Northwest Business Magazine

Success Story: Petland

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For owner Darcy Howen, happy pets and happy staff members make for happy customers.

Owner Darcy Howen and wife Diane met while working together at Petland, “where pets make life better.” (Dustin Waller photo)

At Petland of Rockford, Ill., “Pets make life better” isn’t just a catch phrase; it’s a mantra.

And with a living, breathing (not to mention slithering, crawling, flapping, swimming and scurrying) inventory, employees are kept bustling from early in the morning until well past closing, including at least three times a day on holidays.

Heading it all is owner/manager Darcy Howen, who started at the store in 1992, basically as a dog-washer.

“I have a diverse background in retail,” he says. “I was employed by Circus World Toy Stores, as an employee at Rite-Aid, and then worked for them training managers at Circus World Toys, which they owned. A friend of mine opened Petland, and I was going through a life change at the time and needed something different to do. Within a year, I was managing the place.”

The store moved from the second floor of CherryVale Mall to its current location, 7358 CherryVale Mall Dr., across from Sears, in 1995. Howen never looked back, and in 2005, he became owner. Running a pet store is a natural blend of his talent, background and affinity for animals.

“I’ve always been an animal person,” he says. “I grew up working on a farm in Wisconsin, so I’ve worked with animals, and I’ve always had pets.”
Part of an international franchise, each Petland location is locally owned. With a tenured, educated and big-hearted staff, reputable suppliers, loyal customers, and caring, experienced leadership, Rockford’s Petland has become an area staple for owners of all sorts of pets.

Howen credits that success to persistence and caring. “We always try to do the right thing, predicated on what’s best for the animal,” he says. Retail is known for staff turnover, but Howen has been able to maintain a fairly long-term group of knowledgeable people. Of the 20 full- and part-time employees, the newest has been with Petland for about five years, the most experienced, 20 years. Others range from 12 to 15.

“The average stay is three to five years, but those are mostly the high school and college kids,” Howen says. “One girl worked for me all through high school, has come back from college every summer, and wants to come back full time when she graduates.”

The reason? “They stay because I treat them fairly, first of all,” Howen says. “But most importantly, they love what they do. You have to. This is one of the toughest small businesses to run. And we’re in a controversial business, and we should be scrutinized. But I don’t do this because I’m making tons of money. I do this because I love animals, and I love people. I care very deeply about what I do, and I go to great lengths to do things correctly.”

Every employee must go through several rounds of in-house, regional and corporate training, involving audio- and videotapes and hands-on workshops. Each staff member tends to have a specialty area – a pet type he or she is especially fond of and knowledgeable about – but eventually, all of them have to know about them all. That includes Howen.

“When I started here, I thought I knew a lot about animals,” he says. “But I’m still learning. It’s an amazing process.”

While there is a finite number of types of animals – reptile, fish, mammal, avian – the varieties within those types number in the hundreds. And employees need to know much more than the difference between a Schnauzer and a Rottweiler dog, and a Siamese versus a Burmese cat. There are chinchillas, hamsters, mice and different species of Guinea pigs. There are macaws, love birds, cockatiels, finches, canaries and parakeets. Then, there are snakes, turtles and frogs, not to mention a room full of fresh water and marine fish. Employees need to know what kind of food, water and habitat each needs, and recognize behaviors that could indicate a health or socialization problem.

“We hold monthly store meetings, where some kind of training is included,” Howen says. “We also have a program called ASK – Assoicates Sharing Knowledge. If someone has something to share, or something he or she wants to learn more about, that person brings it to me for approval. Then the employees involved figure out a time to get together.”

A wall in Howen’s office is filled with plaques and certificates attesting to his store’s commitment to providing quality and service. The store has been recognized as the Petland Store of the Year three times in the past 20 years, and runner-up 15 times. Part of that recognition can be attributed to changes instigated by Howen when he became owner.

“I changed the philosophy about the kinds of advertising we do,” he says. “I try to do a mix of things – billboards, ‘Playbills’ for the local theaters, print ads. I also changed what we do for the community. We help out a lot of local charities and not-for-profits, because that’s what you do – support the people who support you.”

A telephone call from Loyalton, a nearby assisted living center, reveals one of those causes, as Howen arranges to visit the residents with some of the store’s calmer puppies and kittens.

“We go over every few weeks, when the director calls,” he says after hanging up. The residents really enjoy it, and it helps to socialize the animals, too.”
All of Petland’s pets are guaranteed, and most are supplied locally and regionally.

“I get puppies from breeders in Iowa, Wisconsin and Illinois,” Howen explains. “Most are no more than a four- or five-hour drive, and the breeders deliver the puppies themselves. We go out of our way to ensure that our breeders are of the highest quality. I spend a four or five weeks out on the road, visiting them every year. I check the conditions very carefully. Our standards are stricter than USDA or even state guidelines. Most of our puppies come from family pets. We get some of our labs from a breeder in Rockton, and when new puppies arrive, it’s like Christmas morning around here. Every dog has its own unique personality, and personality is everything.”

Purebred kittens come from breeders, too, but mixed breed kittens sold at Petland are all rescues. “We worm them, vaccinate and find them good homes,” says Howen. “We rescue other animals, too, but they have to be socialized. If they aren’t domesticable, we don’t take them.”

Large birds are a prime example. “Parrots, cockatoos and macaws – any large birds – are very intelligent, and they’re very social,” Howen explains. “They imprint pretty strongly on their owners, and they require a lot of attention, more than a dog, even. Any rescues have to be safe, and they have to be healthy.”

Even when purchased, the big birds don’t go home with their new owners right away. “We have the people come in and visit, to get the bird used to them,” says Howen. “Any animal can be dangerous when it’s threatened. The birds are really very sensitive, and we want the customer and the creature to be happy together.”

Howen himself has five dogs – two Jack Russell terriers, a Rottweiler, an Australian Shepherd and a toy Australian Shepherd – all from Petland.
“But I’ve owned every animal under the sun at one point or another,” he says with a big grin. “I love them all.”

Howen admits that, like all retailers, his business has slowed over the past couple of years. “But we have a very loyal customer base – you don’t last 30 years without that,” he adds. “We try to go above and beyond, to provide the best service possible. Our goal is to make sure that every pet has an opportunity at a good life.”

A store wall, filled with letters and photographs from happy pets and their owners, is a testament to Petland’s success at meeting that goal. “Running this store has brought me great happiness,” Howen says. “I really believe that pets make life better.” ❚

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