(Independent Photo/Karen Mead-Elford)
Josh Willard (right), owner of Josh’s Frogs based in Owosso, was worried when the state shut down last March due to COVID-19. He recalls being in a restaurant when his wife, a teacher, received a phone call telling her not to come into work. Soon after, he received a call that a weekend exotic animal show he was anticipating, was also shut down. His first thoughts were directed at hoping his business, which he began in his garage in 2004, would survive the first few weeks of the crisis.
“Who buys frogs when the world is ending?” Willard questioned. The answer is – a lot of people buy frogs during a pandemic. They also buy toads, insects, axolotls, fish, turtles, plants and the supplies needed to care for a diverse assortment of exotic life.
Willard, who is from Byron, recognizes he has been extremely fortunate with his business success. As a hobbyist, starting with poison dart frogs in his garage, he moved to Owosso in 2008, expanding to the Elm Street location in 2013 – and has enjoyed 25- to 45-percent business growth every year since. He never anticipated his business would grow exponentially. He truly never anticipated 80-percent growth in 2020. He had expected and even planned for the opposite. However, if there is a 2020-21 rainbow to be found, there is likely one at Josh’s Frogs.
“It was kind of a perfect storm for us,” Willard said, discussing 2020. Because most hobby-driven reptile shows were canceled and a large portion of the population had more time at home, people flocked to the website. They had more time to research, to ask questions, to develop home hobby interests – and Josh’s Frogs had plenty to offer.
Along with the rapid growth the company has experienced, also comes the need for expansion, which is why Josh’s Frogs is moving the shipping, receiving and production departments to the former grocery store location in the Monroe Plaza in Durand. Willard had considered other local prospects, but ultimately was drawn to the Durand location because it was “all on one floor, with lots of parking and a huge wide open area for our shelves.” The former grocery store will offer 31,000-square-feet of additional space with the potential to add on in the future.
Currently, Willard has around 125 employees with 20 job openings. More job openings will be announced soon. He is even seeking a second hiring manager to help with the task. Willard is a conscientious employer with a strong belief in work/life balance, allowing for flexible scheduling for his employees. He encourages his team to limit evening scheduling when possible, with consideration for family time. His employees come from all over the country, though the majority live locally.
As well as caring for his employees, Willard is concerned about his animal products with a focus on captive-bred reptiles and amphibians. “We really believe that ethically sourcing frogs, lizards, snakes and that kind of stuff, is the future of our hobby,” he said. “I think bringing in wild-caught animals doesn’t bring in a really high quality product because the animals have to spend all that time in transit. They’re just waiting around somewhere in a box. We have a much more ecologically sound policy. Then we are able to take some of the funds we get from selling some of our animals and give back through conservation efforts.”
He said he recently had a Mantella frog sale. Mantella frogs are native to Madagascar where there is a large land development issue causing a loss of habitat. For every Mantella frog sold, Willard was sending $5 back to the Mitsinjo Association for species preservation. In one week, $450 was donated to the effort. Another conservation cause supported at Josh’s Frogs involves Lemur frogs in South America, where the donations go to support the removal of hazardous invasive plant species. Conservation projects regarding some plant species are going to be introduced soon.
As for the Durand expansion, Willard expressed considerable enthusiasm. “I’m really excited about Durand. I like small towns. It’s a really great community and there is a long history in Durand,” he offered.
“The only way we are all going to survive in normal times is focusing on community,” Willard said. “It’s definitely the only way we are going to survive in unprecedented times. We very much have a community-oriented county. I feel like so many have come along side of us and helped us grow … this culture has really been pro-business, but they have really been pro-business because they are about people. We’re all in this together and if we all work together, we can really do some cool stuff.”