Magazine / People

Dog Days

“A lot of it was just timing,” Heidi Ganahl says, contemplating Camp Bow Wow’s good fortune. “It has been an interesting ride and really being tenacious about values.” Photo: Cliff Grassmick

It’s always yappy hour — pun courtesy of dog lover Heidi Ganahl — at Camp Bow Wow.

If you don’t believe it, just tune in to the Bow Wow webcams, which take you deep inside one of the doggie day and overnight camps. There you might find a boxer prancing around a lazing sloe-eyed basset hound or a pedigreed Labrador retriever gamboling with a Heinz 57 mutt.

This is Ganahl’s vision of heaven. This is her built-from-scratch expression of entrepreneurial energy. This is her puppy.

Ganahl, who received a master’s degree in health care administration from DU in 1999, has made pet play pay. She’s the brains behind the Camp Bow Wow empire — a Boulder, Colo., based corporation with 110 franchises in 40 states, an in-home pet care operation, a pooch-training program and, befitting its location, a mantra: It’s all about the dog.

The up-and-coming company is run by a pack of officers whose titles eschew pomp, though they do reflect alpha order: marketing mutt, S.O.S. dog, legal beagle—and, of course, top dog.

The pun-loving Ganahl (her 2010 self-published inspirational memoir is titled Tales From the Bark Side) is the top dog in question, and in just over a decade, she has positioned her company as a mover and shaker in an emerging pet-services marketplace. In addition to approving mentions from The Wall Street Journal, Business Week Online and CNN Money, Camp Bow Wow earned a No. 72 ranking on Entrepreneur magazine’s 2011 list of the “105 Fastest-Growing Franchises in North America.” Previously, Entrepreneur also deemed Camp Bow Wow the country’s 26th fastest-growing woman-owned business.

“I am very passionate and very optimistic,” says Ganahl, 45, explaining her success. “And I am pretty fearless when it comes to business.”

 

Looking for a plan

When it comes to dogs, Ganahl is not just fearless; she’s passionate. That’s in part because canines have played key roles in her coming-of-age and comeback stories.

She got her first dog — “a little Benji dog that the vet had found on the streets” — for her third birthday. Daisy lived for years, a faithful companion until Ganahl enrolled as an undergraduate at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

In her 20s, Ganahl married for the first time. She and her husband, Bion Flammang, shared much in common — a love of dogs, naturally, a thirst for adventure and a hankering to collaborate on a business. But what business?

“I was always very entrepreneurial as a kid. I always knew I wanted to start my own business, but I didn’t know what it could be,” Ganahl recalls.

Finally, lightning struck. Ganahl and Flammang were always off on some caper and always in something of a pickle. “We were looking for a place to keep our dogs. We had two great rescue dogs. And we were kind of wearing out my family. So we wrote the business plan for Camp Bow Wow.”

The plan was consigned to a desk drawer for the time being, ready for implementation when opportunity obliged. In the meantime, Flammang turned 25, and to honor this milestone, Ganahl’s parents gave him a gift that complemented his soaring spirit: a flight on a stunt plane.

The plane crashed, and Flammang was killed. Ganahl was 27.

In the following weeks, when mustering energy was nearly impossible, her dogs juiced her into action. They needed walking, feeding, attention. They needed much, and they gave much. “They’re the ones who got me out of bed every day,” she says.

Before long, Ganahl had remarried and given birth to a daughter. She also lost, through bad investments and ill-considered loans, a large portion of the $1 million insurance settlement from Flammang’s death.

Not surprisingly, she says now, her second marriage didn’t last. “Five years later, [I was] a single mom, doing pharmaceutical sales, but I [didn’t] really enjoy it,” she explains, noting that though the job paid well, every day was the same. It offered no variety. “I called it the ‘golden handcuffs.’”

Her brother, Patrick Haight, came to the rescue with a dog-centered solution to her malaise. What about that tucked-away business plan? Why not pool their talents and bring it to fruition?

Within hours of Haight broaching the idea, the pair was on the prowl for suitable space. “We started driving around Denver that week looking for the first location,” Haight recalls.

In 2001, with $83,000 left from the insurance settlement, Ganahl and Haight opened the first Camp Bow Wow on Broadway in Denver. Haight handled the day-to-day operations and Ganahl addressed marketing and promotion, all while continuing her day job. The pair eventually relocated to the intersection of Santa Fe Drive and Mississippi Avenue. Curiously, the Bow Wow debut preceded a boomlet of doggie day care outlets in the Mile High City.

“We were the third one in the Denver metro area,” Ganahl says. “Now there are over 100.”

 

Lessons learned

The first year offered lessons in just how obsessive dog owners can be, just how much trouble their precious pooches can get into and how dogs can foil even the best-laid marketing plans.

