"We need to talk": four momentous words that gave Shelley and Bart Garner a direct line to the London, Ontario business that lets them give as well as earn.
A business owner himself, Bart had long wanted a business where his wife's talents could shine. But where do you find a good business for sale? His answer came when Sunbelt business broker Erik Twohig joined the London Business Club where Bart was already a member.
Bart and Shelley credit Erik, who owns Sunbelt's London office, with finding their ideal business and saving the related deal. In fact, using a business broker is the top advice they'd give to anyone considering buying a business.
"You really need that intermediary. If we hadn't had Erik, our deal would have died on the vine," says Bart.
Instead, the vine has proven fruitful for the Garners, who took ownership of the London-Byron Pet Valu store this past March. They are well on the way to making it into one of the most successful in the province, drawing on their individual strengths and those of their staff, who were enthusiastic to stay on after the deal was closed.Shelley is quick to acknowledge her staff's contributions. “We make a good team,” says Shelley. "I've got more experience with birds, fish and small animals; for some of my staff, it's dogs and cats. I really rely on their dog and cat expertise.”
Most of all, her staff need to be invested in pets, to share first-hand knowledge with customers seeking help with a problem, based on subtle clues, symptoms and behaviours. That's key for Shelley, a graduate of the Animal Health Technician program at Centralia College.
From ducks to sugar gliders (Australian marsupials), 17 mammals and a fish tank at its peak, Shelley and Bart's home has hosted a wide range of feathered, furred or gilled guests. Shelley's interest in and working with animals goes way back. She worked part-time in a veterinary clinic at the age of 15, followed by stints in retail operations.
Matching the business to the skills and needs
When Erik first interviewed Shelley and Bart in early 2010, a profitable pet-centric business in or near London, where Shelley could apply her strengths, was their dream. They weren't closing their minds to other options, though. Coming from a family of entrepreneurs, Bart knew that the right skills can work across different businesses. On the other hand, “it's a hard job if your interests aren't there. You need some passion,” he says.
“We had looked at a hobby store on our own the year prior,” Bart recalls. “While it would have been a good job for me, it wasn't right for Shelley. But within a month or two of our meeting, Erik came back to us with the news that the owners of the Pet Valu store in Byron were looking to sell."
After a mystery shopping excursion, the Garners had no trouble assembling a list of "opportunities" for the store and its existing inventory. Shelley had further occasion to try out the business first hand when the owners let her work in the store for a few weeks. The Garners appreciated this gesture.
The due diligence period stretched on for nine months, complicated by all the normal issues and ultimately delayed by the franchisor itself changing hands mid deal. “It was a difficult period for both parties,” says Bart, crediting Erik for holding the deal together.
"He brought focus where it mattered and was able to present options, or an outside view of how other people have done it, drawing from his own experience as a business owner as well."
Finally, in March 2010, the Garners celebrated a grand re-opening of the store, their dream business made reality. By October, they were doing well enough to undertake a major renovation of the store. Everything from floor to ceiling was replaced, updating the look and making the store much more customer friendly.
Shelley is the face of the store. She's right at home helping customers, while Bart works behind the scenes dealing with contractors, the franchisor and the financials. He is the regional representative on the Pet Valu Canadian Franchise Council and continues to operate his own successful website design business.
Bart says he originally saw the store's potential in terms of numbers on paper, but now he "gets" how it's so much more to the customers who count on them. It's intuitive for Shelley: for many people, their pet is their life and they want to do everything possible to keep them healthy and safe. They care about where toys and food are made, what they are made of and even the energy source in manufacturing,
The Pet Valu franchise demands the Garners stay current with advances in the industry as well as watching margins. With their new line of eco-friendly toys, for instance, your pet is safe and your conscience is assured, Shelley notes.
Store customers also benefit from Shelley's "volunteer" tendencies. Her past and current involvement in local animal-related groups; a wildlife rescue organization, Nature London, London Aquaria Society expands her knowledge and expertise.
The Garners don't hesitate to look back though, and note that Sunbelt's Erik Twohig was instrumental in making it all possible, they agree.
By Karen Runtz