Stuffed with love for the young at heart

Cathy Carlisle – Director of Manufacturing, Vermont Teddy Bear Company, Shelburne, Vermont

Article | 20 October 2020
Dr. Nancy has the best job: the Teddy Bear Doctor. She provides the love, care and attention to their customers’ bears by restoring them to original health. ILO Photos/ John Isaac
“Every bear we make is going to end up in the hands of someone who will love it” says Cathy Carlisle.

As director of manufacturing for the Vermont Teddy Bear Company, Cathy and the entire team have a shared commitment - making people happy with the perfect teddy bear. Founded in a local garage forty years ago, today Vermont Teddy Bear employs around 120 people at its factory in Shelburne, Vermont.

“One of my main jobs is to plan, at least a year in advance, how many bears we need to produce each month to keep both production and the staff at the same level all year around” says Cathy. “We're watching our efficiencies each day. We're tracking how many bears did we make and what do we need to make next. There’s a lot of planning and organizing involved.”

Vermont Teddy Bear makes dozens of models of teddy bears to suit everyone, from your basic cuddly bear to Teddy Astronauts and Angels, sports and occupation-themed bears and “quirky” bears dressed up as a hot pepper, a slice of pizza or even a strip of bacon. Each bear is hand-made, artisan quality and is guaranteed for life.

The “Bear Hospital” repairs and restores any bear returned to the factory for whatever reason. As the company’s whimsical website has it, while the injured bear is undergoing treatment, it will have “premium accommodations including the finest health care staff, exceptional dining facilities and use of the day spa.”

Nancy Robert is the “Teddy Bear Doctor” in charge, repairing and restoring damaged bears sent back to the factory. “It’s fun opening the box and wondering, what am I going to get this time” says Dr. Nancy. “I never get bored. I’m making people of all ages happy, from little ones who can’t sleep without their bear to 80 year olds who can’t, either. It’s beautiful and it’s heartwarming, especially the letters I get.”

The variety and artistry that goes into each bear appeals to the very young and the young heart. ILO Photos/ John Isaac
Another labor of love for Vermont Teddy Bear is the weekly visit to a local children’s hospital. The team brings bears that are partially stuffed, the children choose one and help finish it.

“We put a little heart into the bear and make a wish before we sew it up and include an adoption certificate which shows the day and the time” says Cathy. “It’s just a small part of my job, but to see the smile that puts on those children’s faces makes me feel great. It reminds me that every bear we make is going to be important. It’s going to someone who is really going to love it.”

Cathy’s own career path started out in the apparel industry, first as a buyer for a retail store and then moving into the manufacturing side. She learned about production processes, supply chain management, ordering fabrics, budgeting and planning. It clicked for her. “I always had an analytical mind. I like to solve puzzles and problems and I still do jigsaw puzzles. I really enjoy figuring out, how do we put all the pieces together? How do we make this happen?”

Working between Los Angeles, New York and Florida she and her husband, also from the Northeast met in L.A in the early 1980s. Together they decided to relocate to Vermont and Cathy connected with Vermont Teddy Bear.

Today, she directs the planning, sourcing, budgeting and purchasing of the materials that go into every Vermont Teddy Bear. She also works on the development side and has helped bring a number of Teddy Bear designs to market.

One of Cathy’s most challenging roles is figuring out the size of the labor force, how many people are needed on the shop floor each month, in each position or department. That can mean bringing on up to 800 additional workers during the peak sales seasons of Christmas and especially Valentine’s Day.

Vermont is a very welcoming place to migrants and the diverse and inclusive workforce at the Vermont Teddy Bear Company has that on full display. Here, a skilled tailor provides the finishing touches on bears that will be loved by children everywhere. ILO Photos/ John Isaac
“We can sometimes ship 30,000 packages during the peak season” says Cathy. “Leading up to the biggest sales days, there’s a huge challenge of making these people feel welcome and also working together as a team with a sense of urgency.”

The manufacturing team is trained to work in all of the company’s operations, from fulfilment to personalization, allowing Vermont Teddy Bear to react quickly to changing market demands and peak selling periods. “It’s very important to have the ability and the right attitude to do whatever it takes” Cathy says. “I’ve worked until midnight along with the rest of the team to get the teddy bears out the door, doing something that’s totally outside my normal day to day activities when it’s not peak season.”

To make it work, Cathy says good people skills, especially the ability to communicate well are the key. “It’s about fostering a sense of teamwork and pride” she says. “We want people who are coming to work to be excited about their jobs and want to stay here.” The company has many long-term employees who have been with the company for 20-plus years, including Cathy herself.

And mastering the challenges of meeting customer demand, Cathy says, is what keeps her job exciting. “There’s an incredible gift that’s coming to them on Christmas or Valentine’s day. It’s so satisfying to make people happy.”