Vellus Products Inc.

The Company

Is your pet having a bad hair day? Well, Sharon Doherty, president of Vellus Products Inc., can help. Her small Columbus, Ohio–based company makes a line of pet grooming products, including customized shampoos, conditioners, brushing sprays, satin cream, and detanglers.

According to Doherty, shampoos for people don’t work well on pets because animal skin is more sensitive than human skin and is more easily irritated. Most available pet shampoos, though sensitive to the skin, tend to leave hair unmanageable and without the glamour needed for the show dog or pampered pet. Dr. David Tanner, Doherty’s nephew, used his expertise as a chemist in the personal care industry to develop the salon-type formulas that Doherty thought would be good for animal hair and skin. This family-operated company also involves Doherty’s husband, Robert, and daughter, Teryl Hotz.

Sharon Doherty, President of Vellus Products, Inc.
Sharon Doherty, President of Vellus Products, Inc.

The Challenge

Vellus Products’ first export sale occurred in 1993, when a Taiwanese businessperson, after trying the Vellus line, bought $25,000 worth of the company’s products to sell in Taiwan through dog shows. The word was out. “I started receiving calls from people around the world who would hear of our products at dog shows and ask organizers how they could get in touch with me to buy our products,” Doherty recalls. “But I needed a way to find market research and learn more about ways of doing business in these countries.”

The Solution

Doherty soon tapped the services of the U.S. Commercial Service in Columbus. “As business has grown, I have gone from ordering country profiles to requesting customized export and financing strategies tailored to maximize export potential,” Doherty says.

The Commercial Service relied on its worldwide network and partners like the Small Business Administration and the state of Ohio to provide customized market research and information on financing and other programs for Vellus. Today, Vellus sells to more than 28 countries. “I credit the Commercial Service for helping me expand my exports, as it would have been much more difficult to do this on my own,” Doherty says.

Lessons Learned

Doherty learned several lessons from her exporting experience, as complied here by Doug Barry, editor of A Basic Guide to Exporting from which this case study is taken.

  • Know whom you are dealing with. “Developing business relationships is critical to successful exporting,” Doherty says. Doherty often gives advice and guidance to her distributors, sharing her knowledge and understanding of importing along with marketing in the dog show network. She says this advice is much appreciated and goes a long way toward building long-term relationships. “Be smart, but humble,” she advises. “Whenever there is a problem, I don’t e-mail; I pick up the phone.”
  • Do a background check on potential business partners. Doherty was once duped by a businessman from another country who said he knew all about the pet market there. She followed some of his advice, and it caused her to lose customers in that country. The experience was a lesson well learned. “Always do a thorough check on your potential business partners,” she says. “Gather as much information as you can. Don’t make any assumptions; the wrong choice can cost your business valuable time and money.” Doherty also notes that it is her business practice to have orders prepaid by the purchaser, and once the bank receives the money, to ship the orders. This practice helps prevent any problems with delinquent payments.
  • Learn the culture. Doherty has become familiar with the cultural aspects of pet care. Vellus shampoos and other products can easily be varied for different grooming techniques. In England, dog exhibitors prefer less pouffy topknots than those on show dogs in the United States, where owners tend to be more exotic with topknots. There also can be different preferences for the look of show dogs.
  • Enjoy the ride. Doherty says that exporting has changed her life. “I love exporting because it has enabled me to meet so many people from other cultures. Exporting has made me more broad minded, and I have developed a great appreciation for other cultures and the way others live their lives,” she says. “You are put in contact with real people on the other side.”

This success story is also featured in our publication A Basic Guide to Exporting: The Official Government Resource for Small and Medium-Sized Businesses. To purchase this book, please visit the U.S. Government Bookstore.

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The U. S. Commercial Service is a U. S. Department of Commerce agency that helps small-and medium-sized U. S. businesses sell their products and services globally. With its network of offices across the United States and in more than 80 countries, the U.S. Commercial Service of the U.S. Department of Commerce's International Trade Administration utilizes its global presence and international marketing expertise to help U.S. companies sell their products and services worldwide. For more information, visit

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