Interesting Journeys Into Petpreneurship: Jason Duffy

In this episode of Interesting Journeys Into Petpreneurship, I talked to Jason Duffy, the CEO of the Pet Resort Hospitality Group, about how he is redefining the pet industry in collaboration with petpreneur owner-operators.

Interesting Journeys Into Petpreneurship: Jason Duffy
Jason Duffy CEO of the Pet Resort Hospitality Group

Welcome to part six of our series on interesting journeys into petpreneurship, this week I have been talking to a very different kind of petpreneur, one who is building a pet business on a much larger scale than any petpreneur I have spoken to yet.

His story will be of special interest to those of you who might have thought that nobody would ever want to acquire the pet business you built. With that in mind, please meet Jason Duffy, the CEO of the Pet Resort Hospitality Group.

For a guy who is used to managing thousands of people, I found him to be wonderfully down to earth, humble, and full of wisdom and experience that he is eager to share with young people as a mentor. This petpreneur genuinely loves people and dogs and has a lot to say about our industry.

I hope you enjoy reading about his story as much as I did writing about it.

Guy: You came from a very different industry before you started working in the pet industry How did that begin? Are you a dog lover? Are you a pet person?

Who were you when you were young, Jason? 

Jason: I've always loved dogs. I mean, just I think like every child probably, you know, loved puppies, loved dogs, had dogs growing up. As a kid, I thought about working with animals as a career, but as I grew up, it just didn't take me there. If I'm being honest, I don't know if I thought that there was any, you know, career in it.

I just knew I didn't want to be a vet. 

It never really dawned on me that working with animals could be a career choice. So I ended up in retail and went from the butcher block to the boardroom. I grew up as a meat cutter. I paid my way through college by learning how to cut meat.

Guy: From the butcher block to the boardroom Jason, what a quote!

Are you telling me you are just a butcher's boy?

Jason: Well, I went to school at the University of Washington and Portland State University and studied cellular and molecular biology. I stayed with retail and, I remember thinking I was going to study science, intending to get out of retail. But I spent another 20 years in retail because I realized things about myself.

I realized that I love to lead people. 

I spent that time with various retailers, culminating with a job at the biggest retailer in the world, Walmart. I spent some time with Walmart, working for a couple of years in China on their global business processes, and then I came back to the US to run their stores in California. So, I had just a lot of retail experience. 

My career has taken me worldwide, and it's given me a breadth of knowledge working for large companies and getting to exercise that leadership muscle. 

One thing I learned about myself early on is that I need some instant gratification.

I was never as interested in working on the six-month projects or the year-long projects. You can pepper those in, but I love achieving something today, this week, and next week. That's what I love about managing people and dogs. You get to have fun today and learn about people, their children, and their families. 

It's a good place to be. 

Guy: You said something really interesting, and it's interesting because it's the quintessential petpreneur story. I loved animals when I was younger, but then the real world hit me, and I made my way through it because I didn't want to be a vet. 

That is the classic petpreneur origin story I've seen emerging over 20 interviews. 

It's interesting because it began with a love of animals and dogs when you were young. It seems like you've done some incredible work at some of the world's biggest and most well-known brands and companies, but in the back of your head, there's always that childhood memory of wanting to work with pets.

It's like an itch you can't scratch, right?

Jason: Yeah. You know, to be honest, it was. After I had worked at Walmart for years, I wanted to make a change and ended up working for Clear

I began working in the biometric space with Clear in airports. They're part of the airport's security apparatus, and I loved their work there. I was kind of scratching that itch from an intellectual perspective. I was suddenly in the biometric space, and the team around me had been at the forefront of biometrics and secure identity for quite some time. It was a big change for me.

But then I was also getting to do what I loved: just the day-to-day management of people, and taking care of customers. I've always loved hospitality. In between retail jobs, I've worked in restaurants, and I’m kind of a hospitality junkie. 

Guy: But you're the operations guy, right? You're the one running the businesses on the ground? We're talking lots of people in some of these businesses, right? 

Jason: When I was at Walmart, I think I was working, depending on the day, within my direct line of responsibility anywhere from 3000 to 10,000 employees, I went through the pandemic with a lot of people I was looking out for and responsible for.

Guy: I notice the contrast. You've gone from retail to the user access and authentication space, working for a really important company and player in that space, right? You went from managing retail people to managing technical people. There's a huge difference between those two kinds of roles. I know operations are operations no matter what the org, but these are very different groups of people.

