STOUGHTON -- Michelle Lonergan grew up in family in which her parents owned a pet supply wholesale company.
Lonergan is passionate about pet nutrition, especially for her rambunctious 1-year-old Bernese mountain dog, Maisie, and combines her entrepreneurial spirit with strong sales skills.
But her success with what is now three Tabby & Jack's stores can be traced to her accounting background and willingness to learn from past mistakes. Passion, drive and enthusiasm are all important when running a small business, but knowing the numbers and having an open mind keeps a business afloat, especially when it's launched at the brink of a recession, as hers was.
"Failures can be your reason for ultimate success because you learn so much from it," said Lonergan, 51. "I feel, honestly, that because it was such a small footprint and small store when we started and we had some struggles early on, that I learned so much valuable information to carry me through to the bigger plan."
And that bigger plan appears to be working 10 years after opening her first store on Madison's East Side.
Lonergan has opened her third location for Tabby & Jack's, independent stores that focus on pet nutrition, holistic grooming and day care.
The newest store is a 4,200-square-foot location amid a hub of new development along Highway 51 on Stoughton's west side. Projects across the street include a new Walmart, a Kwik Trip that held its ribbon-cutting on Wednesday and a 20,000-square-foot Aldi grocery store under construction and scheduled to open in November.
Lonergan, who hired a marketing firm to come up with the Tabby & Jack's name, founded her company in 2007 on Struck Street near Woodman's Market on the West Side but a year later moved the business to a 3,700-square-foot location at 2970 Cahill Main in Fitchburg. In 2011, Lonergan opened a store on Capitol Square but closed it in 2014 just as she was opening a location at University Avenue and Park Street in Middleton.
Lonergan's stores are stocked with high-end pet food that includes refrigerated and frozen raw products and designed to improve the health of animals. The stores also include a full-range of pet supplies like leashes, beds, chews and other amenities and have spaces to reduce pets' stress while they're groomed. Grooming is by appointment only, so dogs and cats can be in and out in an hour to 90 minutes and no cage dryers are used.
Lonergan said the groomers are required to have positive thoughts, which animals can sense.
"We teach them how to manage their energy," Lonergan said of her 12 groomers. "We're trying to remove as many of the stressors in the grooming salon as possible. We're always looking for ways to individualize a comfortable environment for every dog and cat."
Lonergan grew up in Loves Park, Illinois, and at 12 years old began sorting receipts for her parents' business, Charjan's Distributors, a natural pet food distribution company. Her parents also were among the original founders of Noah’s Ark Animal Sanctuary in Rockford, Illinois, in the 1980s.
After high school, Michelle Lonergan attended and graduated from Eastern Illinois University with an accounting degree and spent years working as a certified public accountant and as a commercial lender. But when the economy began to tank in 2007, Lonergan said her job was no longer enjoyable and she yearned to work with animals, so she and her husband, Ken, a pharmacist at UW Hospital, opened their first store.
It wasn't an easy time to dive into retailing.
"Yeah, we struggled at our first location," said Lonergan.
The Madison area is flush with stores that cater to pet owners, a $65 billion industry nationally. One of the newest, EarthWise Pet Supply, opened in the Shorewood Shopping Center last month. The Madison area is also home to four Mounds Pet Food Warehouse stores, two MadCat stores, two Nutzy Mutz & Crazy Catz stores and national retailers like PetSmart and Pet World.
Tabby & Jack's becomes just the second pet supply retailer in Stoughton, a city of just over 13,000 people, joining Claws 2 Paws Animal Supply. After working 14 hours a day for 30 straight days to open her store, Lonergan isn't ready to say if she will open a fourth store but leaves the possibility open.
"I'm a true entrepreneur, which really is an addiction," Lonergan said. "I'll see how this pans out and ride through our ramp up and then see where we're at."