After installing webcams — Camp Bow Wow was the first doggie day care center to do so — Ganahl and her brother discovered the hard way that periodic monitoring can stoke owner anxiety as well as calm it. “My dog doesn’t look like it’s having fun,” Ganahl says, reprising a typical call. “‘Can you do something?’ Or, ‘The ball is stuck in the corner. Can you go and get it?’”

In no time the pair learned not to litter the play area with toys. After all, the ball inevitably got stuck in the corner. Plus, for all their gregariousness, dogs don’t like sharing.

Nor are they always on their best behavior and ready for prime time. Haight recalls one afternoon when a newspaper reporter and photographer visited Camp Bow Wow, a press opportunity Haight and Ganahl hoped would stimulate interest in the business. As if on cue, the media team walked into the dog room and all of the canines embarked on a mating ritual. “Hey, no humping!” Haight called to the dogs. Those immortal words became the lead of the story.

After quitting her pharmaceutical job and opening a second Camp Bow Wow in 2003, Ganahl decided to franchise the operation. Since then, her firm has grown like the proverbial big-pawed puppy. In 2010, the brand did about $50 million in sales, while the corporation realized about $5 million. Even in a down economy, the franchises have enjoyed growth: Sales at the franchise level are up 20 percent year over year.

“A lot of it was just timing,” Ganahl says, contemplating the company’s good fortune. “It has been an interesting ride and really being tenacious about values.” Those values can be summed up in an unofficial motto: “Don’t put the dollar before the dog.”

What’s next for Camp Bow Wow? Because franchise growth has been checked by diminished access to capital, Ganahl has been busy cooking up partnerships with corporate campuses — perhaps high-tech firms competing for talent and eager to offer a Camp Bow Wow benefit. She’s also hoping to partner with hotel chains. Rather than turn away patrons with pets, they can send Fido off to Camp Bow Wow and his owners to the presidential suite.

As those initiatives unfold, Ganahl also is negotiating with Denver International Airport to move her corporate headquarters to the site. The new office will include a Camp Bow Wow for travelers.

“You could park there, leave your dog and get a ride to the terminal,” Ganahl says. The airport location also would serve as a demonstration site for would-be franchisees, who could fly into Denver, study the operation and then fly home — all without ever having to rent a car.

 

Reaching out

With her company in steady growth mode, Ganahl has taken on additional challenges by launching the Bow Wow Buddies Foundation. Its three-pronged mission focuses on finding foster and lifetime homes for unwanted animals, promoting humane education and treatment, and investing in research for pet illnesses and diseases.

To fulfill its mission, the foundation underwrites a scholarship at Colorado State University’s Animal Cancer Center. It also works with individual franchises to provide foster care and expedite adoptions for homeless pets. To date, Ganahl says, the Camp Bow Wow empire has fostered more than 5,000 critters.

True to Ganahl’s approach to business challenges, the foundation experiments with programs and initiatives that aim to address problems at their root. One of its pet projects, dubbed “On Our Way Home,” offers renovation grants to animal shelters.

“Think ‘Extreme Makeover for Shelters,’” Ganahl quips.By helping them incorporate play areas and “socialization yards,” On Our Way Home attempts to increase the “live release” rate at shelters. (The first On Our Way Home grant was awarded to the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society in December 2010.)

“It’s about letting the dogs have fun while they are waiting for their forever home,” Gahahl explains. It’s also about saving their lives. When dogs have the chance to be dogs — to romp and cavort — they are more likely to reveal their happier, tail-wagging selves to potential owners. That means they are more likely to be adopted, and once adopted, more likely to adjust to their new homes.

At the Humane Society of Boulder Valley, CEO Lisa Pedersen welcomes efforts like these and credits Ganahl with fostering a collaborative environment among private-sector pet businesses and nonprofit agencies. “She’s trying to create leadership among private entities,” Pedersen says of Ganahl. And in doing so, she’s at the forefront of an emerging trend that unifies the various players interested in animal welfare issues.

“At the national level there is conversation about partnerships and recognizing that for-profits can be great partners for nonprofits,” Pedersen says.

For Pedersen’s agency, collaboration with Camp Bow Wow has proved invaluable. The Humane Society of Boulder Valley occasionally will send an unadopted animal to a Camp Bow Wow franchise in hopes that it will romance one of the business’ customers and subsequently find a new home. “It gives us a chance to market our animals a little differently,” she says, noting that this strategy often places pets with owners who didn’t know they were in the market for a new animal.

Ganahl, meanwhile, is looking for new ways to contribute to the happiness and well-being of man’s best friends. “They’re so instinctual; they’re very basic beings. They have such good heartedness,” she says. “How we treat them says a lot about our culture and our society.”

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One Comment

  1. Dave Holliday says:

    The dog pictured with Heidi is my dog, Natasha Holliday. She is the silliest husky you’ll ever meet. Yay!

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