Story and Photography By Carolyn Bowers
She never took a course in finance or wrote a business plan, and yet Sally Winey has taught entrepreneurship at several colleges around the country. Her vitae? Graduate of Cedar Cliff High School and Harrisburg Area Community College. Married for 36 years and mother of three children. Internationally known teddy bear design artist. Founder and sole owner of two highly successful teddy bear businesses. Small business bellwether for the U.S. economy.
Sally Winey recently relocated her Sally Winey Bears business to Olde Southport Village off Howe Street in Southport. Actually, both of her businesses are there, in what she calls her “working studio.” Winey designs and makes limited-edition bears for individuals and events. She also makes customized keepsakes out of material provided by the customer. But she is probably best known as the teddy bear doctor. Winey repairs and rejuvenates old, beat-up bears and other stuffed animals if their owners just can’t part with them.
In a strong economy, Winey emphasizes the expensive limited-edition bear business. During hard times, she pushes the repair business. If she had an MBA, she would talk about how she has created a counter-cyclical business and made herself recession-proof. But instead, she modestly says, “I just go with the flow.”
Economic forecasters take note: While Winey’s teddy bear repair business has been in the forefront for the last several years, the limited-edition business is beginning to pick up. That may be a more reliable leading indicator than the ones the government uses to forecast where the U.S. economy is headed.
Winey’s teddy bear business began the day after she came home from the hospital with her third child. A friend had suggested that she give her two older children a doll before she brought their sibling home. She didn’t have the money to buy them a doll or the time to make them. So the day after she got home, she made three little teddy bears. And, unbeknownst to her at the time, an amazing career was suddenly launched. A career that would span three decades, throw her family into bankruptcy, be restructured and reborn several times, take her all over the world and make her one of the foremost teddy bear designers of all time.
Winey’s career jump started in 1988 when two heart doctors asked her to make a bear/pillow that recovering heart patients could squeeze against their chest to mitigate the pain when they coughed. Winey came up with “Sir Cough-a-Lot.” That business was eventually sold, and the new owners outsourced the bear manufacturing to China. Today, almost 25 years later, Sir Cough-a-Lot bears are still being given to heart transplant patients in hospitals all over the country. Although she no longer gets any revenue from her original design, Winey says, “I know in my heart that I have helped a lot of people, and that is good enough for me.”
Another defining moment came when Winey tried to enter a show for teddy bear artists. She was denied because, at that point, she wasn’t nationally known. However, the committee did agree to let her come as the repair doctor. In her characteristic, “I can parlay this into something more” fashion, she reasoned that one could certainly expect to see pregnant bears in a bear hospital. So she made a line of pregnant bears — and sold them all. And that was the last time that anybody ever told Sally Winey she couldn’t enter a bear artists’ show!
As her business grew, Winey enlisted her family to help out. Her daughters helped cut out, stuff and assemble the bears’ body parts, and her son and husband did the heavy lifting every time she needed her equipment moved. Occasionally even a neighbor or two got involved when she was in danger of missing a deadline. Winey gets a bit misty-eyed when she recalls these fond memories from yesteryear.
In addition to her obvious artistic ability and business acumen, Winey is the quintessential marketer. She has sold her bears on QVC and Home Shoppers Network, been featured on the Discovery Channel, produced a “how-to” video and written a book with her daughter Mindy. But the real coup is yet to come.
When Winey met best-selling author William Forstchen by chance, he was surprised to learn that Winey was the one who had restored his daughter’s dinosaur after it had been lost for 19 years. He was evidently so impressed with Winey the person and Winey the bear artist that he invited her to collaborate with him on a children’s book about lost animals. She will make the stuffed animals and he will write the book. Working title, “Land of the Lost.” Publisher and publication date, as yet unknown. Huge sales, guaranteed.
If you visit the Winey Bear shop in Southport you will see a collection of several hundred bears of all sizes and descriptions, but that isn’t what will amaze you the most. The real attention-getter is watching Winey sew up a bear’s foot on her 1886 Singer Sewing machine. This is the only machine she has ever owned and the one she used to make all 20,000 handmade bears.
Throughout her 30 years of business ups and downs, Winey has consistently supported her favorite causes. She was instrumental in founding and funding Dove House, an advocacy center for abused children in Statesville, N.C. She also helped start the Polly KlaasKids Foundation, an organization formed to help prevent crimes against children. If you own a “Polly” Winey Bear, you, too, have helped support this organization.
Financially speaking, Winey’s greatest contribution was the bear she made for an event to raise money for the victims of the 1995 earthquake in Osaka, Japan. That bear topped the charts at $60,000! That’s right. That really is 60,000 American dollars, and not Japanese yen.
Winey’s current project involves making limited-edition bears as a fund-raiser for the Southport Visitors Center. These were first on display for the filming of “Safe Haven” and are now available for sale at the Visitors Center in the Garrison House on Moore Street in Southport.
Winey also teaches classes in bear making for both children and adults. She has teamed up with Debra Nelson to offer coffee and freshly baked goodies along with her sewing instruction. When the weather cooperates, classes are held on her newly enlarged porch.
Sally Winey, bear artist, college lecturer, marketer, sewing instructor, author, video producer, shop owner. No wonder her daughter said, “My mom taught us you can be whatever you need to be.”
Winey says the need to earn money was what motivated her to take on all those roles. However, after spending some time with her, one walks away with the impression that she has always been more motivated by a deep desire to share her exuberance for life and to give the gift of unconditional love through the expression of joy, sympathy, contentment or humor on the face of each distinctive Winey Bear.
To learn more about Winey Bears, you can visit the website at www.SallyWineyBears.com , or call Winey at (704) 746-4928. Or, better yet, the next time you are in Southport, visit her and meet these extraordinary bears at 1102 N. Howe Street.