Jason: That's one of the things I've learned throughout my journey. You can say operations are operations, and they are, there are so many similarities, right? So you're finding efficiencies and things like that. But I think that what was probably the most valuable to me is just the skill set I developed with people. I have developed the ability over a number of years, to work and communicate with people across the organization.

So it didn't necessarily matter what group the people were in, as long as you were, I mean, you have to be respectful enough to know when you don't know what you're talking about, you've got to be humble enough to step in and learn it. 

But then you find out, how can I be a partner?

How can I help here? 

And what do they need? 

Some people really need a boss and a taskmaster more often than not. Sometimes, it's inspiration, and sometimes, if I'm being honest, it's removing roadblocks and getting the hell out of their way so that they can do what they're really great at. 

I think that just being agile and nimble as you navigate those waters has been interesting for me because you learn not only a lot about yourself but also about others and their triggers. Probably some of the best advice I ever got was to meet people where they're at. Everybody has a different kind of focus or priority.

For me, it might be some little blip on the radar, but for that individual, it might be the most important thing, weighing them down and keeping them from being productive. So it's great if I can be the right leader for them today.

Then, I left Clear a couple of months later as they were going public. I started looking for my next opportunity and was introduced to the pet space. I just reached out to some folks I've worked with and for in the past and said: 

Hey, I'm looking. Do you have anything out there? 

Guy: Hold on. This is the biggest contrast. So you're in the middle of this technical security space, securing airports, and it's a completely different mindset of people, environment, and industry. And then suddenly, you're in pet paradise. 

That company was even called the Pet Paradise Resort!

Did you get a sense of 'this is all I ever wanted to do'? 

Jason: I honestly did. And it's the first time like I said, I've always loved people. I've always loved animals, but I think I saw them as two completely different paths. I knew I would always want to work with people. I knew I'd always love pets. But I mean, we have horses, we have dogs, you know, I didn't, I didn't ever think I would get the opportunity to work with animals. I truly was in pet paradise when I joined that company. 

I quickly recognized that this is what I was put on this earth to do. 

What's really interesting about the pet industry is the people who come and work at those places. They're exactly the kind of person you want watching your dog. They are dog people through and through. They run big play groups, take your dog to the pool, and roll around with it on the ground in our play yards. They just love dogs.

That's exactly who I want watching my dog. And interestingly enough, it's also typically a young and inexperienced group of folks who also need a lot of leadership, training, and development. It was just such a great opportunity to get to do both. 

Guy: So that's how you got your taste in the pet industry, right? You got into it, immersed in it, realized you loved it, and then went out on your own.

Suddenly, you were the boss of a pet hospitality startup!

Talk to us about that journey. 

Jason: So, you know, I had somebody reach out to me late last year, and I got the opportunity to come to talk to the founders of the Pet Resort Hospitality Group, Eyal Cohen and Azhar Quader; they had previously been involved in a venture that grew to encompass 14 vet businesses. They'd sold those businesses, so they had little experience in the space. Eyal owned his own pet resort, and he did the doggy daycare and boarding. They wanted to put together a business and were looking for a CEO. 

So we started our conversations. 

After a long journey of kind of getting to know each other and understanding what the vision was, I ended up joining them in January of this year as their first CEO. They had just completed five acquisitions that closed in October, which is a lot of integration. That's the really interesting thing about PRHG.

What I loved about this opportunity was that I knew what good looks like. 

I've worked at Walmart and Clear, and I've had opportunities to see companies transform from startups to high-growth, high-performing companies.With this industry, I think what's been fun is, you know, one, it's pretty hard to have a bad day when you come in, and you see, you know, puppies playing around in a play yard or a pool. And you know, people enjoy that time. 

But two, there's just so much room for innovation. 

Image courtesy of PRGH

Most of these start out as kind of an idea or, you know, a smaller operation, and then they grow really big. And we're fortunate at PRHG is where, you know, we're building this family of the very best brands in the US. And that's what makes it so attractive. 

So for somebody like me to come over, and we really get to pick and choose our business partners, we're not just a private equity team coming in and rolling up a bunch of sellers; we're looking for the very best sellers and, I would say, partners. 

Guy: So you're a major player with deep pockets on a consolidation mission, making strategic acquisitions across the pet industry. You are a very different kind of petpreneur than those I've spoken to so far in this series.

You're doing something very different at a much bigger scale.  I read that you're building a pet care division. What does that look like? Can I come and drop my dog off at your daycare? How many of those are in your group? 

Jason: We've got 17 locations right now. We offer doggy daycare, doggy boarding, training, and grooming. One of the things that makes us different is that we take the best operators around the country and keep the sellers involved so they stay on. We invest our money in our people and their people over the long term.

