RHINELANDER - In four years, Rhinelander-based Drs. Foster and Smith (DFS) went from the largest online and catalog seller of pet products in the country to out of business.
Story By Ben Meyer
It happened on Petco's watch.
The San Diego company finished a deal to buy DFS in 2015.
On Wednesday, it announced it was closing most of its Rhinelander operations and laying off 289 employees.
"For our community, it's a loss, and that's undeniable," said Stacey Johnson, the executive director of the Oneida Co. Economic Development Corporation.
Hundreds of employees got a letter Wednesday telling them they would only have a job through March 10.
"Consumer needs and preferences have continued to shift with technology," Brock Weatherup, a Petco executive, wrote in the letter. "The closure of DFS will enable us to streamline operations and better focus on our core business and customer."
DFS is currently one of the top five employers in Oneida Co., but employees say the "Drs. Foster and Smith" name will not survive on any pet products. The brand didn't even send out a catalog in Fall 2018.
The closure seems like a broken promise by Petco to some.
"For our community, it's not what they thought they were getting," Johnson said.
In 2014, Rhinelander thought it was getting a new owner committed to keeping DFS in town. Founders Race Foster and Marty Smith picked Petco as a buyer with that pledge in mind.
"Marty Smith and I actually talked to many prospective buyers," Foster said at the time. "The one condition we put was, it cannot leave Rhinelander, at least in the foreseeable future."
The sale closed in 2015, but in 2018, Petco laid off two smaller rounds of workers. It started giving hints Wednesday's broad layoff announcement was on the way.
"It's something we knew about, but we didn't know when. It definitely wasn't a surprise," Johnson said of the impending closure.
"[The company] is something that people grew up with. They've been there for 25 years, some of these people. It's a significant loss number-wise, but it's also a loss historically," she said.
Odds of state leaders devising a way to prevent the closure seem slim. According to Rep. Rob Swearingen (R-Rhinelander), Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation executive director Mark Hogan met with Maggie Gau, the chief of staff for Gov. Tony Evers, on Thursday. Hogan has also been trying to find a suitable contact with Petco's corporate offices in San Diego to discuss ways to save Rhinelander jobs, without success.
In December, then-Gov. Scott Walker made a deal to keep Kimberly-Clark's Cold Spring facility open in the Fox Valley, saving about 400 jobs. Walker pledged $28 million in tax breaks for the company in exchange. But Swearingen said Petco's mind seems to be set on closing the Rhinelander location.
Johnson's job now shifts to helping workers figure out what's next.
She met Thursday with the state-funded North Central Rapid Response Team. That team will offer pre-layoff workshops to employees, information sessions on resources, and career fairs. Some workers may be eligible for money to help pay for retraining programs, including attending technical colleges.
"We have a blueprint, if you will, for how we deal with situations like that," said Sandy Bishop, the executive director of Nicolet College's Economic and Community Development program.
Bishop noted Nicolet College has helped laid off workers start new careers in the past, like when Twist Drill closed in Rhinelander in the early 2000s and left hundreds jobless.
"Although it's a really difficult situation," Bishop said, "they come out on the other end of this with, sometimes, a whole new skill set, a whole new career direction."
Bishop encourages workers not to rush a decision on their next move.
"Even though it seems like a real short timeframe with the closure being announced, there is time to really look at the opportunities that are available," she said.
Johnson sees boundless career opportunities in Rhinelander for transitioning workers.
"Absolutely, there's opportunity here," she said. "There's a lot of positivity and this is just something the community needs to come together and support."
A current employee of DFS said Petco's severance package for workers seemed "fair and reasonable."
We don't know what will happen with the DFS property yet. It includes acres of warehouses, storage buildings, and offices. Petco owns the complex.