From beach bum to vet tech to pet care franchise owner, Detlefs finds ‘happy business’ with Camp Bow Wow
Like most 20-somethings, Drew Detlefs bounced around a bit when he first started his professional life, from being an insurance broker to becoming a beach bum. Now in his 30s, he’s finally found his perfect fit as the co-owner, along with his father, of a Camp Bow Wow pet care franchise. The business marries his love for animals with his drive for financial success, and it also allows him to provide a valuable service in his hometown of Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Drew agreed to share the story of his journey from Southern boy to California beach bum to a savvy entrepreneur who’s found his passion in life.
How long have you been a franchisee? We signed in March of 2011, and we started Home Buddies in November of 2011. It’s our in-home pet sitting business. We were trying to find the right place to do our Camp Bow Wow, and at that time, Camp Bow Wow was trying to start something new with Home Buddies, their in-home pet care business, and Behavior Buddies, their premier dog training program. So I got Home Buddies rolling first. I would go out and do a lot of marketing. I would have pet sitters who spent the night or stayed for 1 or 2 hours; whatever the client wanted. That went on until we opened our first Camp Bow Wow in March 2013.
What were you doing before becoming a Camp Bow Wow franchisee? I went to LSU and became an insurance broker, mainly life insurance, for 3 years here in Baton Rouge. And then I just got sick of it. I was still young, 23, and I had done pretty well at what I was doing. I had some money saved up so I went to California and stayed with some friends in L.A. I just never went home; I lived in Southern California for 5½ years. I took almost a year off from working. I thought, ‘I’m gonna be a beach bum and just enjoy myself.’ When it was time to go back to work, I knew I wanted to do something with animals, especially dogs. I started working in a couple of vet’s offices in the area. I filled medication, did the filing, just started from the bottom up. I basically became a vet tech. I was never a certified vet tech, but I did everything one would do. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t like the bad parts about it. It’s really tough to deal with some of the hard cases. There are really good sides to it — I was saving dogs’ lives, and that was huge. I got a lot of experience learning about different dogs and breeds. One day, a dog that had gotten well needed to be transported to Camp Bow Wow. I had never heard of it — I didn’t know doggie daycare existed. I transported the dog to the Camp. I walked in and said, ‘What is this place?’ I was blown away. Here was a place you could bring a dog where it could have fun all day. This was very new to me. Just seeing this concept blew me away, and the more I thought about it the more I was into it.
California has a lot of Camp Bow Wow locations, and I knew Baton Rouge had nothing like it. I waited a little while, talked to my friend who owns a boarding facility here and came back home and managed his place for a year and a half while I was signing for Camp Bow Wow so I could get really good experience. When we opened our Camp, we were averaging 167 dogs a day. My father joined me in the business; there’s no way I could have done this on my own, especially an operation this big. He went with me to the first Discovery Day back in 2011, and he also realized this was a great business and that Baton Rouge needed this. And he was just as excited as I was. We’re working on Camp Bow Wow No. 2. He is not as hands-on as I am; my management really takes care of things. He mainly looks over all the financial stuff. I’m the main one who’s hands-on with the dogs and the employees — we have 48 employees right now.
They go through a lot of training, and our labor cost is very high. That’s the piece you have to figure out. This business attracts young people. We’ve had older people apply, but they have to be able to be on their feet all day long, they’ve got to deal with big dogs and it’s a big job. If you’re coming here to play with dogs, that’s not what this is. Making sure these dogs are happy and healthy is what it’s all about.
You’re smart, capable, you’ve got money you could have put anywhere. Why did you put it here?The thing is, Camp Bow Wow is best at what it does. Now there’s a bunch of copycats all because of Camp Bow Wow. The staff, the corporate folks, I love them to death. I love how they operate and the way they really truly are about the health and happiness of the pets. Baton Rouge is home, but I wasn’t planning to move back here until Camp Bow Wow came along. I knew it was going to be great for the community. It’s just a wonderful thing for the pet parents to see the transition of a dog who comes in here and doesn’t know what this place is, who might have separation anxiety and is not a very happy dog. Even just for one day, there can be a huge difference. Sometimes the parents get teary-eyed — it truly changes the life of the dog. For the dog to go from jumping all over people and peeing and pooping everywhere, and hating to be away from you… then they come here and get mental stimulation, socialization, and exercise. It turns them into a different dog. Those three things are what dogs really need to be truly happy dogs.
What makes owning the business fun? Of course, there are stressful times but the fun part is seeing how happy the dogs are. My staff is very close with the pet parents; when they pull up, they know who it is already. Building those relationships is a lot of fun. The dogs want to be here. I have 35 cameras here, and my eyes are always glued to my TV; it’s so much fun for me just watching them play. Another fun part is how many dogs’ lives we can save. I foster as many dogs as I can, and we get a lot of dogs adopted. We’ll have a dog come here from a shelter or a rescue group, and it learns to be more social. We’ll put it on our Facebook and on our screen in the lobby. Someone might see it and they might be interested, and then they’ll see it playing with their dog. A lot of times those are the people who end up adopting those dogs. To see them in this environment instead of seeing them in a shelter, they get to see the personality.
