Value Added: This Business Is For The Dogs
Here's Tom Heath's latest column on Washington's entrepreneurial set:
I have been dying to write about the Canine Fitness Center for a year. Why? Because it combines a couple of my passions: my Yellow Labrador Retriever named Babe and, secondly, cool little businesses.
If you don't like dogs, you may think what follows is nuts. But I love dogs, especially Babe, who is the best darned dog ever. Dog lovers will completely understand this blog/column.
Babe is 10-and-a-half years old and a bit arthritic. He ran a couple of miles every morning with me for years, but he has had operations on both back knees and on his left front elbow. Now he sleeps in every morning while I run, but he ambles about and can still manage a short sprint after a squirrel.
To keep him active, though, my wife Polly and I drive from our home in Chevy Chase, Md., every weekend to take Babe to an indoor heated dog pool at the Canine Fitness Center in Crownsville, an hour away. We pay around $29 for a half-hour's swim. It's worth every penny. He builds muscle in his arthritic legs and exercises his heart and lungs.
Babe loves it, and so do we.
The first time Polly and I took Babe to the pool, we spent the entire drive back dissecting the business, trying to figure out how much the owners were making. We guessed at their monthly overhead. We nodded back and forth on what a gold mine the pet care business could be. Dog lovers like us will pay anything to make life better for their pets.
The Canine Fitness Center is the brainchild of Maury and Lynn Chaput. Maury is an architect by training but now has a senior administrative job at Anne Arundel Community College. Lynn is a certified public accountant. She keeps the Fitness Center's books.
The Chaputs' adventure in the pet business began in February of 2000, when they needed to take their beloved dog, Shadow, to swim therapy to help heal a tear in Shadow's leg muscle. Their vet suggested that Shadow swim twice a week, but the nearest pool was at a horse farm in Harford County, 50 miles from the Chaput's home in Anne Arundel. The pool was too deep, 14 feet, and was built more for big horses and not small dogs.
On their way back home after Shadow's first swim, the Chaputs started figuring out an alternative.
They came up with a business plan. Maury visited a dog pool in San Jose, Calif., asking questions about demand and how to build a dog swimming business. He contacted a veterinarian at the University of Tennessee to pick his brain to be sure there was a need for doggie rehab.
They were laughed out of one bank, but the next one, BankAnnapolis, thought they were on to something and loaned them $500,000 to get the business started.
The big problem would be finding land that could be zoned for an indoor dog pool. Because there were no dog fitness centers, the county zoning board wasn't sure how to classify a dog pool under its land use laws. It wasn't a kennel because there were no sleepovers. There were no vets so it wasn't a veterinary office. By default, they were zoned similar to an animal hospital - which would require commercial land that was selling at $1 million an acre.
The Chaputs found an alternative. They obtained a special exception, kind of like a zoning variance, on some residential land and got their five-acre lot on Generals Highway. That took a year. The lawyers and fees cost around $40,000, but they found the piece of land for $170,000 (they put 20 percent down in cash and put up their house) and broke ground in January 2002.
The fitness center opened in November 2002 and took three years to break even. There are two, four-foot deep swimming pools that are 14 feet wide by 26 feet long. They are heated at 80 degrees and have a concrete ramp that the dogs use to enter and exit the pool. A dog can swim for 15 minutes for an average of around $19 and swim for half an hour for around $29.
Customers get a discount for buying a package of several appointments.
Here is how it works. A fitness center employee throws toys in the water, which Babe fetches and returns for his entire half hour. Back and forth. Back and forth. He loves it. Babe jumps up and down in the back seat even as we approach the fitness center, and he scrambles out of the car and heads for the door like a kid running for an ice cream stand. After the swim, each dog is showered and blown dry.
We love it so much that money is no object. That's what makes it such a great business. Some of my friends think I'm nuts, but I don't care.
Maury said it took him three years to break even, in part because he priced a half-hour swim at a very inexpensive rate of $19 to start. Now, as I said, a half hour's swim costs close to $30.
"This was such a virgin idea. We built in some flexibility."
Example: there were rooms for visiting veterinarians to examine dogs, but that didn't materialize so now the room is for acupuncturists. Yes, an acupuncturist. Another room set aside for grooming is now used for retail sale of dog food, hats, shirts and other dog stuff.
Canine Fitness Centers costs are $15,000 a month, including $4,800 on the mortgage, an average of $1,200 a month in propane to heat the pools and the pool room, a payroll of nine part-time employees, chemicals, utilities, insurance and the rest. Insurance isn't a big cost because Maryland law categorizes dogs as property, which means a pet owner can't sue for emotional distress if you kill their pet. Maury's hasn't lost any dogs.
Business is good. They run about 100 half-hour appointments a week and 60 appointments at 15 minutes each. They have seen more than 2,000 different dogs come through their doors. The acupuncturist brings in a little revenue at $55 for an initial appointment and $45 for a followup.
There's a massage therapist who also brings in some cash. No, Babe doesn't get massages.
The retail part brings in a quarter of the revenue. But most of the money comes from the swimming.
The pools have electric covers to help control utility costs, and the building is on a timer that also rolls back the thermostat when it's shut down.
Saturday is D.C. suburbs day, with an unbroken line of swim appointments. Many customers, like me, drive up from Chevy Chase, Gaithersburg, Silver Spring and Rockville to give their pet a workout.
"We are hammered all day Saturday," Maury said. But things slow down in the middle of the week, with only one of the two pools running between 1 and 5 p.m.
"There's room for growth," Maury said. They advertise a little in Washingtonian and Baltimore Dog Magazine, but most of the business come from word of mouth.
So what is the payoff?
Maury is making around $3,000 to $5,000 a month in profit, all of which is rolled back into the Canine Fitness Center. He has already bought two new water pumps, two new heaters and put in a fancier floor than the concrete one they started with. Maury and Lynn do not take salaries,. They still owe $450,000 on the mortgage.
Maury said, he may expand to build another center in Frederick County. "We have a lot of equity in this, but not a lot of cash. It is a fairly expensive business to maintain."
Maury, 57, said he isn't thinking of selling, the business. "At this point, my intention is to retire from the college and just piddle there [at the fitness center]. Make another income."
One other thing. There is a photo on the wall in the waiting room at the Fitness Center. The photo is of Shadow. The caption reads: "The $600,000 dog. And worth every damn penny."
May 7, 2008; 11:00 AM ET
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