Originally published in Business Digest, December 1996

A Passion for Puppets

by Kathryn Trudell

Prehistoric predators in teal velveteen. Flight feathered in scarlet satin with bright golden eyes. Shimmering green dragonflies winged in gossamer. Black- clad ringmasters dancing on nearly invisible strings. To step inside FireRobin Puppets on Bridge Street in Richmond is to enter an environment where a blend of education, imagination, hard work, and dedication to a particular vision combine business acumen with the craft of puppetry.

Carol Feierabend is a hands-on small business owner. Dressed in jeans and a blue cotton turtleneck, she stands at a production table surrounded by soft-bodied parts of puppets waiting to be assembled. With practiced economy of motion, she dips the puppets into a mixture designed to prepare the puppet's face for painting. "The mixture of glue and water hardens and sets the fabric so the paint won't bleed when it is applied," she explains. The atmosphere in the store blends the casual with the magical. Feierabend's black and white English setter, Alex, pads across the floor to thrust an inquisitive nose into a visitor's hand. Shelves, racks, and ladders display myriad shapes, colors, textures, and fabrics. Playful red birds and agile brown bats share ladders with plump black whales and sleek blue dolphins. To the right of the entrance sits a large woven basket filled with colorful finger puppets. Suspended from strings, character marionettes are displayed. Sword-waving cone pirates swagger next to angels holding harps. There are wizard rod puppets, Komodo dragons, and turtles whose soft green bodies can be completely removed from their shells.

[Carol Feierabend (right) and Joan Shannon] Carol Feierabend (right), founder and owner of FireRobin Puppets in Richmond, has grown a small home-based, craft business into a wholesale business supplying more than 500 craft and specialty stores around the country. Joan Shannon, FireRobin's marketing director, demonstrates the firm's award-winning snake puppet. (Photo: Jeff Clarke)

Feierabend was born in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. Raised on a farm in neighboring Red Hook, she is the oldest of three daughters. She credits her family with influencing her decision to become a professional crafter. "I have always had their support. Not only my parents, but my sisters, Joan and Dale, as well. My mother sewed, and she taught me to sew when I was very young. I was making my own clothes by the time I was 10 years old. Like typical farmers, we were very self-reliant."

The name of Feierabend's business is intriguing. "My youngest sister, Joan, moved to Tunbridge in the late 1960s and started a home-based business that made stuffed animals and dolls. The name of her business was FireRobin -- derived from our family's last name, which is a German name, but sounds like 'fire robin'" in English. In German it literally means 'festive evening.' This is something Germans say to one another when they leave work."

The career path that led Feierabend to FireRobin Puppets actually began in her sister's business. During one busy Christmas season, Feierabend offered to work for her. "By the time the holidays were over," she recalls, "I found that I really enjoyed it. Then Joan didn't want to continue with the business, and asked me if I would like to run it. I continued the business for several years just as my sister had done."

The breakup of Feierabend's first marriage led to some big changes in her business. "I quickly realized I either had to go out and get a full-time job outside the craft field, or expand the business to the point where I could support myself and my two children. I started designing in earnest, and began attending craft fairs."

In the process, Feierabend discovered that establishing a self-supporting craft business was not easy. She refers to that period in the life of her business as "barefoot in the park.

"That was in the early '70s, " Feierabend says. "Craft fairs were quite different from what they are today. People in cutoff jeans and tank tops set up tables and sat there hoping customers would come by. The whole craft business has changed amazingly since then."

Feierabend graduated from Vassar College in Poughkeepsie in 1962. She majored in plant science and studied bacteriology and microbiology. She did not pursue a business degree. "Like a good number of people, my major in college has absolutely nothing to do with where I find myself now," she says.

"I'm a working person," Feierabend states. "I have always been a working person." Her first full-time job was with the Ohio Bell Telephone Co. as a service representative. Then she worked for the city of Cleveland as a bacteriologist. Following the birth of her son, Bruce, in 1964 she sold Tupperware. Her daughter, Amy, was born in 1968. She also operated two music schools for children, one in Poughkeepsie, and one in Burlington after IBM transferred her husband, Louis, to its Essex Junction location in 1971.

"I was a bit apprehensive about the move," she admits. "I had never been to Vermont. I pictured it as cold all the time. I thought that even in the summer you had to wear a sweater and flannel-lined jeans. Now, of course, I look back and laugh about that. I love Vermont. I plan to live here for the rest of my life."

The evolution from the stuffed-animal business she took over from her sister to the puppet-producing business she heads today was a natural one. "I literally incubated my business at the kitchen table. The stuffed animals I made evolved into animal puppets, and the dolls turned into people puppets.

"I started very differently from the way someone would start a business today. I didn't even have a business plan. I simply made what I enjoyed making, and hoped there was a customer who would buy it."

These days, there appears to be plenty of customers, and recognition for the quality of FireRobin's products is increasing. In 1995, the business won two nationally recognized Parents' Choice Honors Awards (Silver) for their Big Brown Bat Puppet and their Turtle Hand Puppet. Parents' Choice is the oldest not-for-profit consumer guide to children's toys in the country. In 1996, FireRobin Puppets received two additional Parents' Choice Awards: a Gold for their Snake Hand Puppet, and another Silver Honors for their Komodo Dragon Hand Puppet.