Knowing what you know now, if you were starting out, would you still become a Camp Bow Wow franchisee?Absolutely. We’re working on Camp No. 2 right now, hoping to be open by May 2016, and then we’re gonna do a third one. This one was very successful, the fastest ramp-up Camp yet. Once we found the site it flew up. We still do over 100 interviews a month for new Campers.
How do you feel about the direction of the brand? I think it’s awesome. They’re making a lot of changes because VCA bought them out, and I love being part of that organization, which has over 600 veterinary hospitals. That will only expand our brand awareness. I think that was a great move on their part and will help grow the brand tremendously.
What is the genius of this brand, when you strip everything away? It makes dogs healthier and happier. Not only that, the parents as well — it changes their lives also. Our motto is this is where a dog can truly be a dog. We have a very serious responsibility. The genius of it is we can keep dogs so happy and so healthy but still let them be themselves. It’s kind of like doggie heaven for them while they’re still alive.
How does HQ help you? What are some of the most valuable things they do to support you? They’re always there. They check in all the time. When you first open they really, really help you out with the opening and to get ramped up. There’s always someone to contact, whether it’s a complaint or ‘hey, what do you think about this?’. They’re like family to me, the ones who’ve been there since I’ve been in this. They’re good people. They help out with everything — for instance, with the new location. They actually changed our minds on where we wanted to do it because of their expertise on what sites work best. It’s really helpful just to have the conference calls with them, the webinars — they’re constantly refreshing and revamping programs to make the brand better.
What is it about this business that makes you think you’re going to be around another 20 years? I feel like they keep getting smarter and smarter with what they’re doing. They’re always looking at what the new thing is and what can we do to improve our business. I see Camps being opened in more and more locations. It’s amazing how many people are interested in this. It’s amazing how many people call me and ask what it’s like.
How important is previous industry experience? In this business it absolutely is. They’re pretty strict; they don’t let just anybody buy in. If I didn’t have the experience I’d had, it would have been a whole different ballgame. Managing that other facility, even though our systems are different, I learned a whole lot about boarding and training and dealing with customers. I also gained a lot from having the experience of managing and running a facility literally from open to close and from working for a vet. I also went and trained at other Camp Bow Wows. They definitely train you well.
What does your typical day look like? In the beginning we were open 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day of the week. That’s a lot of hours, more than any other Camp. In the beginning I was here every day open to close. Those first 7-8 months, I was exhausted, but that’s just what any business owner should do when they open up anyway. We still hold 2 meetings a day. I’m not always there but I listen in to make sure my managers are doing a good job. We have one at 5:45 and one at 12:45 to make sure everybody is focused and ready to work and talk about any issues anyone is having. I typically wake up super-early but I don’t come in and open up, I watch my cameras in my phone and see that all the dogs have gotten up by 6. I get “pup-dates” on my phone. I have 16 TVs here. I might type in, like, “Why is it taking so long to get the dogs out?” They know I’m always watching. Lately, I come in around 10, I’ll go to lunch with someone from marketing or someone from a TV channel — I do TV commercials. I do a lot of networking for lunch. I’ll come back and stay til 3:30 or 4, depending on the day. Mondays sometimes I don’t come in but I still watch my cameras like crazy and talk to my managers every day. I watch my cameras at 8 when we close and I might say “I can’t see the water bowls.” It’s like you’re always working, but I love it.
Are you able to meet your business goals, or on your way to meeting your goals, by owning the business? Yes, we are. We got a lot of awards at the last convention and ramped up really quickly. And with being able to do a second Camp already, that says a lot. I want to try and open a third a year after the second one. With this location we bought the property and paid to put up the building, and that was a heavy cost. What most people do is lease the building and have a landlord. That’s an easier way to do it, and it’s usually quicker. We decided to go big. But with the second Camp we’re actually having the builders buy the property and they’re going to lease it back to us. We’ve already bought the property and they’ll buy it back from us. We’ll be able to turn a profit a lot quicker, and that’s why I think I can do a third one a lot quicker. I’m definitely not going to wait. Hopefully, 6 or 7 years from now I can sit back and oversee it. I absolutely love my job.
Why are you necessary (as a brand)? Why would it be a horrible thing if you closed up and went away? What hole are you leaving in the marketplace? It would leave a huge hole. All the dogs we have that come here and all the happiness and the good we do in the community… What would happen is, someone would immediately open up something similar. I’m surprised someone hasn’t opened up something similar yet. In Baton Rouge, we don’t have that much competition. We kill it. There definitely will be some copycats sometime soon, but that’s ok.
Take me out 10 years or 20 years. You’re hanging it up now, you’re done. What do you want people to remember about your business? We bought a place where dogs can be happy and healthy and be dogs in Baton Rouge. My friend thought it was crazy: “It’s a Hollywood thing, it’s not Baton Rouge.” Really it’s that I brought something new here that was positive that helps out dogs and pet parents. I know I keep repeating this, but it truly is about the health and happiness of the dogs. All around it’s a happy business. To bring this concept to life and have it be successful and have people be so happy with it is a wonderful thing. I have two Chihuahuas, Hurley and Winston, both 9 and both rescues, but I feel like I have a hundred dogs.