But then we are building out things that are just different in the industry. 

You know, we are building out the first pet resort university. 

Guy: Wait, let's just slow down for a second. A pet resort university?

Jason: That's right. 

Guy: Providing an education for people who want to work at pet resorts? 

Jason: I think internally, we look at this as a way to differentiate ourselves and take advantage of a curriculum for somebody who wants to be a pet groomer to learn how to become a groomer. Whether you're dropping your dog off in Las Vegas, Nevada, or, you know, Houston, Texas, you get the same experience. 

Image courtesy of PRGH

Guy: Wow, that's an ambitious strategy. I love it. I come from the tech space where we are used to merger and acquisition activity. But you're doing something interesting that they don’t; you're adding value in a way they don't even begin to approach, right?  You're reinventing the markets you get involved with.

How do you merge such a diverse group of petpreneurs into a cohesive entity?

Jason: I would highlight that one thing that makes us strong and different in the industry is that we keep our owners involved and in partnership with the Pet Resort Hospitality Group. I think it's so effective. They now have an opportunity to join something that's a partnership for them and their businesses.

What we find with our owners, who I call owner-operators, is that they care a lot about what happens when they sell their business to us.

They worked so hard to establish themselves, and almost all of them are just the best in class in the areas where they operate. So when we think about what happens next, it's important to them. They still have to live in those communities, and we work hard to make sure that they're proud to join PRHG.

Guy: That's nice. I've been through M&A activity in the tech space, post-acquisition; they often dump everyone who's not critical to the IP.  You get to walk away with a chunk of change, but you sometimes think, I haven't finished what I set out to do in that industry. Many petpreneurs I interviewed are in it because of their love of the game, and you allow them to continue playing post-acquisition.

Jason: A lot of the time, they're not following marketing, sales, PR, legal, best practices, and when we partner with them to help them accomplish their long-term goals as petpreneurs beneath our umbrella, they suddenly have more resources. 

They've suddenly got vast experience behind them and backup. 

Image courtesy of PRGH

Guy: What does it take to be a successful petpreneur?

Jason: I think it's kind of a multi-pronged thing, but you have to love animals. 

You must love dogs; you can't just see it for the opportunity. 

There are lots of opportunities. You can go out there and make some money, and this is no exception, but you have to love animals because the work is different, and it's not all sexy.  And then the other piece is, I tell people when I interview them, especially for leadership positions, if you're going to be managing people, you have to enjoy it; if you don't, they will find you out.

You have to love managing and developing people.

One important thing to recognize about this business, about doggy daycare, is that 20 years ago, it was almost unheard of. There just weren't that many. 

Today, many people I know take their dogs to a doggy daycare. You've got a world now where many millennials and people of every age treat dogs like their kids, so they have much higher expectations than they used to, and they should. 

People have high expectations, and you must live up to them.

I think it's important to have the ability to manage people so you don't have a revolving door, nobody wants to hand over their dog to a complete stranger.

Image courtesy of PRGH

Then the third thing would just be having values. 

We live by very strong core values, one of which is safety. We always prioritize the safety of the animals and people above sales, profit, or any other decision. 

We foster a culture of radical candor, honesty, and integrity. 

That's important to pet parents, and I think it's important everywhere else as well.

You have to have that bug in you. If you don't love to serve people, whether they're in your employ or putting money in your cash register, this isn't for you. 

Finally, one of our most important core values would be love and community. 

We believe that pet care is joyful work. You should love doing this. 

Our pets provide us with so much love. We carry that forward in our business and in the communities we serve. We want to be more than just a place to bring your dog when you're heading out of town or working a lot of hours. 

We want to be part of your community. 

Our goal is to be the resort of choice for many reasons. Dog owners want to do business with good companies that invest their money wisely, take care of their people, take care of their pets, and are good partners in their community. 

That was a long answer. 

Guy: No. That was a solid answer, it came from a lot of experience and wisdom. 

My next question is, what is it like working in the pet industry? I guess what I'm asking here is, how has your life changed since you made the transition from what you were doing before to what you're doing now in the pet industry? 

Jason: Gosh, it's changed in almost every way. I think it's just... I'm more excited. 

I've always loved to get up and work and to lead, but I just think it's so exciting. This industry is exploding. There are so many multi-pet families. There are so many opportunities to do better. There are a lot of really average to below-average players out there who buy kennels and call themselves doggy daycare or doggy boarders. 

And we're not interested in being that. We build the best. 

