Former aluminum worker makes career in canines

Posted: Thursday, August 08, 2002

LONGVIEW, Wash. (AP) -- Butch and Beverly Higgins are living their dream, scary as it is.

In January, the former Longview Aluminum employee and his wife took their hobby and passion for breeding and training hunting dogs and built a canine kennel business in the hills above Rainier.

''I started doing this when I was 12 years old when a friend gave me a puppy and took me to the San Juan Islands hunting,'' said Butch Higgins, 56. ''This is my dream. It is a natural extension of something that I enjoy.''

He's up and at work at 4:30 a.m. and an early night home is 9:30 p.m. He also is learning skills he never had to use in his years at the aluminum smelter in Longview.

What the Higginses are doing -- starting a new business -- has cost them a lot of money and was thrust upon them faster than they had planned because of the layoffs at Longview Aluminum.

Still, they see themselves as models for other Longview Aluminum workers who are out of work.

Those workers, Higgins said, would make good business owners.

''The people who worked here in our community were more intelligent and had more camaraderie,'' Higgins said of his fellow workers at the smelter.

Higgins believes that high-energy users, such as aluminum plants, will have a tough time competing in the Northwest. Whether he's correct or not is yet to be seen. For local workers, though, the clear reality is that the Longview smelter, idle since April 2001, has no set date to reopen. In all, 925 workers have been out of work.

The Higginses offer lessons for people aluminum workers and others looking to launch their own business.

When the Higginses went into business they didn't dip, they dove.

Their kennel is a state-of-the-art facility that includes security cameras, decorative ceramic flooring and a viewing area. Parkdale Kennels is a 6,552-square-foot facility with an office, radiant heat in the concrete floors, kennel space for up to 67 canines and a grooming area. Its new computer system plugs into the Higgenses' home computer so they can work from home, which is just yards away from the kennel.

A viewing window allows customers to see the kennel without walking through it. Paula Link designed Make Rover Over, a 576-square-feet grooming station with two raised tubs and several clipping stations.

Butch Higgens, lean and well-tanned, is an outdoors kind of guy familiar with every slough and blind in several counties. Beverly Higgens tends to the kennel while Butch trains hunting dogs. Both Beverly and Butch have judged dogs for the American Kennel Club. Beverly bred Labradors and Butch has trained them locally for 20 years.

''When you are into dogs as much as we are, people know you take good care of your dogs. People ask to have you to take care of their dogs because they know you have dog savvy,'' said Beverly.

Still, the couple said treading the waters of small business is a strenuous effort even with their previous experience. The who, what and where to advertise is a challenge. So is bookkeeping.

Beverly said she's already made mistakes, such as charging pet owners for one dog when they actually had two in the kennel.

''I made the mistake. We ate it and that's why we didn't want to hire someone to start with. We need to make our own mistakes,'' she said.

The couple's plans were in the works years before the smelter closed. Butch planned to stay at Longview Aluminum for two more years to get the business going before he retired. But the smelter's closing ''threw me into the fire.'' And while he's a bit nervous being on his own, he said he has confidence in his ability and believes there is a need for another kennel in the area.

Though his smelter job is over, Butch lucked out in other ways. He retired as a salaried employee when Alcoa owned the smelter so he nabbed retirement and health benefits. Others weren't so fortunate, he said. He was rehired by the new owners, Michigan Avenue Partners, but didn't ''get squat from them.''

The couple's investment isn't small. Though they declined to say how much is invested in the new kennel, the Higginses acknowledge it is significant and some of the financing comes from their retirement funds. The parcels are assessed at $184,000, and that doesn't include the buildings.

Butch's dog training supports the business. He is training 10 dogs at $550 per month per dog. Kennel services run about $12 a day/night. That's $2 less than what the Higginses originally had planned to charge. With all the layoffs and mill closures, the couple decided to make their services more affordable.

Small business isn't without its challenges, Butch said. He dipped into his 401(k) funds to get the doors open. But the couple has a business plan that shows at even 50 percent occupancy, the kennel would remain profitable. They opened the doors in January and by March the place was at least paying the mortgage, she said.

Higgins said he's been lucky in that he's always been employed since he was 15. His job allowed him to pay for college for his kids and the opportunity to travel.

''But the economy is different now and folks who don't further their education will have trouble getting jobs in any field,'' he said. ''We were victims of an area that had work readily available and enticed people into the workforce before we were educated.''

Despite that, he said, many workers at the smelter can succeed by opening their own businesses because of the many strengths they have.

''It was the best work force I was associated with,'' Higgins said. ''They've got tremendous value and skills.''

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