Al & Valorie Bowman
Cinder Hills Kennels
What does working at a nuclear power plant have in common with running a successful pet resort? The surprising answer is, “Quite a lot,” according to someone who has done both.
Al Bowman ran the chemistry and health physics departments at a commercial nuclear plant outside of Rainier, Oregon for 12 years. It was a rewarding role, but the stress was high. So, when the plant was in the process of decommissioning, Al and his wife Valorie started looking for something different.
Valorie was interested in opening a dog and cat boarding facility, since she had family who was already in the business. Al had a coworker who used a dog daycare nearby called The Dog Zone, and he suggested they check it out to get ideas. They met with the owner, Teija Heikkilä, who was happy to show them around and answer their questions.
Al and Val spent about a year looking at options across the country before purchasing Cinder Hills Kennels in Flagstaff, AZ in 2001. They improved the existing facility by expanding and remodeling countless times over their 22 years of ownership. “It’s like owning a home,” Al said. “You’re never done.”
Many of the changes were based on Al’s experience at the nuclear plant and the eight years he spent working on nuclear submarines in the Navy. He took his knowledge of potable water, wastewater treatment and ventilation systems and applied it to the design and safety of the kennels. “I was very familiar with keeping areas clean and pathogen free,” he said.
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Al reached out to engineers in his professional network for help designing and reconfiguring the ventilation system to increase airflow and minimize areas where airflow was stagnant. “The dead zones are very important in pet care, to minimize airborne pathogens … In the 22 years of running our kennel, we never once had a kennel cough outbreak,” Al said.
His understanding of chemistry played a key role in identifying the limitations of each type of disinfectant, down to the molecular level. “The science background really went a long way,” he said.
Al was invited to give talks on these topics at industry conferences, but the vendors weren’t always happy with his evaluation of their products. He also worked with others in the pet care industry who had pharmaceutical or medical backgrounds to develop better solutions, and the group consulted with other pet resort owners for free. “We just gave [the information] out because we wanted the animals to have proper care,” he said.
The Bowmans crossed paths with Teija again at these same conferences. “Her presentations were invaluable for us getting our financials in line with what the system [of banks and buyers] want to see,” they said.
They also remembered how helpful she was years before when they had asked for a tour, and her company’s reputation among other pet resort owners was impeccable. “When we talked to other people who had bought or sold their facilities through Teija, there were no complaints. None. Zero that we heard of.”
In 2016, they began to think about selling Cinder Hills Kennels. Teija provided a formal business evaluation and offered some recommendations to implement before starting the sales process. For family reasons, they decided not to sell at that point and kept the business going, even through the challenges of COVID.
When Al and Val reached out to Teija again in the spring of 2022, they were concerned about the impact of the pandemic on their books. But she knew how to tell their story in a way that was attractive to buyers, and the Bowmans say the process was as smooth as it could’ve been, given the post-pandemic business environment. “That's what made Teija and her team at PET|VET M&A, Sales & Advisory so invaluable. If you had to do it on your own – I can't even imagine.” With Teija’s experience, she could also warn them ahead of time what to expect during the negotiations, which alleviated a lot of stress.
They are thankful for the type of buyer Teija found, as well. “I don't think she could have matched it any better … with [the buyer’s] outlook and their drive to do what we did. That gives us peace of mind. We don't feel guilty about handing the reins over,” they said.
These days, Al and Val are traveling the country in an RV with their dog Beans – visiting family and friends, stopping by to spoil their grandkids, hiking and biking, and figuring out what’s next. After taking care of pets 24/7 for so many years, they are thrilled to have very few daily responsibilities. Most days, they can do whatever they want, whenever they want to, and they don’t take their newfound freedom for granted. “We just won the Super Bowl of retirement,” Al said.