alaska was challenging. He would like to make the dog treat business his full-time job, but the business isn't there yet. The biggest obstacle so far is production costs, which he estimates is as much as 33% higher in Alaska than the Lower 48.
Nearly all the extra expense is in shipping costs, but Gibson is figuring out how to get around that. He said he can save between $3 and $4 on most orders if the boxes are packed and shipped out of a small distribution center in Tacoma, Wash.
Gibson also has found that buying in bulk saves. He orders as many as 10,000 boxes and 100,000 bags at a time.
"I made so many mistakes with this, but I did some things right too," Gibson said.