Business

Tumwater-based Mud Bay, a store for dogs and cats, offers employees stake in company

Mud Bay co-CEOs Lars and Marissa Wulff, standing in their west Olympia location last week, are transitioning their popular chain into an employee-owned business.
Mud Bay co-CEOs Lars and Marissa Wulff, standing in their west Olympia location last week, are transitioning their popular chain into an employee-owned business. Staff photographer

Mud Bay, an Olympia-grown retailer of healthful food, treats and supplies for dogs and cats, has come a long way since a single general store/farm store on Mud Bay Road in 1988.

The company today is based in Tumwater, has 33 locations — including in west Olympia, Lacey and University Place — and more than 300 employees, sometimes referred to as “muddies.”

And the next stage of growth for Mud Bay involves those “muddies,” because as of Thursday all 326 employees have become eligible to be owners of Mud Bay through the creation of an employee stock ownership plan.

It’s been a longtime dream for co-CEOs and siblings Lars and Marisa Wulff, who have been actively involved with the business since the late 1980s and early 1990s after their mother, Elsa, bought an existing business in 1988.

They became serious about creating an ESOP in 2002. After doing their research and talking to other employee-owned companies — as well as making sure the business had grown to the point where they could afford the plan and create meaningful ownership stakes — they finally executed the ESOP documents on August 20.

“It did take until now but it feels really good,” Marisa Wulff said.

In addition to being a long-term goal, the Wulffs said their research shows that creating an ESOP and developing an ownership culture can help a business grow 5-10 percent faster a year.

All employees as of Thursday — at an annual company gathering called “Mudstock” — became eligible to become owners of Mud Bay. In the future, though, employees will have to work at least 1,000 hours in a calendar year before they can join the plan, the Wulffs said.

In addition to the ESOP, Mud Bay also offers medical insurance and a 401(k) retirement plan, although the 401(k) plan is not widely used and there is no company match.

But Lars Wulff expects the ESOP will generate interest in the 401(k) offering. That’s because longtime employees who leave Mud Bay and those who retire will be able to sell their stock back to the company, generating income that could be invested in other ways, such as into the 401(k), he said.

Kristy Bradley, 38, who has worked for Mud Bay for more than two years and now manages the west Olympia store, praised the idea of the ESOP, saying she welcomes the chance to become part of something bigger at the business.

She also said the Wulffs have done a good job of explaining the ESOP and making employees part of the process, rather than just pushing it on them.

“I can make a career here, and that’s important,” Bradley said.

Mud Bay has grown an average of 20 percent a year and more growth is on the way. The business has so far this year opened a store in Beaverton, Oregon, and four more are planned before the end of the year in Sammamish, Bellingham and in Hillsboro and Tualatin, Oregon.

“We will stay a Northwest company for the foreseeable future,” Marisa Wulff said.

Rolf Boone: 360-754-5403

rboone@theolympian.com

@rolf_boone

Mud Bay

Leadership: Co-chief executive officers Lars Wulff and Marisa Wulff, brother and sister. The founder of the business is Elsa Wulff, their mother.

Location: The business, which got its start in Olympia, is now based in Tumwater.

Type of business: Retailer of healthful treats, food and other supplies for dogs and cats

Years in business: Mud Bay’s origins start as a general store/farm store in 1988 before it began to evolve into the store it is today soon after that.

Employees: 326

Locations: 33, spread throughout Western Washington and Western Oregon

Online: mudbay.com

Advice to business owners: Find the right business partner, build a good leadership team and be inclusive and open with your employees. A business is much more than an Excel spreadsheet, the Wulffs said.

Did you know? People who work for Mud Bay are known as “muddies,” and ever since the 25th anniversary of the business, Mud Bay has had an annual gathering for the company called “Mudstock.” This year’s Mudstock, which happened Thursday (Aug. 20), took place at Green River Community College. All the stores closed for the day and employees were bussed in from as far as Oregon. This year’s event also was notable because that was the day the company executed its employee stock ownership plan.

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