March 02, 2015
Chances are, if your sporting dog has developed any number of ailments you may have some experience with North Carolina-based Happy Jack. Their line covers everything from flea and tick control to remedies for various skin problems. They are not alone in this category, but Happy Jack is unique in at least one respect: in an age of big business and corporate conglomeration they are still family-owned and operated.
The reason for this is simple, and it started in 1946 with current owner Joe Exum's grandfather, James. It all began with a basic need.
"My grandfather was a big bird hunter, and my father ended up taking care of the dogs while also working at the family hardware store," Joe recalls. "During those early years the bobwhite quail became scarce, so my father started to hunt rabbits with beagles. Eventually he started to attend field trials with the beagles and he founded Contentnea Kennels, which was named after Contentnea Creek.
"His earliest success came in the form of a male named Contentnea Jack, who was the first beagle to demand a $100 stud fee. Those fees proved to be the seed money for Happy Jack, and well into his later years Contentnea Jack was still earning those big paychecks; however, by the time he was 12 years old we had to 'help him into the saddle,' so to speak."
As the kennel grew, one of Contentnea Jack's sons, named Contentnea Jackson, became a trial dog champion, which necessitated plenty of travel. After a trip to Michigan, where he won the snowshoe event, Jackson traveled to Pennsylvania to compete in (and win) a cottontail event. Somewhere in between he contracted pneumonia and distemper, and eventually caught a skin disease that was likely mange.
"My father had a few friends who were veterinarians and physicians, which is where he got the idea to develop a home remedy for the skin disease that Jackson had caught. It ended up being called Happy Jack Skin Balm, which he bottled in fruit jars and started selling."
Happy Jack would go on to expand its product line and Joe Exum fondly recalls his early years working for the company, "My first recollection of working for Happy Jack was when I was 11 years old. My job was to put flea powder labels on our flea powder cans. The active ingredients were not stated correctly so I had to tape over the old ingredients. It paid 50 cents an hour."
Although technically part of Happy Jack for 60 years now, Joe did spend some time away from the company while serving as a captain in the Air Force from 1967 to 1972. After his military service ended, Joe was able to devote his time to Happy Jack along with his father and brother, Ashe.
Joe's father passed away in 2000, leaving Joe and Ashe to run the business. Eventually in 2004, Joe bought out Ashe's interest in the company, and as soon as the deal was finished, Joe's son Manning came on board.
For those keeping track, that makes Happy Jack a third generation company, which is something Joe is fiercely proud of.
"We get offers to get bought out all of the time. We are probably the only independent manufacturer of small animal health products left that isn't a division or arm of some larger company. We are the last ones standing," he said.
Holding tight to his familial roots leads Joe to take an active role with the company to this day and he jokes freely about his various responsibilities. "I wear many hats at Happy Jack. One day I might act as chief counsel and the next day I might be mowing the lawn. I never know, but it's what I love to do."
Running a successful business like Happy Jack is no small task, but Joe finds plenty of time for outdoor recreation. "I began hunting as a young boy. Every day after school I'd hunt squirrels or rabbits or whatever. We always ate what we killed, and still do today.
"These days I make a trip to upstate New York to hunt geese with GUN DOG publisher Tom Weaver. I also spend a lot of time with Wingshooting USA's Scott Linden. We go to North Dakota to hunt sharptails. It's a blast and exactly my kind of hunting where there is nothing contrived and you work hard for every single bird. I seem to always find time to sneak in a little pheasant hunting as well, and have found a love for fly fishing."
Joe's plate is certainly full between work, and field- and water-time, but that hasn't stopped him from expanding his responsibilities. "I also started a charity called 'Friends of Man's Best Friend,' where we try to deal with the excess population of dogs and cats.
"Our goal is to reduce admissions to shelters that might lead to euthanasia by subsidizing the costs of spay/neuter procedures for cats and dogs. Our goal is to create a no-kill shelter for Lenoir County and with the cooperation of Lenoir SPCA, we might just get there in 2016."
Exum's charity work is testament to the fact that he cares deeply about animals and is a great example of a hunter stepping up to do the right thing for the greater good.
At 71 years old, Joe Exum should be slowing down, but he's not. He jokes that he is "moving toward the retirement door" but is not likely to go through it for at least another year or two. When he does finally hang it up, his son will take over full operation of Happy Jack, which will leave Joe more time to spend with his seven grandchildren.
It will also leave him more time to spend fly fishing Canada's Bull River, beating the sagebrush in search of a few sharptails and operating his charity. He'll also probably find a little more time to play golf as well.
Due to the hard work of Joe and all of the other Exums throughout the years, Happy Jack remains a mainstay in the sporting dog world, as well as the broader small animal health category.
Given the 68-year history of the company, it's a safe bet they'll be around for many more years, developing and producing top-of-the-line pet care products, which is good news for all of us.