After 2019 Layoffs, Former Foster and Smith Employees Pursue School, Entrepreneurship

Sep 10, 2020

The once-busy Doctors Foster and Smith complex in Rhinelander is now mostly quiet.
Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR

Cindy Hoffman is a grandmother.

She doesn’t have a job, but she’s not retired.

Instead, for eight hours a day, she’s a student.

“Yes. It is my job until I get my degree,” she said, sitting on her back porch in St. Germain.

Using her laptop, Hoffman showed off her Nicolet College learning portal.

“I’ve been on the Dean’s List now a couple of times,” Hoffman said. “If I do anything, I want to do it well.”

Now in her late 50s, Hoffman was named the college’s Academic Success Student of the Year last year.

But she’s only taking this route to an administrative professional degree and a new career because Plan A didn’t pan out.

Cindy Hoffman accesses her classes through Nicolet College's online portal.
Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR

Five years ago, Doctors Foster and Smith in Rhinelander was the largest online and catalogue seller of pet products in the country.

Cindy Hoffman was one of the hundreds of employees working there.

But last January, Petco, which owned the company, announced it was closing most Rhinelander operations and laying off 289 people.

“It was just a shock,” Hoffman said of the certified letter informing her she’d soon be unemployed.

“I was very angry. I’d been there 19 years,” she said. “I really thought I’d be retiring from there.”

The letters to Hoffman and hundreds of others came four years after San Diego-based Petco bought the locally-owned Foster and Smith. It implied the Rhinelander center would keep operating.

But the company went through two smaller rounds of layoffs in 2018 before the 2019 news.

Petco said only about 30 employees in the 2019 layoffs continued on in a different role with the company.

A sign on the doors of Doctors Foster and Smith.
Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR

Hoffman had worked in the call center, the mail department, returns, and live aquaria over the years, but now she had to pivot.

She took advantage of tuition funding for displaced workers and enrolled at Nicolet College.

Going back to school after so many years was “very intimidating,” she said. Learning was online. That was new to her. But, like others transitioning between careers, she was determined.

“They are motivated folks,” said Joe Haferman, an admissions representative at Nicolet College. “They want to proverbially grab the bull by the horns and get through it and get to their next profession. They’re very motivated students and we like working with them.”

The Doctors Foster and Smith main entrance used to direct visitors to the many departments of the company.
Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR

At 8 a.m. on a recent Tuesday morning, the huge parking lot at Foster and Smith was nearly deserted. Long gone were mornings of hundreds of people coming to work.

Jennifer Marshall saw it coming.

Jennifer Marshall, the owner of Northwoods Pets.
Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR

“I kind of had a sense that things could go south,” Marshall said. “I kind of saw the writing on the wall.”

After working for three years in the Foster and Smith retail store, she got a letter just like Hoffman’s.

“Sixty days,” she said. “A sixty-day notice that we were going to be basically out of a job.”

But the same day the letter came, Marshall started planning for what was next.

She planned to open her own pet store.

Starting in a tiny rented space, the store soon expanded to a full storefront in the Shopko plaza in Rhinelander.

Hundreds of animals are for sale at Northwoods Pets.
Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR

Northwoods Pets sells supplies for common pets. It also sells pet reptiles, fish, small mammals, and more.

Marshall and her husband had to take a major leap to open the store.

“I’ve taken some owner draws just to cover bills, personal bills, but I don’t pay myself,” she said. “I’m not trying to rah-rah myself, but I basically emptied out my IRA to do this. I cleaned out my IRA. It was $100,000.”

While Marshall doesn’t pay herself much, she’s now employing other people laid off from Foster and Smith, like Tiffany Marvin.

“I actually found out from the news that we were losing our jobs,” Marvin said. “It was shocking and it was hurtful, honestly. We felt betrayed.”

When Marshall started hiring for her new store, Marvin jumped on the opportunity.

“It’s just nice to work with all of the animals and see all of the people that are so happy that we’re over here now,” she said. “[They] say that it reminds them of Foster and Smith.”

Northwoods Pets provides an array of fish, reptiles, birds, and small mammals.
Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR

Business is good, according to Marshall.

She yanked open a door to an empty storefront next door.

“So this is the future,” she said.

Soon, she plans to add more retail space and an area for pet grooming.

Losing the Foster and Smith job, which she loved, stung, Marshall admitted.

But now, as a business owner, she likes this one just as much.

“I said, look at this. I come to work. Every single day, every day: puppies. Puppies come into the store every day. We get to pet puppies, you know?” Marshall said with a laugh.

Northwoods Pets in Rhinelander.
Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR

While Marshall’s new career is off the ground, Cindy Hoffman’s is about to be.

“I’ll have my administrative professional degree by next April or May,” she said. “Then I’ll have the tools to go back to work and feel confident about what I’m doing.”

After 19 years at Foster and Smith, a Wausau insurance company wants to hire her to work from home in St. Germain.

She plans to start there after she graduates from Nicolet College next spring.

It’s a graduation Hoffman will share with her oldest grandson, who will get his degree from Northland Pines High School.

“It should be fun,” she said. “My grandson said, ‘Well, then I don’t have to have a party by myself.’ I said, ‘No, we can have a party together.’”

Nicolet College awarded Cindy Hoffman for her academic efforts last year.
Credit Nicolet College