Laid-off exec takes risk with dog day-care

Brufolie couldn’t make up his mind.

Get in the car, or go back inside? Get in the car, or go back inside? The 4-year-old Yorkie trundled between his owner’s car and the door to Dogma Dog Care in Smyrna.

“It’s like this all the time,” said his owner, Nina Walker. “As soon as he gets here he jumps out and goes straight for the door.”

Robin Crawford peered out a window and smiled. The evening pickup had begun and Dogma’s owner was ready. Since 2009, she’s worked to carve a space for herself in the crowded field of pet care. It’s not enough to provide a safe, clean space. Dog owners now expect organic chow, blueberry facials and Swedish massage.

Crawford, 50, is used to long days now, even grateful for them. In 2001, she got laid off from her job of 21 years at IBM as an executive in training and development. In the following five years she was laid off twice more, from senior management positions at WellPoint Health Networks and Coca-Cola. One was courtesy of a corporate takeover, the other due to the elimination of an entire division.

Now, surrounded by leashes, paperwork and dozens of dogs, all that seems forever ago.

In a down economy, when it seems you’ve done everything right and you still can’t catch a break, you might have to gamble if you want to work. That’s what Crawford did. How it ultimately will work out isn’t certain. Two decades at a company doesn’t scream risk-taker. But Crawford has put it all on the line and made friends with uncertainty.

“I had to step out on faith and do this,” she said.

Taking a gamble

Crawford is amused when she sees headlines in women’s magazines that scream “Discover Your True Calling!” or “Find Your Perfect Plan B!” They make it sound, if not easy, manageable. That all it takes is listening to your heart, a few deep breaths and really, really believing in yourself and, presto! your new career will appear before your eyes.

But here is what is often left out of those tales. Many of the subjects of those articles:

a) Transitioned into their Plan B after leaving lucrative jobs with a lot of loot in hand, or;

b) Have spouses with jobs that supply enough loot to support the household while Plan B is being pursued, or;

c) Have relatives with deep pockets and generous spirits, or;

d) All of the above.

Crawford did have the first of those. But in short order, she realized it wouldn’t be enough.

With her severance package from Coca-Cola she went back to school and got a certificate in advanced diversity training from Cornell University. What exactly was she going to do with extra training in a shrinking field? Human resources and diversity training jobs are some of the first to go in a recession and last to come back after a recovery.

“All I had ever known was corporate America and serious white-collar, executive-level positions,” Crawford said. “I thought an advanced degree would help me get back into the corporate world. But I didn’t realize how bad the economy would get.”

She was closing in on 50 and what seemed the possible end of a lifelong career.

When she was really honest with herself she realized she was happiest with her animals. (She has three dogs, a cat, two horses and a cockatoo). In all of those years when she traveled for work, she never found a day care or kennel that seemed perfect for her dogs. She’d think about this when she played with her two Labradors in a dog park near her Smyrna home. Starting a business in this economy seemed like lunacy. But to find steady, satisfying work she realized she’d have to create it.

Betting on pet owners

Only 4 percent of single African-American women own businesses, according to a study released this year by Insight Center for Community Economic Development, a California-based agency aimed at building small business. Crawford, however, was banking on the fact that even broke people find ways to take care of their animals.

Pet care remains one of the few industries that has continued to grow in the recession. Americans spent $45 billion last year on their pets, according to the American Pet Products Association, and that total is expected to rise by another $2.2 billion by the end of this year.

Crawford shared the idea of opening a dog day care with some friends and acquaintances. Some showed interest in co-ownership, she said. That is until Crawford, who had plenty of corporate experience managing $3 million budgets and who had drawn up a business plan for her venture, couldn’t get a startup loan. It was 2008 and banks, in the midst of a financial meltdown, decided it wasn’t a good time to gamble anymore. The Small Business Administration wasn’t much help either, Crawford said, because she lacked the requisite, qualifying small business experience. There was her house, but she didn’t want to use it as collateral.

“I had to take all of my 401(k), all of my retirement, and roll it on 7,” Crawford said. “Everything I had in the world.”

That was $200,000, which she used to convert an old 10,000-square-foot professional building just outside I-285 in Smyrna. Offices were converted into roomy suites with murals and beds. A space near the lobby was turned into a sleek pet spa. A garage door was installed to give dogs free access to the two-acre grounds. In March 2009, Dogma Dog Care opened its doors for business.

Her old dog park friends were her first clients.

“Something like this can turn from, ‘Wouldn’t this be great?’ into ‘Oh my God, what have I done?’ really fast,” said Nicole Ford, an original client who has a 160-pound Great Dane named Jake. “It’s more than watching dogs play together.”

It’s making sure the thermostat works, that the retail area is fully stocked, that the sodas are cold in the vending machine, that each dog is clean before it goes home, and that the place is open 365 days a year, 24 hours a day.

“For Robin, her biggest struggle at first was finding the right people to work for her and who shared her vision,” Ford said. “Whether it’s a dog day care or corporate environment, the level of professionalism must be there from the front desk to the kennels. She’s got a really good team in there now.”

Business picking up

More than a few times, Crawford worried that she wouldn’t be able to make her mortgage payment. Her free time evaporated. Exhaustion felt permanent. When she was out and about she’d count the number of empty storefronts where mom-and-pop operations used to be.

“I’d drive down the street hoping it wouldn’t be me next,” Crawford said.

About a year ago a new client came in at the referral of a mutual acquaintance. He seemed impressed with the facility and with Crawford’s plans to expand the place. He became an investor, kicking in $300,000, Crawford said.

Things began to pick up. Word spread. She got a call from representatives of Victoria Stilwell, star trainer of the hit show “It’s Me or the Dog” on Animal Planet. That led to an episode being filmed at Dogma.

After almost two years, Crawford is finally breaking even. During a lull in the evening pickup rush, she collapsed on a red leather sofa in the lobby for a rare break.

A cacophony of dogs and puppies drowned out the smooth jazz playing from overhead speakers.

No sooner did she sit down than her long-haired Chihuahua, Lolita, scampered into her lap.

Would she do it all again, if she’d known it would be this much work?

Her answer depends on the day.

“I feel like I’ve been through two years of labor and now I’ve finally given birth,” Crawford said.

Yet she can’t stop planning what’s next. A water park for the dogs will go in this summer; flat screens will go up in the private suites in the months ahead.

And if things go well, maybe another Dogma or two.