No one hosts a "pawty" quite like Lane Nemeth. In a Manhattan law office after hours, she is pitching special seat belts and venison-jerky treats to a room of the curious over coffee and cookies. The group coos over colorful piles of chewable rubber and fuzzy toys, and a 7-year-old girl clings to a teddy bear with a "heartbeat." Despite the grade-schooler's enthusiasm, however, the toys are intended for a different breed of child: pets.
Such Tupperware-style parties for pets are the mainstays of Nemeth's booming new business, Petlane. Nemeth, 57, founded the direct-marketing company last year, and the "pawty" (her term) is the same kind of coffee-time shindig that propelled her first direct-sales company, Discovery Toys, to success. She says this time around, she was inspired by her daughter's Cavalier King Charles spaniel to provide toys for "the dearest thing on four legs." The cutesy get-togethers are already translating into solid sales. Nemeth, who started Petlane from her home in Lafayette, Calif., says she expects the pet-products company to reach $1 million in sales this year, up from $300,000 in 2004. Her sales team of 225 "pet advisers" in 12 states is targeted to grow to 500 nationwide by year's end.
Nemeth is no stranger to success in direct sales. Inspired in 1978 to find stimulating toys for her daughter Tara, the former day-care-center director built Discovery Toys, an educational-toy company, from a $5,000 garage-warehouse operation into an international 40,000-employee direct-sales company with $100 million in revenues by 1997--the year she sold it to Avon.
She is banking on Americans' increasing obsession with their pets, which is fueling 6% annual growth in the $34 billion pet-care industry. "Pets are the new kids," she says, noting that young couples see pets as a parenting test run. Dog day care, pet-custody battles and even plastic surgery for animals testify to America's humanization of pets. Nemeth, who says her Balinese cat, Symphony, "talks" to her, knows her market. She spent thousands on wheelchairs and a hyperbaric chamber when her dog Kicsi was dying of spinal-cord degeneration. Nemeth's salespeople teach pet care to their customers, much as Nemeth's toy company helped educate parents about child development.
There's plenty of obsession in Nemeth, who thinks that, among other things, pet owners should learn how pets communicate. (She says it was hard to know what her previous cat said because it "talked too much. I know exactly what Symphony is saying. Cats tell you a tremendous amount just with their tails.") Nemeth's other crusade: to get pet owners to install seat belts for their dogs. "At 30 m.p.h., a 35-lb. dog is over 1,100 lbs. of force," she says. Her cause has managed to change things behind the scenes of the pet- adoption cable-TV show Who Gets the Dog. While watching one episode, Harley, 4, the daughter of Randa Boyer, one of Petlane's star pet advisers, saw a family drive away with its new pooch and yelled, "That dog has no seat belt!" Boyer contacted the show's vet, Dean Graulich, who now offers pet seat belts at his hospital in Malibu, Calif. Nemeth's response? "I'm so pleased that a 4-year-old got it!" Her hope is that, with Petlane, everyone else will too.