We're building the facility right now, just starting to build out in Bentonville, Arkansas, where our pet resort university will be, to establish best-in-class practices. 

So you can learn in a classroom, test a process perfected in the pet resort next door, and then roll it out. We focus on finding innovations that people just don't think of, small innovations that free up labor—not to save it but to reallocate it so you can be out there in the play yard doing what we do best, right? 

Giving these dogs a joyful life. 

Image courtesy of PRGH

I think it's changed my life in other ways, too; I've always been passionate about why dogs end up in shelters. I think over 90% of dogs end up in a shelter because of a behavior problem. So one of the ways my life's changed is now I can have a meaningful impact on that problem. I can build a program to deploy trainers throughout all these businesses we've partnered with. And how many dogs can we save? How many dogs can we ensure never end up in the shelters but just become good citizens in their own homes and give them a better life? 

Guy: Lots of dogs I would guess! Your work clearly fulfills you!

Jason: I've never felt more fulfilled in my entire career than I do now because I get to scratch that itch of developing people and leading these really impressive teams as well as I get to see dogs every day. It's a great place to be. 

Guy: Great answer. Me too, I get excited about my job every day. 

Now the next three questions, I think they're the same question. Feel free to wax lyrical. Where do you see the pet industry headed in five to 10? What trends do you see influencing it, and what trends do you see emerging in dog ownership? 

Answer as you see fit Jason.

Jason: I think there's just a lot of continued growth, there's a lot of folks entering the market, and the competition's increasing. One of the trends that you're going to see, you know, moving into the future is more of a membership-type model with day camp, especially.  It's great having a dog when you're home working all day, but as more businesses call folks back to work for two, three, or even five days a week, those people are looking for solutions to ensure their dog is happy while they work. 

Finally, I think that over the next, you know, five to 10 years, you will see a lot more of what we're doing, where we're really sort of taking these regional champions and the best players in their space and enabling them to be even better whether it's, you know, by providing great benefits to them and their team, or by financing their growth. 

You can take some of the amazing things they're doing and expand on them. 

Guy: That's quite exciting, I think, if you're a petpreneur out there in this huge world of competition, right? You're doing a great job in Manchester, England, with your chain of three pet stores, right? Or you could be a pet groomer going above and beyond for your customers in relative obscurity, but a giant could reach out and acquire your business.

If you are in the vet space, you see acquisition activity around you constantly, but it's not something dog groomers or people who run doggy day centers see a lot of. 

You are opening up a viable exit strategy for those petpreneurs, and it's exciting!

But what advice do you have for aspiring petpreneurs? Lots of young people are looking at the space, and it's such a big space that I think it's easy for young people to look at it and just get lost and not know which direction to go. Right? 

What advice do you have for them? 

Jason: When I started working in the pet industry, one of the things I did was take my dog traveling with me on the road, checking into competitors. And I wanted to see which of my competitors I liked what I didn't like and experiment with my dog to have fun. 

If I were to start this over from scratch, I think it's just really having a detailed plan of what good looks like. I think the winners, you know, in the next few years will be the ones that are completely unreasonable in the way they approach hospitality, going above and beyond to make it amazing, and not the ones that are nickel and diming for every little obscure activity. The folks who put together a full hospitality experience and a membership model will succeed.

My advice is don't be afraid to try and to get out into the space. 

If you just want to learn it, come work for folks already out there and learn the business from the ground floor, just make sure you love it.  Anybody that wants to start needs to make sure they really love the dogs, if you don't, just don't do this. 

Go do something else because it's not fair to them. 

Guy: That's really good advice. No matter what you choose, get your dog out there, explore that niche, and figure out how to do what they're doing better because there's plenty of room in the space for somebody who goes above and beyond, right? 

Jason:  100%. And if you do a great job, I might talk to you about acquisition. 

Guy: Ha! Something to look forward to for many entrepreneurs out there!

Thank you so much, Jason, for taking the time to speak with me, hearing your story has been interesting, and I think lots of petpreneurs out there will value your advice.

Jason: Thank you for having me on Guy, it's been a pleasure.

This concludes our interview. Please follow up with Jason on Linkedin. He is definitely sometime you want to watch in the pet industry. Also, check out the Pet Resort Hospitality Group and the great work they do with their owner-operators.

You have just finished reading Part Six of our Interesting Journeys in Petpreneurship series; if you enjoyed this article, you should check out Part 1 featuring Niki French, Part 2 featuring Chloe Smith, Part 3 featuring Claire Harris, Part 4 featuring Mandy Madden, and Part 5 featuring Rik Cridland.