Entrepreneurship Uncaged

Cages by Design owner turns recession into opportunity

Story by John R. Ingrisano

Between grandfathers who started Neenah-based Cummings Electric and J. J. Keller & Associates, as well as family real estate ventures, Adam Keller has business flowing through both sides of his family tree.

“At the dinner table, the conversation was always business,” said Keller, founder and president of Neenah-based Cages by Design and a handful of other businesses.

This is perhaps why, when the recession brought his business to its knees several years ago – down by 40 percent almost overnight – he regrouped, retooled, and reinvented a major portion of his business that custom builds bird and reptile cages and aquariums. Today, Cages by Design is re-emerging on a solid path for renewed growth and remains the country’s top build-to-order animal cage provider.

“When I was a kid, I built habitat cages and had animals of every kind,” Keller said in a recent interview with New North B2B. “When I left for college to study architecture, I put an ad in the paper and sold them all.”

Discovering that he preferred business to college, he began building and selling more cages from his apartment. That was the beginning of what is now a multi-million dollar business – peaking at $3 million before 2008, and now back up to annual sales of more than $1.5 million – that currently employs 12 fulltime employees.

It just seemed natural to go into business. “My grandfather founded J. J. Keller,” he explained, adding that his father now runs the company, and his brother and sister work there as well. On his mother’s side of the family, his grandfather started Cummings Electric. Plus, “my mother has been building and managing apartment rentals since before I was born,” he said. “It’s in my family. We’re always talking business. It’s who we are.”

Among the more famous customers of his own business, Cages by Design partnered with Jack Hanna and the Columbus Zoo in 2007 to completely renovate their holding room for promotional animals. The company also had a claim to fame on MTV, “tricking” out a terrarium for the backseat of a customized car on the show, Pimp My Ride. Keller has also helped create custom habitats in several episodes of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.

Other customers include actors Nicholas Cage and Will Smith, as well as several professional football and hockey players.

Business has been good, but Keller has had his share of hurdles to clear along the way.

And then came the recession…

“When the economy sank, sales dropped 40 percent overnight,” Keller said. “Our cost structure was too high. I was used to doubling my numbers every year.”

Keller admits he was stunned, completely caught by surprise. “I had to go through all my numbers and make tough decisions.”

He leased out one third of his total square footage and admits that he “cut costs we would not have had the nerve to cut years ago.” One of the toughest choices was to pare down his payroll from 17 employees to seven.

As part of retooling the business, Keller explained, “We did strategic thinking, numbers playing.” Under his previous business model, Keller sold custom-built animal cages. The company sold its products across the country and internationally, doing business in Panama, South Korea and Lebanon, often selling cages for thousands of dollars each. His top-of-the-line brand of cages, Majestic Enclosures, are for people who “want a furniture piece that will match their end tables and China cabinet.” They are made of solid wood, with fully-lined aluminum interiors. Keller realized these high-end products were especially vulnerable to economic declines.

So, he added a lower-price product line called Cages Under $500. These products are simply imported and re-sold. However, Keller went beyond just a new product line. He reviewed revenue sources and ended up looking into totally new opportunities. 

… and Serenity Aquarium Services

“We came up with a strategy to get into the service end.”

In a direction away from simply providing another product, Keller launched Serenity Aquarium Services, which places large bird cages and aquariums in business and office lobbies. Keller designs and sets up the cages and aquariums, also providing the animals and the food. It’s a perfect addition to a waiting room area or work environment that adds personality and character to any room. The client has almost no maintenance responsibilities.

“We don’t just sell a cage and we’re done. This is a monthly service business,” Keller said.

With bird enclosures, for example, “we come in every three months to clip nails, give shots, check the animals’ health, and clean the cages or tanks,” Keller explained.

They also replace birds as needed. “We do it all for one monthly price.”

Each project is customized.

“We let the customers tell us what they want. Then we build it.”

It’s a business model that works – Keller now has a hundred accounts throughout six states in the Midwest. “We are mostly in nursing homes, assisted living facilities, lawyer’s offices, bank lobbies, dentists’ offices, hair salons, anything with a lobby,” said Keller. It takes time to build this type of full-service business, and they are seeing positive results. “Today, we have five employees servicing this end of the business, and we’re growing.”

Though it is labor intense, Serenity Aquarium Services has also evolved into a labor of love. Financially, the key benefit to this service business is that it creates ongoing, monthly income flow for the company. However, Keller found that this new business endeavor is about much more than just turning around his sales numbers.

“There was a testimonial I received after I installed an aquarium in a home for developmentally challenged kids. There was a little boy in a wheel chair. He is blind and cannot talk and had never walked. He entered the room and the first thing he hears is the bubbles in the aquarium, and he stands up for the first time.

“You would not believe how therapeutic these aquariums are for the children. That’s why I personally love installing units in nursing homes for people with limited mobility. This brings a little bit of happiness to them. They light up. This is the best part of what I do.”

The entrepreneurial instinct

How does Keller promote and market his businesses? The cages are mostly sold through the Internet, he explained.

“We used to do direct mail, but less and less these days. Without the Internet, this business would not be possible. We were the first, and now we have the brand.”

Even with business turning around, Adam Keller isn’t immune to many of the same pains other entrepreneurs face. What keeps him up at night?

“When the economy was bad, that kept me up,” he admitted. “Now it is mostly that I always have ideas running through my head. I’m always thinking about the next thing, the next project.” Keller acknowledges he is never content “being where we are. People who are that way, well, they never grow.”

Keller thrives on work. When he is not working, even his hobbies turn into side businesses. For relaxation, he bought an airport bus and converted it into a fully-equipped Packer bus. Then he converted a bigger one. Before long, he added a driver and now rents them out through a separate business, Keller Coaches (www.keller-coach.com).

He also invests in real estate.

“I guess I take after my mother,” Keller said. “I build shop spaces and mini-storage units.”

Still, his core business centers on animal cages and aquariums.

“I’ve had every imaginable reptile, parrots, snakes, two six-foot iguanas, geckos, water dragons, as well as rabbits and turtles.” Ironically, Keller added, he currently lives in a condo, which limits pets. However, he is preparing a hobby farm, where he will be able to have a number of animals.

Even though his family has experienced a good deal of success in business, Adam explained the Keller family is about more than just making money.

“My family is also very charitable,” Keller said. “When my grandfather died, his assets went into a foundation, which is still going. We believe in giving back.” 

This also explains his own personal philosophy, which as his grandfather said, is to “do more good than harm.”

“I have to be honest, to strive for quality. No matter what you do, do your best,” Keller said.

What other advice does Keller have to offer other business owners?

“Follow through. Take your ideas to completion. Also, take calculated risks.”

Mostly, he stressed, get good advisors.

“Get advisors who are successful. They can save you a lot of money. Listen to them. Then follow through. You can’t ever give up.”

Good advice, which Keller took himself, turned around his Cages by Design business when the recession gutted it … and turned his setbacks into new opportunities.


John Ingrisano is a Wisconsin-based business journalist, marketing strategist and public speaker. If you would like John to review your company’s needs or do a presentation for your business group, contact him at john@thefreestyleentrepreneur.com or call 920.559.3722.