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Entrepreneur makes a success of dog camp

Entrepreneur makes a success of dog camp

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BOULDER, Colo. - Oscar sits quietly near the fence in the indoor play yard, his little pug face passive.

All around him, fellow campers bark and jump, begging for pats from the hands attached to the people moving slowly down the concrete-floored hallway.

Oscar, 10, was one of the barking jumpers once. These days he spends more time in the pillow-filled quiet room set aside for older and smaller pooches.

"I think he likes being around his own kind," said Oscar's owner, Boulder resident Jodi Cohen, one of the first customers at Camp Bow Wow.

"Oscar's old and getting blind, but he's been coming for years," said Heidi Flammang, founder of the Boulder-based doggie day-care company, which recently sold its 170th franchise.

Camp Bow Wow has franchise agreements in 28 states and Canada. Since the first camp started in Denver in 2000, 30 others have opened, serving thousands of dogs. Another 30 camps are scheduled to launch this quarter alone, Flammang said. By the end of the year, she expects at least 80 camps to be operating.

Like the life story of a beloved dog, the tale of Camp Bow Wow's birth and growth has some bittersweet twists.

Flammang was a young wife and bored pharmaceutical rep in the early 1990s. A dog lover all her life, she happened upon a doggie day-care center and thought she could do it better.

She and husband Bion brainstormed, eventually creating a business plan for a venture whose mission was giving dogs a good time and offering puppy parents peace of mind.

The plan was shelved in 1994 when Bion died in a small-plane crash.

In the next half decade, as children of baby boomers flew from the nest and young couples waited longer to have kids, Americans spent more and more on pampering beloved pets.

Pet ownership grew from 56 percent of U.S. households in 1988 to 63 percent last year, according to figures from the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association.

U.S. families house almost 74 million dogs, and collectively families planned to spend $38 billion on their pets last year, with $2.7 billion going for grooming and boarding.

Five years after Bion's death, Flammang's brother, Patrick Haight, was looking for a job after selling his small business. He told his sister that, if she still wanted to do Camp Bow Wow, he would work for her.

She did.

In 2000, they opened their first camp with Flammang's investment of $100,000. Haight ran the camp while she worked on the big-picture stuff such as marketing and sales.

Over the next several years they opened a few more. They sold their first franchise in 2003.

Down to earth

Camp Bow Wows cater to DINKS - double income no kids - but in a down-to-earth fashion.

No massage or spa treatments, though staffers will give a dog a bath before it goes home, if requested. No frilly bows or cashmere sweaters - the closest thing is the occasional golden retriever in a camp T-shirt.

Dog owners can watch their pets on a Webcam.

Sometimes, they'll call camp counselors to ask them to move their particular camper or retrieve a toy that may be stuck in a corner.

Camps also offer boarding, a service in high demand around the holidays.

Typical camps are about 7,000 square feet, around half of that devoted to outside play areas that dogs access from indoor play pens. Also inside are "bunks," where boarding dogs sleep and day campers go for meals and nap time.

Like many franchisees, Gina Paradiso was a customer first, when she took her chocolate lab, Bailey, to board.

"We moved here from Ohio three years ago, and I took him there and we both fell in love with it," she said.

Paradiso kept asking about a job with the camp. That eventually became a discussion about buying a franchise.

Today, the 25-year-old Paradiso owns a camp near Denver International Airport, thanks to financial backing from her dad.

The pair plan a second camp in Parker as well, as soon as the zoning goes through.

Zoning has proved the biggest hurdle, as towns work to ensure that noise and odor won't be big problems, Flammang said.

By now, the company has the zoning process down to a science, including a presentation and historical data designed to pacify planning and zoning commissions.

If that process goes as scheduled, it takes about nine months on average from signing a franchise document to opening the doors.

So far, Flammang said, Camp Bow Wow has been turned down for rezoning only once out of 52 hearings.

The goal is for franchisees to break even by the end of the first year and get to about $80-per-square-foot in annual revenue by the end of the second year, Flammang said.

Under federal law, franchisers are prohibited from making any concrete claims about what franchisees can earn, she said.

So far, a few have sold their franchisees for personal reasons, but none has gone under, Flammang said.

As for the founder's purse, Flammang takes a salary but plows the rest back into the business, since fast growth means big requirements for capital.

Camp Bow Wow's goal is to hit $100 million in systemwide sales by 2009, at which point it will likely prove a bigger payoff for its founder.

In the years after her husband's death, Flammang remarried briefly and gave birth to Tori, now 11.

Teaching the business

Patrick Haight worked for his sister's company for about four years before heading to California to pursue his own dream of studying sound engineering.

Their father, Harvey Haight, also in on it from the beginning as he helped with camp construction, is the camp recruiter.

Haight heads up monthly Discovery Days, working with prospective franchisees who come to town to see the camps and learn more about buying into the business.

On a recent Friday, he hosted a couple at the Boulder camp.

"I've owned two businesses," he said, stopping often to pat furry heads. "But this is just a fun environment. You don't have to be a rocket scientist - just a dog lover."

Haight raised his family around dogs and cats, starting with Daisy, a wire-haired terrier he and his wife adopted after they were married.

"Daisy was Heidi's first dog," he said with a grin.

Back when she and Patrick opened the first Camp Bow Wow, Flammang figured they'd do a few camps and she would run the business and be content.

But she soon realized her passion lay in the big picture, building the chain and devising additional features.

"I'm a much more visionary person," she said. "I'm great at having a vision and selling the vision, so franchising and I work well together."

Camps are adding retail stores, with leashes and collars and dog toys and pricey health food.

Do-it-yourself dog wash facilities likely are the next addition, if a test project in Fort Collins proves popular, Flammang said.

The camps also partner with local businesses, including dog-training companies such as Bark Busters, an Australian franchiser whose headquarters is in Englewood.

Franchisees must have the financial wherewithal to start a camp, but just as important is a passion for dogs.

That passion must also include a devotion to dog-related causes. Camps participate in foster dog programs and get involved in local animal-related charities.

Next month, Camp Bow Wow is hosting a dog adoption event in Boulder that also will feature a silent auction to benefit Maxfund, a no-kill animal shelter in Denver.

Around the country, as franchises grow, they must also give back in similar ways.

It's part of the deal, Flammang said.

"We call it our no camper left behind project."

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