From corporate frequent flyer to furry creatures' friend

Patti Howell could probably write a book on corporate burnout.

Instead, the owner of PJ's Paws and Claws in Magnolia Village wrote herself an 88-page business plan and launched her own dream business - a small boutique store for dogs and cats - in April 2002.

Howell, once director of marketing and merchandising for Starbucks Coffee International, simply turned her back on the corporate fast track.

True, her paycheck grew with each move up the proverbial corporate ladder, but her personal time and happiness seemed to shrink with each new rung.

"I was fried," Howell, a Queen Anne resident, said of corporate life at the end. "I was totally stressed." Airports and airplanes and whirlwind business trips to foreign cities lost their allure.

With her drive and high energy and business smarts to support her, Howell has created 850 square feet of retail space in the Village that can best be described as a mini-universe from a dog and cat's perspective.

There's a feline hitching post and overhead catwalk; cushy beds, calendars, cat clocks with wagging tails, pet toys, dog birthday party stuff, sculptures, stationary (for the pets' humans), a water fountain and, of course, pet food. Howell carries various pet attire too, including, in October, Halloween costumes.

"Everything here is to enhance and reward the pet," Howell said.

The name PJ's, by the way, comes from the combination of Patti and her two cats, Jif and Jelly.

Dogs, however, are given a royal welcome in this cat owner's shop. In fact, every canine that steps through her door gets a treat.

"I have customers say that their dogs pull them into the store," Howell laughed.

Howell, who says, "I'm not making money yet, but I've never been so happy," is adding a grooming salon Jan. 7. The space in the back of the store will feature state-of-the-art equipment and a full-time, certified groomer.

It's a gutsy move, and a niche she feels she can fill. Howell is not the type to do things halfway.

A retail background

Howell, 40, grew up in Saratoga, Calif., where her dad owned the biggest grocery outlet in town. As a kid she played in the back of the store.

After her parents divorced, she moved to Seattle, settling in Queen Anne with her mother. They opened up Kay's Cookie Kitchen on the Ave in the U-District in 1979.

Howell attained a wider vision of life as a Franklin High School student in the days of busing.

"I was the only white kid on the softball team," she said of her exposure to the city's diversity, which she characterizes as fortunate and irreplaceable. Howell went on to earn her bachelor's degree in business administration and marketing at the University of Washington in 1986.

At 22, after a rigorous selection process, Howell became one of the youngest buyers ever for Eddie Bauer Inc. A four-year stint in New York City as marketing director for the North American distributor of the Wenger Swiss Army knife followed.

Still, Seattle called to her. "I liked the people," Howell recalled.

In 1998 she went to work for Starbucks.

After experiencing the downside of corporate life - the athletic Howell put on weight and stopped exercising - she drove to Lake Tahoe in Nevada to reflect.

"What am I going to do?" she asked herself. "I decided I was going to do something I could be passionate about, like Howard (Schultz) is about coffee."

That boiled down to sports and animals. Animals got the nod.

"I get to pet dogs every day," she said. "I haven't had dogs since I was a kid because I traveled so much."

Howell donates 5 percent of her profits to animal rescue and adoption agencies in King County.

When it comes to observing human nature, Howell is in the catbird seat, so to speak. Pets tend to reflect the personalities of theirs owners, she said.

Some pets are mellow. Some others are not.

"I sometimes see people stress out their animals," she noted. Howell said there is no apparent distinction between a dog and cat owner - she can't tell the difference when a new customer walks in.

Howell is playing soccer and volleyball again and is right where she wants to be - executing a meticulous business plan, staying close to home and doing something she loves.

"Half of me is organized. Half of me is creative," she smiled. "I lucked out to be a half and halfer."

PJ's Paws and Claws is at 3320 W. McGraw St.

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