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Q & A with Shell Museum board member Betty English

By Staff | Jan 19, 2011

Betty English

This week’s Q & A feature is Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum board member Betty English. Read on to find out what brought this New Jersey native to Sanibel and how she revolutionized the world of pet accessories.

Where are you from?

My husband and I are both from New Jersey or (Jersey). No relation to the shows that are now on. We both grew up in little towns on the bay. I lived in the big town one mile square with stores and paved streets up on a bluff. He grew up in a little summer town that didn’t have paved roads until the 1960s and flooded to his door with a good hurricane. The nice part — we were only 15 miles to the ocean. Think of all those people coming from North Jersey and New York — what a drive they had. After several business transfers we were back in New Jersey for 20 years before we moved to Sanibel.

We were having a very hectic year and we wanted to get away for a few days, when a sales manger we worked for asked if we had ever been to Sanibel. I said we never heard of it, but it sounded great. We were here for one day when we tried to change our plane ticked to stay longer. On the third day we started looking at property. We loved the quiet and nature of the islands and, of course, I discovered shelling the first day. We started coming to Sanibel in “84”, bought our home in Seagull Estates in “87” and moved here permanently in “98.”

What’s your family like?

Since I already wrote about my husband of almost 47 years, I think you can tell John is the most important family person. We sold our store, Sanibel Spirits, in November of 2007 and I broke my knee in January of 2008 going to the Chamber Expo. I only tell this because when people say to John, “what are doing since you retired?” he tells them he is a home health care provider. He is also always there for any neighbors that are alone or ill, all they have to do is call. Although we have many nieces and nephews between us, we have two nephews that we are very close to. They are like sons to us. John’s nephew Dennis moved here from New Mexico in 2004 to work in our store and, as I picked him up from the airport, I said “Welcome to your new home — we are evacuating tomorrow” — it was August 12, 2004. My nephew Joe lives with his family in N. J. and his children are just like grandkids to us. Joe took over our business in N.J. I am also fortunate to have two cousins that are like sisters to me, really fortunate because one lives in Fort Myers and this is where we evacuate to when we have to leave the Island.

What’s your professional background?

I started out in data processing at a bank — some of you won’t know what that is, definitely showing my age. We bought our first home when I was 24 and that gave me the bug to sell Real Estate. I went to school at night and received my license, and that’s what I did for the next 10 years, moving back and forth between New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

In 1977 we moved back to New Jersey, which made both John and I happy. I had my best year ever in Real Estate and then quit. I felt when you no longer enjoy what you’re doing, it’s time for a change.

I knew I belonged in sales, but what? John had a call from a retired buyer, Don, at Newberry’s that he worked with who wanted him to come and work with him in his sales representative business. After John looked into it, he decided not to leave his job, so I said maybe I can work with Don, and that was the beginning of English Assoc.

I started out with a bowered typewriter, a $10 filing cabinet and a teen phone that I could call out on, leaving the home phone for incoming calls.

I sold items to accounts that Don didn’t cover and we split the commission, I knew that this was not going to work long term unless I got my own lines to sell.

My husband used to go to the House Ware Show in Chicago, so I went with him; I walked the show and talked to manufactures about selling their products in my area and picked up a few lines of my own. At this time, I was selling horticulture products. As time went by, sales picked up and so did the assortment of products. I was at the point of the business where I had to decide to grow or stay where I was, and so we made a decision for John to come and work with me.

At one show, before John joined, a friend at the trade show asked if I wanted to sell dog bones. It was Harper Leather Co., which made rawhide bones in the United States. We didn’t know at the time, but this was the start of our specialization in pet supplies. Two years later, we hired our nephew Joe out of college. With our reputation, we kept picking up pet product lines. We sold bones, treats, chemicals, pet dishes, beds, the carriers you see on the airlines and in all the pet shops.

In the end, before John and I retired to Sanibel, we were selling for fourteen manufacturers, from Virginia to Maine, and there were eight of us on the road, plus office help.

Our biggest competition was Hartz Mountain. English Assoc. turned out to be a very good business with a lot of work, travel and hours. This is what I did for the 20 years before moving to Sanibel.

How long have you been on the Shell Museum board?

I am in my sixth year at the Shell Museum; we have two three-year terms. I have always loved the Shell Museum — in fact, we put bricks in the Raymond Burr garden the second year we came to Sanibel.

My husband and Anne Joffe were on the Chamber Board together and Anne asked John if I might want to come on the board. I called Anne and said yes.

In what other ways have you been involved on the islands?

The first summer I was here I saw an article in the paper saying that Twelve Baskets needed people to collect food during the summer from local restaurants and take it to the mission in Fort Myers. I did this for four years, year round. I served on the board of the Schoolhouse Theater for five years. We helped get Bob Janes elected to Lee county Commission; in fact both his victory parties were at our home. We are very sorry he is gone. We also worked on several Council campaigns.

What do you do in your spare time?

I enjoy traveling, reading, caring for my Orchids and being with friends. When my back was good, I loved shelling, biking and gardening.

What’s something people might be surprised to learn about you?

What some people don’t know is that I changed the pet industry.

In the early 1980s the colors of most pet supplies had been the same for years and years. For example: dishes were brown and gold; carriers were gray; leashes were black, red and blue.

There is a saying: “Give me a reason to buy.”

I did.

The dish company we sold for had boring cat pans and dishes that went to bright colors like peach, seafoam green and wedgwood blue. Leashes and collars now had teal and plumb, among others. Even the carriers went to forest green with tan and other colors for smaller carriers. Greater sales followed because we now gave the consumer a reason to buy. Colors have changed through the years, but I stated a trend.

If you could have dinner with any person, living or dead, who would it be and why?

There are so many people I would love to have dinner with — some alive and some not. I would love to have dinner with my mother. She has been gone since I was 27 and I can’t think of anyone else that would be more important and joyful to have dinner with.

What do you enjoy most about living on the islands?

What I enjoy about living on the island is still the same reason we fell in love with Sanibel — the peace, the wildlife, the shells and beaches. Most of all, Sanibel is really a small town with a lot of caring people.

Why should people support the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum?

The reason islanders and people in general should support the museum is because we are the only shell museum in the entire United States that is solely dedicated to displaying collections of shells from all over the world. But most importantly, we also educate the public as to the many aspects of shells. We bring in busloads of children to show them the mysteries of these creatures. Our displays are not just beautiful shells, but stories about each, showing how they help with our everyday lives. Many displays are hands-on, allowing people to touch and learn.

Without the support of our public, we would not be able to do all these wonderful things.