Where Are They Now?

Dogtopia’s reinvention: Teaching an old dog new tricks

By Alyssa Hurst

In “Where Are They Now?”, SmartCEO takes another look at companies and CEOs previously featured on our magazine cover. Dogtopia’s cover story appeared in the April 2009 issue. Read it here. If your company was featured on our cover and you’re interested in having us revisit your story, email ahurst@smartceo.com.

Dogtopia Neil Gill

Dogtopia CEO Neil Gill

Amy Nichols founded Dogtopia in 2002 with a strong focus on the relationship between the dog, the pet parent and their dog daycare provider. Today, Nichols is no longer involved with Dogtopia, but that relationship still forms the company’s core. For Dogtopia’s current president and CEO, Neil Gill, every step Dogtopia takes forward will be about “bringing that [relationship] to life.”

In June of 2015, Peter Thomas, chairman of Thomas Franchise Solutions, announced the purchase of his partners’ interest in Dogtopia. This started the company on a road to reinvention that kicked off with a new leader. Gill officially took over the business in August of 2015, and has been working to breathe new life into the brand ever since.

As part of this, Gill jumped right into the Dogtopia world, starting with its franchisees. “The first thing I did was, I went out, got on the road doing workshops with the franchisees so we could understand their needs, and then pulled our team together to develop a short-term strategy,” he says.

What he saw impressed him, and showed the true potential of the Dogtopia brand: “I’ve been in franchising for over 30 years and I’ve never worked with such an engaged group of franchisees. They are very passionate, incredibly focused, and very much love what they do,” Gill says.

Building the brand

DogtopiaFor Gill, Dogtopia’s new direction is about reinforcing the brand so that it can take advantage of the red-hot pet services industry. This wouldn’t be possible without the foundation laid by Nichols and her team, who spent years developing a concept built around safety and operations, and the well-being of dogs.

“The fact that there has been such an operational focus has been the part that has really allowed me to accelerate this side of the business, having absolute confidence that the operational pieces are still operating well,’” he says.

That’s not to say that Gill isn’t primarily focused on what’s best for the dog. As a lifelong dog lover, Gill says, “It’s what I’m calling an emotional connection. … The dog is our number-one customer even though he doesn’t carry a credit card.”

He adds, “It’s really about creating a culture within the business that can understand that, embrace that, and really focus on delivering on that relationship. … It can’t be driven by the commercial aspects of it because you’re dealing with a family member.”

Bringing new partners to the table

DogtopiaSo how does Gill plan to transform Dogtopia into a place where that very special human-animal bond is celebrated? It starts with a lobby redesign, and a reimagining of the overall process. Not only does Gill plan to open up each space in every location in the interest of transparency, but he has also restructured the way the company offers its services to make them more customizable, adding services and instituting a walkthrough with pet parents.

“It’ll feel different. It’s the whole ambiance part of the concept — bringing the senses to life in the space so that when our pet parents walk out of the store, they think, ‘Wow! Those guys really understand me and my needs and my furry family member,’” says Gill.

To drive this reinvention, Gill has relied on strategic partnerships. From working with a real estate group to earmark 12 key areas of the country, to working with a digital agency in Canada to improve digital marketing and hiring the help of a public relations company in Chicago, Gill has worked to bring in the best voices to help the company grow.

“Our focus is all built around more dogs, more stores, more safety,” says Gill. So far, its partners have helped Dogtopia design a new website, determine 11 different channels for revenue that it plans to roll out over the next 18 months, and find better ways to train its attendants.

Less than a year after taking on the head role at Dogtopia, Gill says the changes that have been made already are just the tip of the iceberg. So what else does the future of the company hold for excited pet parents and their playful pooches? Ultimately, Gill wants to turn the company into a one-stop-shop for all of your dog’s needs.

“You drop your dog off at daycare; if you want the dog groomed, you want its teeth brushed, you want its nails trimmed, that can be all ready for you when you pick up. If you want your dog trained, that can be part of the process as well,” says Gill.