December 6, 2019 | Story by: Jennifer Timar
This article originally appeared here.
A Livingston County family in the wholesale stuffed animal business has brought their bears, dinosaurs, unicorns and other cuddly creatures home.
The Bear Factory, a build-your-own and custom stuffed animal business, has relocated its company headquarters and North American distribution center to Green Oak Township near Whitmore Lake from its previous location Wixom.
“You always want to be where your roots are,” said owner Jerry McLean, of Howell. He founded the company with his late wife, Renee McLean, in 2000.
His daughter, Keia McLean, and her fiancé, Jimmy Banish,, of Hamburg Township help him run the business. His plan is for them to take over when he retires.
Jerry McLean said their new 27,000-square-foot building at 10609 Hi Tech Drive has given them more space to move the nearly 4 million stuffed animals that come through their distribution center on average a year.
Even more stuffed animals are distributed to about 25 countries, from China to England, Brazil to Australia, by distribution companies affiliated with their company.
McLean said the company has competed somewhat with Build-A-Bear Workshop, but their business model is different.
“We saw the concept of build-your-own, and we wanted to go toe-to-toe with Build-A-Bear,” McLean said.
But unlike Build-A-Bear, The Bear Factory doesn’t operate retail stores.
Instead, they sell plush skins, stuffing and stuffed animal clothing and accessories to retailers, zoos, amusement parks, hotels and resorts, hospitals, schools and many other types of businesses, including Fortune 500 companies.
“For example, we do a lot of resorts that have children come and it’s an activity they can do, hand-stuffing their animals,” McLean said.
He said they have “well over 100 different styles of plush and 240 different styles of clothing, and we customize everything.”
The Bear Factory sells stuffing machines.
They also sell kits that allow customers to stuff their own plush animals by hand.
“For Kalahari Resorts, we do a four-piece line of their characters and custom-design their boxes,” McLean said.
LaFontaine Automotive Group, which owns several automotive dealerships in the state, orders custom-stuffed animals for company parties and giveaways.
Howell Township indoor play business Castaway Play Café features a Create-a-Pal area filled with The Bear Factory products.
“The kids pick out one of the bears or other animals and they aren’t stuffed yet, and then they pick out a heart, star or little angel with sayings or words, like love, peace,” said Britney Molnar, the play café’s customer service manager. “They do a little dance, make a wish and put it inside their bear. It makes them feel special and is supposed to bring them to life.”
Molnar said Castaway Play Café has a stuffing machine that kids crank themselves
“They can choose outfits, Spider-Man. We also have a super bear and a bat bear, princess outfits, sleeping outfits and basically everything you can imagine,” she said. “Parents will tell them, if you’re good today, you can get one. It’s a little reward.”
Banish, the company’s COO, said one of their international customers is Hamleys, an Indian-owned toy store company originally founded in London more than 250 years ago.
“It’s like the Toys “R” Us of Europe,” Banish said.
Schools also order stuffed animals for fundraisers.
Several libraries use them as reading buddies kids can read to.
They also participate in charity events, including one this fall at Northstar Reach Camp in Unadilla Township, a camp for kids with chronic or life-threatening health issues near Pinckney.
“They bought some and we donated some. Donors would by a kit and then get an animal to a kid at camp,” Banish said.
He said the company is moving toward becoming more environmentally sustainable and also trying to educate children about wildlife conservation.
“For our Operation Conservation initiative, we identified 13 animals in our line that are endangered,” he said. “We made cards on recycled stock with information on every animal to start educating kids of this stuff.”
He said they are also offering recycled fiber stuffing. For every box of the stuffing they sell, two trees are planted through the National Forest Foundation.
“The big thing we want to incorporate into the company is sustainability,” Keia McLean said. “We want to get this company closer to Green Leaf (standards).”
She said she loves the business she’s in.
“We get to make kids smile,” she said. “That’s the biggest part of the business.”
She said she fondly remembers times when she sees kids holding their stuffed animals.
“One of the coolest times was we were at Atlantis (Paradise Resort) in the Bahamas, and we would see kids with our stuffed animals at the airport,” she said.