SUCCESS STORY

Dan Gardner and Cheri Griffiths

Playtime Pet Resort

Dan and Cheri

Taking a tour of the overnight accommodations at Playtime Pet Resort is like visiting a “Best of Philadelphia” exhibit. When checking out the types of boarding suites, pet parents can stroll down the cobblestone paving of Elfreth’s Alley, consider Philly’s famous dining options along Restaurant Row, or celebrate one of their favorite local teams – the Eagles, Sixers, Flyers or Phillies. The facility also features 5,000 square feet of outdoor play yards with artificial turf specially designed for pet resorts, a pond with a waterfall and a tunnel for the dogs to run through. This fun and unique dog boarding and “All Day Play” experience in Greater Philadelphia was developed thanks to the founders’ years of operations know-how, financing expertise, flair for interior design and a shared love of dogs.

Shortly after retiring from 30+ years in the investment banking business, partners Dan Gardner and Cheri Griffiths realized they needed a new challenge. They decided to pursue a new business venture centered around pet services. “Cheri had been a lifelong dog lover and spent the better part of her professional career rescuing dogs as a hobby,” Dan said. “In fact, we have two dogs now that were failed fosters because we fell in love with them and decided to keep them.”

The stars aligned when they combined Cheri’s background as a dog rescue provider, their own market research through a short stint watching dogs out of their home, financial and operational expertise, and their knowledge of venture capital opportunities in the pet care space. In May of 2018, they found an investor to back the startup of Playtime Pet Resort, leased a location, and completely remodeled it into the high-end Philly-themed boarding facility that it is today. They finished the renovations, opened their doors and were serving more than 100 dogs per day when the pandemic threatened their business, like so many pet resorts across the nation. “Just as we were getting off the runway and clearing the treetops, Covid hit,” Dan said. But they got through the challenges of the pandemic and after five and a half years, Playtime Pet Resort had served more than 6,500 customers with waiting lists every summer, Christmas and New Year. The business has more than 500 5-star reviews on Google and a loyal following of pets and their people.

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“Our current investor backed us to build a second location, which we opened just the week before Thanksgiving [2023],” said Dan, adding that the new location is close enough to the first to accommodate any holiday overflow that otherwise would have been turned away. “The fact that we have that spillover effect coming into the second location will presumably get us to break even much quicker.”

Even with the growth and popularity of Playtime Pet Resort’s first two locations, it became apparent that the original investor had shifted their focus in another direction and didn’t want to expand further. “We started to think about ways to buy them out of their position or find another investor who would absorb their position.” Along the way, Dan talked to a friend who’d seen a lot of success in the pet resort industry.

ABOUT THE BUSINESS

  • Location: King of Prussia, PA
  • Established in 2018
  • Owned for 5 years
  • Services provided: Boarding, Daycare, Grooming, Training
  • 1 building, 16,000+ SF on 2.4acres
  • 120+ enclosures with 170+ dog capacity
  • 40+ full and part-time staff.

“I called him and asked, ‘What do you think I ought to do?’ And he said, ‘I think you ought to call Teija.’” So, Dan connected with Teija Heikkilä of PET|VET, and she agreed to take them on as a client. “From that moment forward, we’ve had just the most fabulous professional investment banking type interaction that I’ve experienced throughout my career. She knows the market. She knows the buyers. She knows valuations. She provided guidance on how to negotiate employment contracts [and] how to structure the transaction.”

The timing worked out great, as Teija was already seeing a significant increase in interest from private equity firms who wanted to get into the pet services space through large-scale deals. She had decided to bundle a number of premier pet resorts from around the country into a single offering, so she added Playtime to the portfolio. Within a matter of weeks, Dan and Cheri had received four bids. They settled on an offer from a private equity group in October 2023. “After careful consideration and evaluation, we decided they were the best people with their hearts in the right place…they provided us access to capital and business process to grow the Playtime Pet Resort brand as aggressively as we can over the next 5 to 10 years,” Dan said. “PET|VET found us the perfect buyer and got us a great valuation.

“[Teija and her team] have it down to a science,” said Dan, adding that the transaction was extraordinarily more complex than he ever dreamed it would be. “That’s where Teija and her team bring so much value. It was doable and tolerable because they controlled the cadence and the flow of work, pushing the ball closer and closer to the finish line all the time. I would never want to do something like this on my own.”

The new owner offered Dan and Cheri executive positions to continue running the business. “They are very founder friendly and hands off,” Dan said. “And we were given the opportunity to roll over a significant percentage of our investment into the new
vehicle, so we wound up owning a much smaller piece of a much larger entity. And we were able to de-risk our lives by putting
money in the bank.”

Over the past five and a half years, the biggest challenge in running their business has been to find and manage the right mix
of employees. Dan and Cheri have built a management team and a roster of employees that they trust to run the day-today operations. They currently have about 65 employees. “It’s a daunting task to get the right team in place, and once you have it, you just have to treat them right.” Several years ago, they decided to significantly increase the wages they were offering in order to attract the best employees. They expected labor as a percentage of revenue to go up 3 or 4 points but were surprised when the opposite happened. “It dramatically improved the overall quality and morale of the workforce and the quality of the care for the dogs. The overall efficiency of the workforce improved to the point where it outweighed the incremental cost. So, it was a very interesting lesson that we learned accidentally.” “We feel like the place can open, operate and close without us being there,” Dan said, although he and Cheri still come in every day. “We’re continuing to steer the ship, but we’re entrusting our managers to do more and more. We’re about to take our first vacation in six years.”

Dan and Cheri enjoy the challenges and find a lot of satisfaction in running the Playtime Pet Resorts. “Particularly on a boarding day when a dog is so exuberant and thrilled that their owners have come to pick them up. I tell people it is like witnessing pure, unadulterated joy, which most of us rarely get to see in life. But we get to see it all day, every day.”