When Craig Wilson returned to Colorado five years ago and started scouting new business opportunities, the first thing that impressed him about Camp Bow Wow, a chain of premium doggy day care centers, wasn’t the margins, the staff, or the well-behaved canines.
“I was surprised it didn’t smell like dogs,” he said.
Soon after visiting that first Camp Bow Wow, Wilson invested $700,000 in setting up his own franchise at 1620 S. Abilene St. in Aurora. Customers quickly responded to the same professionalism and quality care that Wilson initially observed, and nine months after opening in October 2014, he broke even on his investment.
Wilson’s story wouldn’t be remarkable if it hadn’t been going on amid Camp Bow Wow’s transition from a founder-led enterprise to a subsidiary of a national chain.
Two months before Wilson opened his franchise, founder Heidi Ganahl sold Camp Bow Wow to VCA Inc., a national chain of veterinary hospitals based in Los Angeles, for an undisclosed sum.
Though the deal created some uncertainty at the time, the new ownership has maintained the operation's growth. Still based in Broomfield, Colorado, Camp Bow Wow in 2015 generated almost $100 million in revenues and recorded a 13 percent annual growth rate, more than double the pet care industry’s 5 percent rate, according to the American Pet Products Association.
Back in 2000, when Ganahl opened the first Camp Bow Wow in Denver, her design choices stemmed from personal experience. She and her husband traveled a lot, she says, and they didn’t like leaving their dogs in traditional kennels, where dogs are locked in cages for much of the day with few breaks, little attention, and minimal exercise.
Ganahl first envisioned the summer-camp-for-dogs concept that has attracted Wilson and millions of other dog-lovers since she began franchising in 2003.
The basic idea was simple. Instead of “You go to Hawaii, and your dog goes to jail,” as Camp Bow Wow’s current president Christina Russell puts it, Camp Bow Wow began offering a high-end alternative. There are temperature-controlled environments, dog-loving employees, and now live-streaming webcams for patrons to check in on their pets from afar.
Camp Bow Wow also offers training, grooming, a small selection of pet care products for sale, and as of 2009, in-home care for the 5 to 10 percent of dogs it turns away. Dogs must be older than four months, spayed or neutered, and pass a staged behavior evaluation in order to receive service.
The premium services come with a price – starting at $25 for a single day of care and $39 for a night – that many dog owners are willing to pay to keep their beloved pets out of traditional kennels.
Though the business struggled in its early years, it found its footing. According to a report in the Wall Street Journal from August 2014, the month Ganahl sold the company, Camp Bow Wow had generated $71 million in sales the previous year and employed around 3,500 people across 122 camps and seven house-call operations.
Nearly two years after the sale, there are now 134 Camp Bow Wow enterprises operating around the country, with 35 more set to open within the next year, according to Russell.
Ganahl remains involved in Camp Bow Wow’s operations in an advisory role, but she is currently focused on campaigning for an at-large seat on the University of Colorado Board of Regents.
Russell now runs the day-to-day operations out of the company’s Broomfield office. She spent 15 years working for Curves International, the women’s fitness franchise, before taking over the leash at Camp Bow Wow in 2014. As a dog lover herself, Russell says the opportunity appealed to her mission-driven sensibility.
“Everyone here really loves dogs,” she said, “we have dogs in the office all the time.”
But Russell faces a challenge familiar to other executives who have taken over previously founder-led companies: How to uphold the singular vision that made the company successful while expanding the business?
Russell says her main focus has been transitioning to the next generation of franchises. Many of the 10-year contracts early franchisees made with Ganahl are expiring soon.
“Eight are up for renewal this year and closer to 20 are up in 2017,” she said.
So far, it appears to be going okay. In addition to the industry-beating growth, Russell reported that Camp Bow Wow had 15 current franchise owners invest in either second or third locations in 2015.
Although his franchise opened after the sale, Wilson says he barely noticed the change in leadership as he was getting things set up.
It’s not all kibble and fetch, however. Wilson has had some issues with the head office since opening.
“Sometimes they won’t let me do what I want to do,” he said. But overall, he says they’ve been “extremely helpful,” adding he's already fairly certain he will renew his 10-year contract when it expires.
“If things stay the way they are, I’ll probably try to open a second location in the next couple of years.”