Pastimes may just be activities to help one de-stress and get away from the humdrum of work but, for Ella Sherman, regional managing director of a real-estate firm and an animal-care volunteer, it eventually sparked a business venture – Animal Merchandise, which sells animal- themed products.

The 38-year-old UK native attributes her love for furry critters to her animal-loving family. She grew up in Newmarket, Suffolk, the birthplace of British horse racing where stallions past their prime would be left to “starve or sent to Argentina to become dog food”.

So passionate was her family about animals that, at one point, they had 28 former racehorses under their care.

“It’s taking something that is broken and miserable and turning it into something really happy and playful.”

Upon moving to Singapore in 2004, Sherman started fostering abused, battered animals rescued from “puppy mills” – places that breed dogs for the sole purpose of selling them. “They’re really scared, they’re miserable and in terrible condition,” she says. “It’s taking something that is broken and miserable and turning it into something really happy and playful.”

Besides fostering, she took up a position in SPCA’s merchandising sub-committee. Her experience there would give her insight into the market when she launched Animal Merchandise. The company commissions animal-themed designs for accessories such as tote bags and aprons, then has them made by 134-year-old Irish company Ulster Weavers, which also produces goods for Harrods.

Despite having to leave her SPCA post due to the commercial nature of her business, her work in animal care continues. Twenty per cent of the net profit is donated to pet shelters and she still fosters animals today.

“I learnt a lot in 10 years of volunteering at SPCA,” says Sherman. “It’s probably the best grounding to launch my business, because I’ve got an understanding of merchandising, what people respond to.” Besides honing her market instincts, it has also given her a leg-up in convincing retailers to carry her merchandise.

“They’d ask, ‘Who would want to buy something covered in cats?’” she explains. “I’d convince them by saying, ‘I’ve volunteered and worked in merchandising and I know that there are many people who don’t have pets, but love cute animal- themed products.’”