After overcoming personal tragedy and business failure, Heidi Ganahl founded a small daycare for dogs that’s now the world’s largest pet care franchise.
It was early November 2000 when Patrick Haight (Geog’95) called his big sister, Heidi Ganahl (Mktg’88), with a business proposition.
“Do you still have any interest in starting Camp Bow Wow?” he asked.
Ganahl, then a 34-year-old single mother working as a pharmaceutical rep in Parker, Colo., pondered the plan for a dog day care she’d developed years earlier with her husband and fellow animal lover, Bion Flammang. When he was killed in a 1994 stunt plane accident, she set the plan aside.
Ganahl went numb after the crash. The couple’s two large mutts, Winnie and Mick, helped her cope, forcing her out of bed each day despite her grief.
In the following years, Ganahl married again, then divorced. She founded two other small businesses, but neither thrived.
She was not a quitter.
By the time her brother called, she was ready again for risk and reinvention.
“Bion and I created the business plan together,” says Ganahl, now 49. “I wanted it to come true for him to honor him and to honor our entrepreneurial spirit. It just felt like it was supposed to happen.”
In 2000, Ganahl and Haight launched Camp Bow Wow in Denver with $83,000, the remainder of a $1 million insurance settlement from Flammang’s death.
Since then, Camp Bow Wow has blossomed into a $90 million enterprise with 128 locations in the U.S. and Canada and dozens of others in development, making it the largest pet care franchise in the world. When pet healthcare giant VCA acquired Camp Bow Wow last year, Ganahl agreed to stay on as chief executive.
“It’s taken a lot of perseverance on her part,” Haight says. “Heidi took something that was bad in her life and made it good. I know Bion would be proud of her.”
The original idea for Camp Bow Wow came from personal experience: Ganahl and Flammang couldn’t find a boarding facility they felt suitable for their dogs. They envisioned a facility that focused on dog behavior and offered day care, grooming and training.
Ganahl knew the dog day care business would bring her more joy than her previous business ventures. When her brother called that fall, she seized the moment.
The next day she came with the old plan and a bunch of new stuff she had added that night,” says Haight, who was then 28 and, as founder of a flooring company, also an entrepreneur.
The pair searched Denver for a location and found only one landlord who was willing to support their idea. They paid $2,000 a month to rent a former metal workshop on South Broadway’s antique row.
“Doggie day care was just coming on the scene, and we were trying to create a really fun, upscale experience,” Ganahl says. “Once I saw the dogs and how much fun they had, there was no way it wasn’t going to work.”
Ganahl, who was still working her day job in pharmaceuticals, spent afternoons and weekends in city parks passing out free Milk Bones and Camp Bow Wow flyers made at Kinkos, her 5-year-old daughter, Tori, by her side. She convinced people that their dogs would be safe with others in a camp environment. Camp Bow Wow had sales of $100,000 its first year.
The two-person company hired staff, ramped up marketing, partnered with dog charities and veterinarians and held concerts at outside venues to attract more clients. Soon, Camp Bow Wow moved into a larger space and began hosting dogs overnight. Ganahl quit her sales job.
Dogs are fun, relaxing and chill — they take it down a notch.
With word about Camp Bow Wow spreading and business growing, she opened a second Denver location in 2002.
“She always had the big picture in mind,” says Haight, now a sound engineer in California.
Ganahl saw potential for Camp Bow Wow to expand on a large scale and settled on a way to do it: In 2003, the company became the first pet care franchise.
“There was such a huge demand — I was getting calls daily from folks wanting to open one themselves,” she says. “I didn’t have a lot of cash to open more locations on my own, so franchising was a good way for me to help others, and help the brand grow.”
Ganahl worked hard to make sure each camp would look and feel the same, forging a national identity.
Each location’s mountain lodge theme, indoor and outdoor play areas, private cabins and enthusiastic staff impart an inviting atmosphere for pooches and owners alike.
Every lobby is identical. Bone-shaped kiddie pools dot vast outdoor areas. Inside, rows of individual cabins spread over 10,000 square feet. There are special spaces for the uber-trendy “teacup pups” — miniature versions of small-breed dogs such as Pomeranians or Chihuahuas. Webcams in the play areas and lobbies allow clients to check on their pets from a personal computer anywhere.
Today Camp Bow Wow operates in 40 states. Ganahl sold the company last August to generate capital for faster growth. Within three years, the company is expected to add 75 locations.
“She’s still very involved with the business, but she has stepped away from the day-to-day and into that true CEO role,” says Renuka Salinger, Camp Bow Wow’s vice president of development.
Still, Camp Bow Wow is never far from Ganahl’s thoughts, and she’s never far from a Camp Bow Wow.
“When I’m traveling, if I’m in a town where there is a Camp Bow Wow, I stop in and meet the staff and go hang out with the dogs,” says Ganahl. “And I don’t ever go to a camp without going into the play yards. That’s what makes me happy.”
Until he died this summer, she often brought her 14-year-old black lab named Raider to her Broomfield, Colo., office to join the 15-20 other dogs that go to work with their owners at Camp Bow Wow’s corporate headquarters.
“Dogs are fun, relaxing and chill — they take it down a notch,” she says.
Ganahl takes care of her employees too. She encourages regular team-building through weekly “Yappy Hours” for everyone to socialize — two legs or four.
“My number-one rule in business is to just put yourself in the other person’s position and figure out how they’d want to be treated,” she says. “You’ll usually be OK.”
These days Ganahl spends more time with her four children — three under the age of five — and husband Jason, a champion competitive barbecue cook. She also focuses on her charity work, which includes two nonprofits she started.
The first, the Bow Wow Buddies Foundation, has raised more than $100,000 for canine cancer research and given homes to more than 10,000 dogs. She also started Moms Fight Back, which helps mothers address tough social issues such as bullying, sexual assault and school safety.
“It’s really cool to be able to help these moms figure out how to network, how to raise money, how to put together a proposal and how to lobby,” Ganahl says. “By helping moms, I’m really helping kids.”
An avid Buffs fan and football season ticket holder, Ganahl also serves her alma mater by serving on the board of the CU Foundation.
In times of loss and times of plenty, she says, she’s tried to follow her heart. It’s led her to opportunity.
“You’ve really got to hone in on what mark you want to leave on the world,” Ganahl says. “Once you figure that out, everything else falls into place and every day is fun, it’s not work. That will get you through the tough times.”
Photography by Glenn Asakawa