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Oregonian: Economy Dives, but he Thrives

United States, May 22, 2008

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Fred Leeson

The Oregonian
May, 2008

The name came to Symon Lee in the shower.

The former industrial designer was about to make his first venture into retailing and needed a name for a pet-supply store that would appeal equally to dog and cat lovers.

He wanted it to reflect the allegiance shared by pets and doting humans, and to convey a sense of family. More deeply, Lee hoped it would reflect his desire that his business would survive someday without him.

While water cascaded from the showerhead, Lee's brain formulated the novel word: Furever.

Lee, a native of Singapore, opened 1,200-square-foot Furever Pets on a side street in the grip of recession in 2003. After expanding into a storefront at 1902 N.E. Broadway in 2004, Furever is growing again into an adjacent storefront while the economy skids.

"A recession might not seem like the best timing," Lee says, "but if I pass it up, I may wait five or 10 years or not get it at all."

Lee, 42, spent 11 years as an industrial designer, working on toys, computer accessories and high-tech medical equipment. His life turned in September 2001. While he was visiting his ailing mother -- a successful retailer in Singapore -- the terrorists struck.

As the tech bubble burst, Lee's employer sliced jobs. His was saved, but the cuts meant more stress. "The whole world changed," he says. "My perspective changed as well. I'd always wanted to be my own boss."

Lee spent a year studying three potential businesses -- a cafe, a bed-and-breakfast inn and a pet-supply store. He had sought premium food for his allergy-stricken golden retriever, and his research suggested that pets were an expanding industry.

Early on, he received financial assistance from Mercy Corps Northwest, a nonprofit that works with minority and immigrant startups in the area.

"He has been one of our most successful clients," says Anthony Gromko, a Mercy Corps loan officer. "He has grown his business significantly from year to year.

"Our goal is to move startups into a situation where they are bankable -- able to walk into a bank and get loans when they need them. He has achieved that."