Going to the dogs

 In 2015-12

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RUNNER-UP: SMALL BUSINESS OF THE YEAR

Pet care is a $60 billion business that has grown almost 70% over the last decade as more people shower Fido and Rover with unceasing attention. It is a megatrend that had absolutely nothing to do with Traci Whiteside’s decision in 2006 to open a doggie day care in Granite Falls, a town of 4,700 between Lenoir and Hickory. After 10 years as a part-time dog trainer, she wanted to offer better care for dogs than was available in her area. The first in her family to attend college, the Appalachian State University graduate had little business experience, having worked as a social worker at a Lenoir hospice. The concept was relatively new nationally, much less in a sparsely populated area that has struggled as foreign competition prompted the closing of most furniture plants and textile mills.

“People said our business wouldn’t work here because this is Caldwell County, where people just tie their dogs to trees out back,” says Traci’s husband, Kenny, who left a nursing career 18 months ago to work full time overseeing the company’s finances. “One of our first clients, Brad Aldridge, laughed at us and said we were silly to open the business. But then he brought his 10-week-old dog Brownie to us and saw what a difference training made.” The chocolate Labrador retriever, now 8, learned how to get along with other dogs and people. Aldridge now calls himself “that idiot” for underestimating Traci’s concept.

Started in a 1,000-square-foot space in a strip mall by Traci and one other employee, Club Canine moved within a year to a 5,000-square-foot building subleased by a dog boarder who had tired of the business. The company now employs the equivalent of 13 full-time workers in a 10,000-square-foot building. Its popularity with vacationing dog owners forces the Whitesides to turn away clients, particularly during summer months and Christmas holidays. They also reject some potential business if dogs show too much anxiety around other animals or trainers.

Staffers are on-site from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., training, exercising and grooming dogs, which spend their time in four different play areas and enough suites to house 85 dogs. Day care is $26 per day, with overnight stays costing $37. Unlike humans, perhaps, not every dog prefers the best-available suite, which at Club Canine includes an outdoor patio. “Some dogs need a tighter, cozier space that makes them feel more comfortable,” Traci says.

The couple invested $1.75 million in its new property, which opened in June 2014 on land that housed a lumber company that folded in 2007. Sales topped $700,000 last year, having increased annually, including 2010 when unemployment in the Hickory area topped 15%. Traci credits the Small Business Technology and Development Center for helping develop a plan to attract customers willing to pay a higher price for better care.

“It may not be smart business, but I made decisions based on what our clients need, and we didn’t base our business plan on what the competition is doing,” she says. “It’s not just about us making money, it’s about caring for the dogs.” (The Whitesides have three dogs, including a 4-year-old German shepherd, Steppenwolf, who helps in training.) Teaching owners is a big part of the job because most people don’t walk their dogs enough or train their pets how to interact with other pets and humans or even feed them properly, she says. She criticizes most mass-market pet foods — a sign in Club Canine’s retail store at the front of its building notes that it no longer carries Merrick Pet Care products after its July sale to Swiss food giant Nestle S.A., which owns Purina. Merrick specializes in grain-free and limited-ingredient dog food. “A lot of the big companies will change the ingredients in their products after purchasing a smaller brand as a way to save money.”

Though it has customers from as far away as Hilton Head Island, S.C., Club Canine isn’t planning to expand beyond Granite Falls. Maintaining quality at Traci’s desired level would be challenging in a franchise business. “This is my baby, and I’m not ready to let my baby go.”

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