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Past America’s Coolest Stores contest winners share who influenced their business lives.

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Each of our america’s coolest stores contest winners has a mentor at its helm. These leaders advise and inspire their employees, and they do the same for fellow pet business owners through our interviews with them.

But who are their mentors?

We asked winners to tell us about a person, company, industry or previous career that has help guide them to where they are today.

 

MIKE DOAN

ODYSSEY PETS, DALLAS, TX

When Mike Doan opened Odyssey Pets with wife Sherry Redwine, he was sure to manage differently than he had been managed in the past.

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“When I was young, I worked in a pet store and recall explaining to a customer all the features and details about a specific filter. I convinced him to purchase the more expensive one for quality assurance.

“Later that day, I overheard the owner of the store telling someone that I was a really good salesman and they should keep me on the floor up front, rather than in the back cleaning cages. It always bothered me that they never told me.

“I’ve realized since then that sales environments can be competitive. Competition on the sales floor can often breed contempt among the staff. This contempt does not foster a team environment. So now, when I see someone who expresses a certain quality, I make sure to tell them they are good at it in order to let them know they are valued, instead of just capitalizing on their skill and keeping them in the dark.

“A team that supports each other achieves a much higher level of success than one that has everyone in it for themselves.”

AIMEE GILBREATH

MICHELSON FOUND ANIMALS ADOPT & SHOP, CULVER CITY, CA

“I learned the ‘15-minute rule’ in my consulting job years ago. The concept is that if you have been struggling with something for 15 minutes without making any progress and you don’t have any idea what to do next, then it is time to ask for help. Too often we feel like we should be able to handle anything in our job role independently, and we get embarrassed at the idea of asking for help. The 15-minute rule keeps me from getting stuck in a loop of frustration and reminds me that I have a network of colleagues who would be happy to support me (as I would them).”

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ROBERT H. SMITH

JUNGLE BOB’S REPTILE WORLD, SELDEN, NY

Before opening Jungle Bob’s Reptile World, Robert H. Smith founded and ran a company that sold and serviced computer systems for the banking industry.

“This arena required skilled workers with impeccable credentials. Surety bonds, background checks, and clean records and driver’s licenses were mandatory. Our employees handled large amounts of cash, servicing ATMs and teller machines behind the bank line. Honesty and integrity was in their DNA.

“I have applied these same principles to all who work here. Although we don’t require staff to be bonded and insured, we certainly aim high when hiring and demand that no one ever lies to a customer or even guesses! When asked a question they may not know the answer to, they are instructed to ask management. Animals’ lives are at stake, and a healthy animal is the goal to ensure a happy customer and a great pet experience.

“For me this is every bit as important as a pile of cash was back then. So the lessons learned years ago are applicable at Jungle Bob’s. Even in a business that sells snakes, tarantulas and cockroaches, you have to maintain your integrity to succeed in the long term.”

FRANK FRATTINI

THE HUNGRY PUPPY, FARMINGDALE, NJ

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Frank Frattini credits his father, a former Marine, with instilling in him the importance of perseverance.

“As you can imagine, quitting or giving up is not part of our DNA. This proved especially valuable when we first went into the business back in the ’80s, when there were virtually no models of pet stores that did not sell pets. At the time, more than a few friends and family members thought I was more than a little ‘off’ for leaving a prestigious position as a bank official for a major money center bank to sell dog food.”

The trait also helped him develop the store’s popular delivery program.

“In addition, back in the ’80s, the concept of delivering dog food and supplies to people’s homes was, to say the least, a bit ahead of its time. It took a lot of perseverance to get people to embrace the concept. I like to think that we were Chewy before Chewy, the primary difference being that our model makes money.”

PATTIE BODEN

ANIMAL CONNECTION, CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA

Pattie Boden points to friend and mentor Shayne Jackson as the source of a most helpful bit of business advice. The owner of a successful masonry company, Jackson also has a working cattle ranch where he teaches horsemanship.

He told her to “Do less sooner … then do less than less.” She explains:

“Many people don’t give their business associates the opportunity to ‘try.’ We give them direction or a list of things to do, and then never allow them to fulfill those obligations without nagging or micromanaging.

“Make sure your directions are clear and consistent every single time, so there is no question about what is expected. If they need redirection, that’s fine, but get in and get out and go on with it.