When Feierabend decided to grow her small part-time craft business into a family-supporting, full-time endeavor, she was selling her products at craft fairs during summers and holiday seasons. "I realized I couldn't survive earning money only six months a year," she says. "I decided the best thing for me to do was make products and sell them to stores. That would even out the business throughout the year."

Instead of craft shows, Feierabend attended trade shows and slowly built a market of small retail accounts. As the number grew, she began working with contractors to assemble the products, and in 1989 moved the business out of her home to a building across the street from FireRobin's current location on Bridge Street in Richmond. "Once the business was up and running here, I took another look at the facilities, the display windows in the front, and decided to sell in a retail setting. I am amazed at how well the retail business did. It just took off."

Feierabend also stocks puppets from other manufacturers as well as books on puppetry, greeting cards, masks, costumes, and materials for producing puppet shows. "We seldom sell directly to the person who is going to use the puppet," Feierabend notes, "except in the case of teachers. We sell quite a few puppets to teachers, to whom we give a discount, but most of people who purchase our puppets give them as gifts."

Katie Johnson is a first grade teacher in Seattle, Wash., who has written several books, and travels the country presenting workshops for teachers. She began buying Feierabend's puppets while in Vermont to present a workshop at Johnson State College. "Carol's finger puppets are perfectly-sized and wonderfully accessible for children." Johnson says. "I have purchased several hundred puppets from Carol over the years. Her craftsmanship is trustworthy, her fabrics are innovative and exciting, and she stands behind her products."

FireRobin Puppets draws praise from Mary Ann McMaster, the librarian at the Richmond Free Library. "Carol has donated finger puppets and marionettes to our library. We use them during story time, and also encourage children to play with the puppets in a special area. Being able to hold the snake and bat puppets often helps children overcome their fear of these animals.

McMaster continues, "The quality of Carol's puppets is top-notch and wonderfully expressive. She loves what she does. You can see it in her work."

Feierabend is continually adding to her business skills as well as her product line. "I take everything that comes my way," she says. "Business courses, seminars, craft courses, and computer courses. I read constantly to keep abreast of managerial practices and current business trends." She is a member of several business- and arts-related organizations, including the Richmond Business Association, Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, Vermont Small Business Network, the Vermont Arts Council, and the Vermont Crafts Council. The business makes a practice of donating puppets to groups raising money for charities, particularly those involving children and education.

She and marketing director Joan Shannon are the only full-time staffers at FireRobin Puppets. France Labrecque works about 30 hours a week as production manager and Gale Cass spends 20 hours on office work and packing and shipping. Feierabend's husband, Brian Appleberry, who works at Queen City Printers in Burlington, provides some bookkeeping and tax preparation help.

The business works with 26 stitchers and finishers -- - local area contractors who work out of their homes and set their own schedules, usually anywhere from six hours a week to almost full-time. "The majority of my artisans sew our finger puppets," Feierabend says. "We send them the die-cut parts. We have the dies here, but the actual cutting is done at various other locations. We use facilities at the Vermont Teddy Bear Co. in Shelburne, Hearthside Quilts in Shelburne, and Kitty Hoots in Colchester."

The labor-intensive nature of the products, Feierabend says, keeps profits down and makes the business vulnerable to competition from abroad. "I think most people will tell you that when a business is labor- intensive, the profits tend to be lower. That's just the way it is." A puppet that FireRobin sells for $10, she says, would cost about $4 if made in Korea or China, because of the difference in wage scales. "I believe in respecting employees and paying them as well as I possibly can," she adds.

The FireRobin staff has a passion for puppets and a commitment to serving their customers. Shannon explains FireRobin's business philosophy. "We bend over backwards to keep our customers happy. We are a puppet resource for them. We are also in the nationwide 800-number telephone directory, so people can call us for advice. I love working here. Carol is a terrific boss. She has a very open way of working with her employees. When she designs a new puppet, she puts her ideas out on the table for criticisms and suggestions from her employees. It is definitely a team effort."

The staff is enthusiastic about being one of the Vermont businesses selected to showcase their products as part of the TV cable show QVC's Vermont Week. "QVC purchased over $15,000 worth of puppets," Feierabend says. "This will give us the opportunity to display our puppets in millions of American homes. This is very exciting for us."

Inclusion in QVC's Vermont Week is the icing on FireRobin Puppets' best year ever. "During the past couple of years, our gross receipts have been about $100,000 a year," Feierabend says. "This year is projected closer to $250,000."

Frog Hollow Craft Centers in Burlington, Middlebury and Manchester, sell FireRobin products. To Annie Perkins, gallery manager in Burlington, FireRobin has found the balance it takes to make a craft into a business. "Carol's business has expanded to the point where she can keep up with our customer demands without sacrificing the hand-crafted feeling of the product."

Feierabend sees it this way. "The mission of my business is to bring more puppets into the world, and to do it in a responsible way. That means treading lightly on the earth, and using recycled and natural products whenever possible.

"I have a down-to-earth approach to an artistic endeavor. The small business I own suits me and is very compatible with what I hope to accomplish."