In November 1996, a mother daughter team began a mission to help pets live longer, happier and healthier lives.
25 years later, that mission still holds true.
This year marks Pet Planet’s 25th year in business. To celebrate, we have created “Legacy Stories” in honor of our co-founders that will feature friends, family and partners that have shared in our journey.
Each month we have shared one story, culminating in our 25th Anniversary Celebration on November 26th, 2021.
Please enjoy our videos, starting with Dr. Al Townshend.
We asked Laura Leah English, CEO and co-founder, a series of questions about how she and her mother brought Pet Planet to fruition.
My mom and I had been thinking about becoming business owners for a long time. We had done a lot of research around what was out there, both within franchise models and as independents. In a conversation we had, very early on about what we wanted to do, one of us said (and I can’t remember which one of us this was) “If we are going to work as hard as we know we are going to work – we better make sure that this is something we love.” When Reuben passed, it became clear that this was our path; for him, for us, and for every customer – to help them keep their pets with them for as long as they could.
We opened our first Pet Planet 25 years ago – through shear determination.
“There is no question that I was young and naïve going into this. I didn’t think about failure, I just decided that this was my path and so I just dug in.” – Laura Leah English, CEO and Co-Founder
In the early days, I know that we accomplished everything we did by just DOING IT. We had no experience in retail, we knew nothing about distribution or even what products we wanted or needed to be successful. We challenged old school concepts around retailing and distribution practices and faced many biases as “girls” in a male-dominated space. None of that mattered. We got up every day and lived it, because we knew that our purpose was to learn everything we could about the pet retail business so that we could live our mission to teach other families about what not to do, so they wouldn’t lose their dogs the way that we had lost Reuben.
When I look back, there are two driving forces that made me consider business ownership:
- The loss of my dog to cancer
- The uncertainty of the corporate world, and a desire to own my own destiny
I remember after leaving my corporate job, I woke up one morning and said goodbye to my husband, and then sat in the middle of my bed with a phone and the yellow pages. I looked up pet suppliers and distributors and just started cold calling them. I told each contact that I was opening a pet store, and needed to know what to do next. After a few initial connections, I was introduced to with two distributor partners – Showline and Kane, which is where I met Valerie Sliwa. She became such an amazing resource for us all those years ago and after a full afternoon at a Tim Horton’s in Deer Run, we had developed a full assortment of products that we would carry in our store.
Right when we were about to open our 3rd store we were nominated, and then won, the 1999 Emerging Entrepreneur Award. I remember sitting at the Gala next to another local, family-owned business and fellow nominee, Neon Contractors. We spent the night talking and when the time came we both won for our nominated categories, and solidifying a long standing partnership and friendship that exists today. The whole experience was surreal and amazing and gave us the confidence to continue to build our business.
Almost from day one we had customers asking us if we were part of a franchise. At that time, we were a completely different concept – both philosophically, and cosmetically. We had wooden shelves and treat tables, we had a table and chair at the front for people to sit and read education at, we offered little nooks and fun displayers to showcase our concept. We were completely different from the “Farm and Feed” style of pet retailers at that time. We were a place that customers wanted to come, hang out, talk and actually shop.
Every time a customer asked about if we were a franchise, or if we were going to franchise, we always said no – we were business owners. We worked in our stores and built our business one relationship at a time. It was what we knew.
However, as time went on, we went from one store to three, then three stores to five. Then we built the resort and all of a sudden we felt the pivot point coming. When we decided to take Pet Planet to Edmonton, and then within one year had opened five additional locations, it become clear that if we wanted to replicate, grow and manage the customer centric concepts that we had built for our business, we were going to need people. Passionate people that could take our concept and live it every day.
We began our Franchise journey by looking at other franchisors in a variety of industries, seeking advice and guidance with those who had foraged before us. One of those people was John Forzani, from the SportChek enterprise. An initial long lunch and several touchpoints over the years provided us with the confidence to jump in and begin the journey that would evolve Pet Planet from being a owner/operator driven business to being one based on relationships with like-minded people. A concept that would, under the guidance of great franchise operators, allow us access to communities that we otherwise would not be, while continuing to make a difference in the lives of the pets that we served.
Since making that decision we have been able to touch the lives of so many more animals. There are now Pet Planet stores in both Canada and the United States and we continue to grow. We have evolved to become one of the top retailers in North America, offering a safe and trusted place for Guardians to come and make healthy decisions for their pets. We could not have done this without the dedication, hard work and passion of the people that own and operate these stores.
- It does not matter where you open a Pet Planet. The model is built to meet the needs of any community that we serve.
- Passion is important. It is what drives us to get us to live this mission each and every day. But systems, standards and expectations are important to guide that passion, to manage interpretation and ultimately to ensure that the brand’s integrity is always protected.
For the most part, No. I think that the work that we did, the missteps, the challenges and the success that we have seen is all a part of the journey that we are on. Sure there are things that if I’d known then what I know now, I may have made different decisions, but then maybe we wouldn’t be the same company we are today.
I guess the only thing I would say to myself, 25 years ago, would be to “enjoy it” more. To take more time to laugh, to not take it all too seriously and to learn to accept the journey – no matter where the road takes you.
When we opened our first store 25 years ago, all we knew was that we wanted to make a difference in the lives of the pets we served. To teach people the things that we had learned, and would continue to learn, in hopes of helping pets to live longer, happier and healthier lives.
It seemed so simple.
Build a concept around education and quality products for pets, find partners that were invested in your business, get customers to come and shop with you and that’s it! What we learned was that the tactical application of that was going to require a whole lot of grit, perseverance, time, tears, mistakes, learning and days when we wondered what the heck we were doing.
What we also learned was that none of that mattered, because we were doing something right.
From the day that we opened and I served my first customer – a kind, older man, who knew exactly what he wanted but accommodated my enthusiasm to talk about all the things he “needed”; and who also had the patience to stand at my till for 15 minutes as I muddled my way through processing his sale on the new POS system that I had laboriously programmed with all the products on my shelf, but had never actually learned how to use to process a sale – to the people that shop with us today, we learned that there was on single constant: people want connection, they want to learn things they don’t know, they want a good experience and they want to know how to help their pets.
As we continued to serve our community that first year, this was more and more evident with every single conversation. People really wanted to learn things that they didn’t know. They craved the information that we provided to help them make good decisions for their pets. For us, it was invigorating to know that we were helping families, just like ours, and that we could be a resource for families that really didn’t know that “there is a difference in pet food.”
Over that first year, we focused in on our assortment, modifying our concept from food and gifts (yes, we opened with an assortment of 50% pet food products and 50% gift products like 3 foot statues of cocker spaniels and coffee mugs) to a well-rounded mix of food, treats and products that our customers had never seen before. We knuckled down on education and learned as much as we could about nutrition and the impacts it had on our pets. We learned about disease, what could help to prevent and support animal illness and everything there was to know about the products on our shelves.
25 years later, this is no different.
Our job remains the same. Support those that know the things it takes to help their pets live longer, happier and healthier lives through a well curated mix of safe and trusted products and teach those that want to learn about all the things that they can do to make decisions that will help keep their pets with them for as long as possible.
Looking back, I sometimes wonder if not knowing what I know now was what kept me going. I sometimes ask myself, if I had, would I have talked myself out of it all? But then, when I think about all the families we have helped, the team members and partners that we have worked with and the relationships that we have built over 25 years, and I know the good that we have done, the lives that we have impacted and the animals that we have helped far outweigh the “work”. And that, after 25 years is what makes this entire journey worth it.
If you would like to wish Pet Planet a Happy 25th Anniversary,
please submit your wishes and stories below!