“I have found that when I set people up to succeed and recognize a ‘try,’ that things fall into place almost seamlessly. Rewarding the slightest try isn’t like giving everyone a blue ribbon or saying good job just for showing up. It’s knowing that your people understand what you are asking and respect you enough to follow through to the best of their ability.”

ELLYN SUGA

SHOP DOG BOUTIQUE, SIOUX FALLS, SD

Ellyn Suga finds inspiration and guidance from Donald Miller, owner of StoryBrand, which helps businesses clarify their message.

“I attended a workshop with Miller in Nashville. He shows business owners how we’re simply here to help solve our customers’ problems. We must be able to empathize with them, but use our command and knowledge of the industry to show our authority.”

KEITH MILLER

BUBBLY PAWS, MINNEAPOLIS, MN

Before opening Bubbly Paws, Keith Miller worked in the radio industry for 10 years. It taught him to pay attention to the little details in order to provide great customer service.

“While working at a station in Minneapolis, Bob Guiney from THE BACHELOR was in town a few times. The first time, he made the effort to go around the room to get to know everyone and what they did. Three weeks later, he was back in town and came to the station, and started talking to me like he personally knew me!

“I work hard to get to know each customer who comes in, and really try to remember them the next time. Anyone can build a dog wash, but the one thing that really makes Bubbly Paws unique is the customer experience and how we try to treat everyone like an extended member of our family!”

TANIA ISENSTEIN

CAMP CANINE, NEW YORK, NY

Tania Isenstein spent 17 years as a lawyer for Goldman Sachs before switching gears to buy Camp Canine.

“The company focused heavily on its business principles,” she says. “The first one states: ‘Our clients’ interests always come first. Our experience shows that if we serve our clients well, our own success will follow.’ That principle expressed what I already believed going into the firm, but it also became a way of life for me. The leadership team here at Camp Canine and I ingrain this into every new employee and live it daily. As at Goldman Sachs, it has proven successful.”

LEEL MICHELLE

BOW WOW BEAUTY SHOPPE, SAN DIEGO, CA

Her many years in corporate fashion retail taught Leel Michelle to place a high value on her employees.

“They can make or break your day and your brand. Treat employees like family and be respectful of them and their time, and you’ll always have their respect. Working in corporate retail, we learn the importance of continuing education on how to be good managers, store merchandising, branding and customer service. These are all key ingredients to business success.”

TRACE MENCHACA

FLYING M FEED CO., HOUSTON, TX

Years at The Container Store taught Trace Menchaca that “in retail, everything matters. Your warehouse must be as perfect as the sales floor. Everything is done with intent and purpose. Everything is done a specific way. Creating an outstanding customer experience is critical. And creating an amazing culture for employees is crucial.”

DEBBIE BROOKHAM

FURRY FRIENDS INC., COLORADO SPRINGS, CO

Bob and Susan Negan of Whizbang Retailers help guide Debbie Brookham. They have taught her many lessons over the years.

“I think one of the most important was not to put a rule in place because of one bad customer. When you get burned in retail, and it happens to all of us, our defenses go up to make up store rules. The lesson is to stop and think how customer-friendly that might be for the rest of your good clients? Take a breath and re-think that strategy.”

PATRICK DONSTON

ABSOLUTELY FISH, CLIFTON, NJ

Patrick Donston subscribes to business author Jim Collins’ concept of Level 5 Leadership.

“I attended a conference and was profoundly inspired to become a Level 5 Leader. Ardent managers who instill passion in the workforce are the fuel for every good business. When you walk into a store that has this kind of passion, it’s palpable. As a customer, you definitely notice a difference. I learned the key to igniting our message is to communicate throughout the organization a clear understanding of what we are ultimately fighting for.

“Level 5 Leaders are built to make a difference. They are leaders of great purpose who act as stewards of the purpose. They bring their vision to life in meaningful ways to the marketplace. People follow them because of who they are and what they stand for.

“I’ve learned that simple concepts are better than convoluted solutions and ‘that people are not necessarily your most important asset, the right people are.’ I knew right then what I needed to work on in hopes of being a better leader and build a more meaningful organization.”

Pamela Mitchell is the Editor-in-Chief of PETS+. She works from her home office in Houston, TX, with Ty the Boston Terrier as her assistant.

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