Pet Projects: Michelle Higdon has found her natural niche

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Photos by Will Crooks

American poet Robert Browning wrote, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp.” But what happens when you finally find that gold ring in your hand? Good news, right?

Yes, but for businesses that have grown beyond the expectation or the expertise of their founders, great success or opportunity can be stressful as well. Who you gonna call?

You call Michelle Higdon, who has made a career of being the bridge to get businesses from where they are to where they could be.

Her work with founders began with A&M Cleaning Products in Central, S.C. Since then, she has helped the founders of Ultra Pet, Waggin’ Train LLC, Solid Gold Pet, and Jones Naturals take their companies to the next level.

It’s a niche that she neither studied for, planned to move into, nor ever really thought about.

Higdon is a down-to-earth Southerner who is passionate about farming, cattle, dogs, horses, and open spaces. Born in Mississippi, raised in Florida, educated in Georgia (associate’s degree from Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College) and Florida (University of Florida, bachelor of science in food and resource economics), Higdon came to the Upstate in 1995, trailing her late husband, Lee, a researcher in reproductive endocrinology.

“The plan was to stay here for three years while he completed his Ph.D. at Clemson and then move back to Texas,” Higdon recalls.

Like so many plans, it didn’t quite work out that way.

But the story of her own journey from where she was to where she didn’t know she could get to is also a master class in entrepreneurism, business acumen, and bald-faced guts. And it’s all part of the advice she offers the students she mentors through her role on the advisory board of Clemson University’s Arthur M. Spiro Institute for Entrepreneurial Leadership.

 

Go Greased Lightning

In 1995, Higdon fell into a job as horse barn manager for the Alexander family, who owned A&M and Greased Lightning cleaning products, based in Central. “I didn’t know what Greased Lightning was. I just needed a job for a couple of years,” she says. And she knew she would enjoy working with horses a lot more than working in the dark and cramped basement offices of the company.

Although she didn’t have any marketing training, she was not shy about making suggestions. “Everything was about promoting Greased Lightning,” she notes. “The horses were a means to advertise their products, so I started creating collateral and advertising to tie the horses to the brand.”

Next, she saw opportunities with the motorsports team led by Ken Alexander, a driver himself. Because of her success in branding through the show horses, the company asked her to get involved on the motorsports side. “I was not a race fan,” Higdon notes. “I didn’t know anything, but I was very opportunistic.”

“I didn’t know I couldn’t do anything, so I would just try to go and do it,” she says.


Entrepreneur Lesson No. 1: Just try. And if you’re going to fail, “fail quickly,” so you can dust yourself off and start over again.


By the end of the 1990s, Higdon had left the barn and was building a marketing department — developing messaging, cutting deals with sponsors and retailers, getting the Greased Lightning product on TV and radio. By 2000, she had broken into a big partnership with Nashville’s annual CMA Music Festival — the Bonnaroo for country music fans — and created a big-budget deal with Rush Limbaugh.

“I had not prepared for any of this. I just kept trying to find smart people to learn from,” Higdon says.


Entrepreneur lesson No. 2: Find a great mentor and take advantage of the opportunity.


In 2000, the Alexanders brought in American Capital Strategies as an investment partner and Higdon stayed on as the vice president of marketing through 2003. A&M was eventually sold to BioLab, a cleaning company giant.

From the barn to the boardroom in less than a decade may seem like an incredible journey to many, but not to Higdon. “The Alexanders gave me a great opportunity,” she credits. “I saw things and I wasn’t afraid of failing.”


Entrepreneur Lesson No. 3: “No matter where you are working, there’s always more you can do. Your company has goals and aspirations. If you see an opportunity, don’t just do your job. Go beyond your job.”


 

Finding the founder niche

BioLab, based in Atlanta, was doing about $1.6 billion in sales in 2003, when it purchased Greased Lightning. “I thought ‘Hallelujah, I’m going to have all kinds of resources now,’” says Higdon, who was brought on as president of the division. But the vast resources turned out to have limitations as well.

With her business career less than a decade old, Higdon learned a very important lesson about herself: “I had a singular focus of ‘Let’s all work together toward a goal.’” This philosophy was anathema to the corporate world, where everything divided into silos. She adds, “R&D was disconnected from marketing and sales. Marketing became disconnected from operations.”

“I found out in that first four months that I really enjoyed being that bridge, taking a business to the next level but not operating in a big corporate environment,” Higdon says.

