Made in the Tri-States: Innovative Dubuque company makes international splash

LuAnn Bafico performs quality testing on gates at Smart Retract in Dubuque on Thursday, Dec. 27, 2018. PHOTO CREDIT: NICKI KOHL

The big idea that launched Smart Retract began with one little puppy.

Marc Pichik, CEO of the Dubuque-based company, decided to get a dog in the late 1990s. Like many pet owners, he started looking for a gate that would block the canine’s access to certain areas of the house.

Pichik recalls being less than impressed with the products on the market. The big, clunky gates were a far cry from the sleek and compact products he envisioned.

Pichik decided to take matters into his own hands.

“My mindset shifted from wanting to buy one to wanting to make one,” he said.

The desire to build a better gate culminated in the creation of Smart Retract, a thriving business that creates a variety of innovative, retractable products.

The company is perhaps best known for the Retract-A-Gate, a retractable, mesh safety gate for both pets and children.

The product features two pairs of brackets, which can be mounted on everything from a wall to a stair post. The user then can pull a handle to extend the mesh material from one side of the opening to another, blocking access to rooms, stairs or any other desired areas.

Since 2010, the products have been created within Smart Retract’s facility at 2530 Kerper Boulevard in Dubuque.

About two decades after the business was launched, the company has established a foothold in both national and international markets.

“We ship internationally every day directly from Dubuque,” said Pichik.

TRI-STATE ROOTS

The concept for Smart Retract was hatched when Pichik was living in the northwest suburbs of Chicago.

By the time he launched the company, however, he had moved to the tri-state area.

Pichik found an old, historic barn in Galena, Ill., renovated it and turned it into a small workplace. Launching the business was an around-the-clock undertaking.

“I pulled many all-nighters building the gates,” he recalled. “I would market and sell them during the day. I was working every day to build the business.”

The hard work soon paid off.

Pichik remodeled an additional part of the barn to accommodate his growing business. But the extra space only served as a temporary fix.

He turned his attention to a facility at 2530 Kerper Blvd., knowing that the location would provide the necessary space, access to services and proximity to workers that were needed to grow the business. The location also reconnected Pichik — who grew up in Elkader — to his northeast Iowa roots.

Economic development officials were elated to see an investment along Kerper Boulevard.

“We thought it was awesome and showed real vision,” said Dan McDonald, vice president of existing business for Greater Dubuque Development Corp. “He doubled down with that site on Kerper. It is one of those original industrial areas in Dubuque, and it is really neat to have someone find a property there and make it better.”

Within the walls at 2530 Kerper, staffers conduct a wide range of work.

Employees slit and cut the fabric to particular and precise dimensions. The material is further refined through a combination of sewing, stitching and hot-air welding.

Staffers assemble the gates and put them through rigorous testing before they make it to market.

Workers also package the gates and associated hardware kits and store them in the warehouse. The company then fulfills its orders, shipping the product throughout North America and beyond.

Smart Retract employs 10 workers in Dubuque, and Pichik said he is looking to add more staff.

“We have a very unique business model,” he said. “Most companies focus on one thing. They are a manufacturer, or they are a distributor, or they are a retailer. Our business model combines all of those things together.”

GLOBAL REACH

Pichik said sales of the Retract-A-Gate are split pretty evenly between customers with children and those with pets.

The lion’s share of sales are made directly to the consumer via the company website. However, Pichik said the company is gaining traction with wholesalers.

Onlookers have admired Smart Retract’s sense of focus.

“(Pichik) developed something that is unique and stuck to it,” McDonald said. “He is not trying to be all things to all people. Instead, he is providing and perfecting an excellent product for certain market sectors.”

Via increased media attention and an appetite for global expansion, the Smart Retract name is spreading.

Since late 2017, the business has been featured in a segment that aired on the Hallmark Channel, as well as news pieces that appeared on television channels in Milwaukee and Washington, D.C.

Smart Retract in 2017 was featured in the Google Economic Impact report, a publication that highlights small businesses that have successfully built their online sales channels.

While the business started with a domestic approach, its presence recently has extended beyond U.S. borders.

Today, Smart Retract has sales and support offices in the United Kingdom, France, Germany and the Netherlands.

Pichik explained that the contracted workers in these countries allow Smart Retract to connect with international customers in a way it otherwise could not.

“It is meant to be a familiar and localized buying process,” Pichik said. “Everything from the language to the currency to the shipping process.”

The expanding global presence underscores how far the company has come — from an idea borne out of necessity, to a startup in a barn, to a thriving business with a global presence.

McDonald is proud that such a story is taking place in Dubuque.

“He has a global reach, and I think (the business) is further putting Dubuque on the map,” he said.