NEW YORK(CNNfn) - What does an international road rally have in common with frog-blazoned T-shirts and trinkets? The answer is Peace Frogs, a retail company that celebrates its totem animal - a little green croaker waving a peace sign as a logo - by organizing an annual auto race and donating the proceeds to frog research.
Company president and founder Catesby Jones was a junior in college in 1985 when he started creating clothing that reflected his fascination with flags.
"I was an international relations major at the University of Virginia and I came up with this idea to make shorts with the flags of different countries," he explained. "I was going to call them Iron Curtains."
Jones sewed up a pair and wore them around campus. Other students clamored for the flag designs, but when the Iron Curtain fell, Jones' marketing idea lost its meaning, forcing him to trade flags for frogs.
Trademarks of peace
"The frog is the American Indian symbol for peace and it's significant in all these different cultures," Jones said. "So I thought it would be a great name for international flag shorts. I just put a green frog on there. And people were really into the frog. And it just sort of hit."
The young entrepreneur quickly learned about production and operating costs when the little green frogs brought in $30,000 in sales for the first year, $80,000 the second.
"I have to, you know, sort of quantify (those figures) in that I was making the shorts for something like 17 bucks and selling them for 13," he said. "I ordered a bunch of fabric out of New York and they shipped 'em into my dorm room. I had a credit card so I put cash against my credit cards to pay for my fabric."
Despite selling at the low cost, Jones knew there was a market for the product. When graduation day rolled around, he decided to leap into frogwear full time. He moved his operation to his hometown of Gloucester, Va., and expanded his product line to include T-shirts and boxer shorts.
"I just continued to do what I was doing," said Jones. "I just tried to keep expanding it and getting it bigger and bigger and that's kind of how it's grown into what it is now."
Varying the Frogs retail space
Peace Frogs is now a thriving retail brand with a peppy retro image that its target teenage market loves. Customers can find the product line in an assortment of retail outlets from company-owned boutiques and department stores to the Peace Frogs catalog and Web site.
Jones opened his first retail store in Washington's Georgetown neighborhood in 1990, and then expanded through franchising kiosk space in shopping malls.
"We have 18 stores right now," said Andrew Crosby, the company's public relations director. "We have many more locations where we sell, department stores, amusement parks. We have about 1,500 locations where our products actually appear."
Peace Frogs capitalizes on fun. This year the company started to roll out a fleet of Volkswagen vans painted in psychedelic colors to serve as mobile markets [1.5M Quicktime movie].
"And we roll them into amusement parks, into concerts, into malls," explained Crosby. "These are actually operations that people can license and we have franchises that way."
Funding frog studies
Frog fans gush about the cute little green guys, loving the look but also proud to support a worthy cause.
"One of the most important things right now in environmental studies is the decline of amphibians," Jones said.
Scientists have known for years that something is killing and deforming frogs around the world. They are disappearing from cloud forests in Costa Rica, from highland rain forest in Australia, in California and in Arizona.
"We don't support any kind of activism or anything like that. It's mainly just research," said Crosby. "And we send students from the U.S. to the tropics to the Organization for Tropical Studies where they do semesters of research on tropics, on tropical research and frogs and amphibians of all kinds."
Each year, the company publicizes its commitment to the cause with an international road rally that starts near the Peace Frog's home base in Virginia, winds around the United States and ends up thousands of miles away. Last year, the finish line was in Alaska, this year, it was in Costa Rica.
"We had an old beat up Oldsmobile Omega," said Jonathan Boocock, this year's winner. "Everybody else had four wheel drives and we had a nasty old wood roof rack on it. I paid $500 for the car."
Participants ante up $1,000 to enter a team that spends a couple of grueling weeks crisscrossing the country to reach distant checkpoints, racking up points for finding obscure frog-related items or performing silly stunts like discussing the contest on live radio.
The winner earns $10,000 and the contest proceeds go to frog research.