Leadership Profile: Dogtopia

Leading the Pack:  At the helm of Dogtopia, Peter H. Thomas is once again a top dog in franchising

Photo of Peter H. Thomas of Dogtopia

At first glance, it’s somewhat hard to connect the dots. Peter H. Thomas, after all, made his fortune building up Century 21 Canada, one of the most successful real estate franchise brands in the country.

Fast-forward a few decades, and Thomas is giving franchising another shot. Only this time, the septuagenarian’s focus has shifted – he’s now building a dog daycare business, aptly named Dogtopia. But make no mistake about it, the Canadian entrepreneur is setting his sights just as high as ever.

“We see about 400 Dogtopia locations spread out across North America,” says Thomas, CEO and President of Thomas Franchise Solutions, a private equity firm that invested in Dogtopia when it was still a small Washington-DC-based business with about 13 locations. “After that, we’ll gauge the market.”

While it might seem a bit of leap to move from real estate to pet service, it makes perfect sense for Thomas, who is as business savvy as they come. “There was nobody in the market, and that was kind of what it was like with Century 21 when I started,” he explains. “There were a lot of mom-and-pop dog daycare places in Canada, i.e., small operations, but there was nothing big happening.”

Thomas is definitely one to think big. The entrepreneur has a knack for seeing the larger picture when it comes to a brand’s potential, and then running with it. He had, after all, grown Century 21 to 450 franchises with a sales force of 7,000. When he sold the company in 1987, just 13 years after buying the Canadian rights, it was the largest real estate network in the country.

The balance of Thomas’ career has been no less illustrious. Through his real estate investment arm, Samoth Capital Corporation, he bought and built a number of hotels in the U.S., including his two “super projects”: the Four Seasons Resort in Scottsdale, Arizona, and a master-planned community called Westover Hills in San Antonio, Texas.

Then, in 2000, tragedy struck when Thomas lost his only son, Todd Thomas, to suicide. It was a harsh reminder of the fragility of life, and caused the seasoned businessman to pause, reflect, and dramatically shift gears. He set up a foundation in his son’s name to raise money for mental health, and eventually founded LifePilot, a not-for-profit project that empowers people to live their lives in alignment with their values. He and his wife decamped to Switzerland, and Thomas began travelling the globe as a speaker and motivator. “We were on that journey for a good seven years,” he reflects.

When the couple returned stateside – they currently divide their time between Kelowna, British Columbia and Phoenix, Arizona, where Dogtopia is headquartered – Thomas had to “recreate” himself. “I was driving my wife crazy, so she said I had to do something. But what to do?” says Thomas, who eventually decided to turn to franchising. “I knew I loved franchising and I really enjoyed the franchise model.”

Starting a new chapter

So Thomas, then in his mid-70s, embarked on yet another chapter in his professional life, in many ways coming full circle to where it all began. He spent a year researching multiple franchise opportunities – looking at more than 1,000 companies – and eventually zeroed in on the growing pet service sector. “Much like Century 21, I wanted something that had not yet been fully explored as a franchise concept, but was full of opportunity,” he says.

“When I was a kid, a dog was essentially always outdoors as a guard dog. When I’d go chopping wood in the bush, I’d bring him along to protect me from the cougars,” explains Thomas, who grew up north of Edmonton after moving to Canada as a child from England. “Now a dog is a member of the family – and that transition has created a whole new industry, including dog daycare.”

With Dogtopia, Thomas and his team found their perfect initial investment vehicle. The company had already grown into a multi-store operation, but needed capital to expand further. It was a win-win for both sides, and in 2012, Thomas Franchise Solutions pumped $2 million into the company for a 50 per cent stake. Three years later, they bought out the original owner completely.

Today, Dogtopia offers daycare, boarding, grooming, and spa services for dogs. It has 50 locations across North America, including six in Canada (in Ontario, Alberta, and British Columbia) and has sold another 50 locations. The company also has an accomplished board of directors that includes David Lenhardt, the former CEO of PetSmart.

In addition to strengthening the original brand image – which was jazzed up and totally refashioned – the company has focused on delivering a high and consistent standard of quality care in a market that currently has little oversight. This includes installing hospital-grade HVAC ventilation systems in each location, as well as compressed rubber flooring, webcams, and double doors, and walls to separate the play areas. “I would say we are leading the pack,” says Thomas. “In fact, I believe we’re the only dog company in America that has an environmental biologist on staff. We think of every single safety issue.”

Parallels to the early days

It all sounds like a far cry from his early franchise experience of helping people to sell houses, but Thomas doesn’t see it that way. Operating any business, he says, even one you’re familiar with, involves the unknown and an active learning curve, especially if you want to grow and succeed. “You’re learning every day if you’re in business, because your business is changing in front of you,” he notes. “It’s like driving on a curved road: every time you round a corner, there’s something new and changing.”

It’s no surprise that Thomas is a strong supporter of the franchise model, which he says significantly eases the element of risk for business owners, allowing them to focus their attention on the basics. The franchisor handles the rest. “All the franchisee has to do is put their energy into the business, not into inventing or reinventing it. That’s what we do,” says Thomas. “The franchisee just needs to have a good attitude, be hard-working, and read the operating manual.”

Most Dogtopia franchisees are dog owners and dog lovers themselves, and the same can be said for their employees, making for a very positive work environment. They also happen to be a small handful of people in the Canadian workforce who can bring their dogs to work – a much-loved perk.

Otherwise, Dogtopia franchisees come from varied professional backgrounds, and all undergo an intensive one-week training program in Phoenix, followed by two to four weeks of on-site training at the franchise location. “You’ve got to be ‘all in,’” says Thomas. “You can’t just think, ‘I’ll try this and see.’”

A certain degree of discipline is also required, a lesson Thomas learned early in his life during a seven-year stint with the Canadian Army, which he joined in his late teens. This military experience eventually helped plant the seeds for Thomas’ LifePilot program, and his enduring commitment to living his life according to his own chosen values: health, happiness, freedom, and integrity. It’s a life lesson that has served him well, both in his professional and personal life.

“The bottom line is that it’s always important to be successful at what you do – but the real bottom line is to be successful at who you are,” emphasizes Thomas.

Wise words from a wise man who has succeeded at both.

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By Roma Ihnatowycz