So here comes:


Entrepreneur Lesson No. 4: Know what you really like doing.


That lesson became very important in 2007, when she joined Waggin’ Train, a manufacturer of real meat pet foods and treats, as president. Higdon transitioned Waggin’ Train from a founder-owned company to acquisition by a giant multinational brand. When Purina acquired the company, Higdon was asked to move to St. Louis and run it.

Her response? “I will give you a great transition, I will help it fit into your bigger organization, but I learned a long time ago that is not what I enjoy, nor am I particularly good at it,” she says. She left Purina 14 months later.

 

Pet projects

Higdon’s life has always included animals. Her dad was a livestock extension agent, and her early career involved several jobs on cattle ranches, from herd management to exploring data on cloning research.

Today Higdon divides her personal time between Central and the family ranch in Okeechobee, Fla., where they raise exotic deer and keep the cattle part of the year. The family homestead in Central, with an expansive view of meandering fields and mountains, is shared with four dogs, a couple of horses, and some cattle.

“My interests have evolved in the last eight years into the better-for-you categories, regardless of whether it is human food or pet food,” she explains. “It’s less about the pet industry. That just makes it more enjoyable for me.”

Still, the pet industry has been the niche-within-a-niche for Higdon. She invested both time and money in Waggin’ Train, Solid Gold Pet, and Jones Naturals.

Under Higdon’s leadership, Solid Gold Pet, a maker of all-natural pet food, moved its corporate headquarters from San Diego, Calif., to the Innovate building in downtown Greenville in 2014. The company is now headquartered in Chesterfield, Mo.

At Jones, a healthy pet treat provider based in Rockford, Ill., she is currently the executive chairman of the board. She is “developing short- and long-term strategies, mentoring the founders who are staying active in management roles. They are hungry to learn how to take this business to the next level.”

Higdon describes herself as “achievement-driven.” Working with founders, Higdon can fulfill two of her drives: having an impact and mentoring. “Founders grow up in a business and they have worked very hard to get it to where it is. But they don’t always have a vision of what else is possible,” she says.

“When founders get to the point that they want investment or need a vision of what else is possible… that’s where I’ve been fortunate enough to work with them.”



The Higdon File 



Timeline:

1986: Associate degree, Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, Tifton, Ga.

1988: BS, food and resource economics, University of Florida

1995: Vice President of Marketing, A&M Cleaning Products Inc.

2003: President, UltraPet Company Inc.

2007: President, Waggin’ Train LLC

2013: President/CEO, Solid Gold Pet

2013: Advisory board of Clemson University Spiro Institute

2016: Executive Chairman, Jones Naturals LLC

 

Greatest achievement:

Her children. Guy, 24, just graduated Clemson with a civil engineering degree, and Gail, 23, is a senior business major at Furman. “I am fantastically proud of them, their character, and who they are becoming as adults.”

 

Reading recs:

Integrity” by Henry Cloud. “I almost blew it off, because I know what integrity is. But what it really gets into is not only knowing yourself objectively, but knowing what you’re dealing with and understanding it. Not taking things at face value. Understanding the true reality means you don’t just assume what the reality is. You go out and do the research, do the work, and find out what it really is.”

 

Her somebody’s-got-to-do-it job:

Collecting bull semen for cloning research for a Houston biosciences firm, one of three post-college jobs she held before moving to the Upstate in 1995.

 

Best mentoring experience:

Jennifer LaPointe, a University of Arkansas grad, came to Ultra Pet to work in her chosen profession of human resources. “I thought she had a knack for understanding consumers and would do well in marketing. Turned out she loved marketing and has been very successful in growing her knowledge and responsibilities over the years. She is very talented and I’m so proud of her accomplishments.” LaPointe, who lives in Greenville, is now brand manager at Solid Gold Pet.

 

The do-dogs-have-taste-buds question resolved:

“You can open a can of green cow tripe” — that’s stomach lining to you and me — “and the gag reflex kicks in. It is awful. But dogs will come from half a mile way. They love it.”

 

Giving back:

As a board member of the Spiro Institute, she works with two to three students in Clemson’s MBAe program each semester. Additionally, she and her late husband, Dr. Lee Higdon, started a program to mentor Clemson agriculture students in the Block & Bridle Club, where Lee had been an advisor. Students in the club are hosted annually for a “Week on the Ranch” where they learn firsthand by working on the family’s ranch in Okeechobee.

 

 

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