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When the president called.

The success story of a business that blossomed from basement beginnings

JOHN SELLEN likes to tell of the day in 1975 when an order came from The White House. Sellen's wife Velma thought the call was a joke. It wasn't. Says Sellen, "We still have the original order from Gerald Ford. He ordered our training dummies for his Golden Retrievers. One of Ford's aides called and said the president had our catalogue but didn't have the price list."

Those hand sewn retrieving bags were his sole product when Canvasback Dog Training Equipment Ltd. started in 1958. Today, the business has grown to more than $800,000 gross sales annually.

The oblong dummies are covered in canvas and stuffed with cork -- a combination that feels more natural in a dog's mouth, can easily have a scent inserted, and floats for ease of retrieval.

Sellen recognized the potential market for the dummies while attending retriever trials in the U.S. "People would come up and ask if I could make a half-dozen for them," says Sellen. "That's how it all began."

Sellen also manufactures and wholesales rope lanyards with whistles to L.L. Bean in Maine, U.S.A., for $7.95 per unit U.S. The American company recently doubled its annual order from 600 to 1,200 for the fall.

But the road to high sales wasn't overnight. Canvasback's first year sales in 1958 were a mere $300 when dummies sold for $1.25 each. "It's kind of a backwards business," admits Sellen. "We lowered the price to $1 because we had such difficulty in making change at the trials."

A move to Kirkness Road in the '60s allowed Sellen to sell additional retriever equipment lines including dog foods, and sales rose to $25,000.

Ten years later, and with the basement bulging, he built a small store with help from his brothers. Cash to expand came from Sellen's General Motors' stock savings. Unwilling to incur debt for the business, he has never borrowed money or made use of a bank operating line.

Sales rose continually each year, reaching $72,000 by 1972, with no signs of stopping. Inventory was increased accordingly, and a mail order catalogue was added.

Velma ran the store during the day with help from part-time staff while John worked evenings after a full day at G.M.

"Some people thought we had holes in our heads -- they didn't think a business could succeed in the middle of nowhere, but we knew we were on the right track," says Sellen.

Sellen realized the full potential of his business, branching out to carry extensive dog training lines as well as foods and accessories for cats, dogs and horses. Carrying a complete range of both English and Western horse tack, Canvasback also specializes in equipment and show-related items like bells and face-plates for draft horses. "You wouldn't find stock like ours in other stores," claims Sellen. The selection of specialized books is unrivaled as well, with over 1,400 separate titles in hardcover alone. The quantity and variety of products stocked is staggering -- over 1,000 different items.

Sellen holds the distributorship for Kennel-Aire products -- travelling crates and barriers that can be installed in vans, trucks and station wagons such as the ones mounted in Manitoba Hydro, Winnipeg Police and RCMP vehicles. Both police forces constitute a large client base for guard dog equipment as well.

Operations peaked in 1990 with gross sales of $877,000. Sellen projects gross sales around $750,000 for 1992 and attributes the decline to an overall slump in the economy and decreased attendance at shows.

Says Sellen, "All in all, it's been a good business but we're looking to retire in the future rather than expanding again." Considering that he has retired once, and now works 12 hours a day, Monday through Saturday, it remains to be seen how successful he will be at "retiring" a second time.
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Title Annotation:Canvasback Dog Training Equipment Ltd.
Author:Taylor, Barbara
Publication:Manitoba Business
Article Type:Company Profile
Date:Oct 1, 1992
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