Barking Mad franchisees Elaine and John Warburton have gone to the dogs for the past five years - and they wouldn’t have it any other way
John Warburton, an ex-marketing director, is finally free of being what he called a “wage slave commuter”, while his wife Elaine, eight years a police officer, now has a fulfilling career that has helped her conquer the depression that shadowed her life for 20 years.
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“It’s not a job, it’s a way of life,” is how Elaine describes the award-winning Barking Mad home from home dog care franchise she and John run in Fife and Kinross. “We are living a dream. We love dogs and we love the lifestyle the business gives us. What more could you want?”
Heart warming bonus
Even so, winning the Lifestyle category at this year’s British Franchise Association HSBC Franchise of the Year Awards - for showing exceptional business acumen over the past 12 months - has proved to be a heart warming bonus.
“It was just one more way Barking Mad has changed our lives,” John says. “Taking on the franchise was the best decision we have ever made.”
You can see what he means. It’s been calculated that Britons will be spending £2.1 billion a year on their dogs by 2023 and with nearly a quarter of all households owning one, dog care is a burgeoning non-seasonal business that has an increasingly profitable track record. It’s claimed that over half of owners would rather cut back on money they spend on themselves, rather than deny their pets.
Pioneers of a new concept of doggy holidays, Barking Mad’s network of over 80 franchisees recruit carefully selected ‘host families’, who look after customers’ dogs in their own homes when the owners are away. The company has arranged over 100,000 dog holidays and its mantra is that a happy dog invariably means a happy holiday for the owner.
It’s been a winning formula for 19 years, proved by numerous awards and five-star ratings from thousands of customer reviews. The professional, tailor-made dog sitting service, which is an alternative to kennels, was launched in 2000 and became a franchise in 2002 after Lee Dancy, the company’s founder needed someone to look after her Dalmatian puppy while the family went on holiday to America.
Based in Kirkby Lonsdale, Lancashire, Barking Mad has since won awards for business growth, innovation and brand leadership. A franchise costs around £15,000 and includes a week’s hands on training and ongoing head office support and guidance.
Since 2016, Barking Mad has been part of multi-brand franchisor Franchise Brands, which has a network of 450 franchises in 12 countries.
The secret of Barking Mad’s success? “I put it down to the strength of the brand and our dedication to providing first-class customer service, systems and processes,” managing director Rachel Stewart says. “The expert support and investment we receive from being part of the larger Franchise Brands plc Group also sets us apart and empowers us to succeed.”
At a crossroads
John and Elaine were at a crossroads in their lives in 2014. John had been made redundant and Elaine decided that at 43 it was time to hang up her Lycra as a busy personal trainer and fitness instructor.
“I was holding 17 fitness classes a week and my body just couldn’t keep up like it used to,” she remembers.
“A friend told us there was an opportunity to take over the Fife and Kinross Barking Mad franchise, but when I broached the idea with John at first he wasn’t too sure. He said we knew nothing about franchising and running our own business would be a heavy responsibility. But he admitted it was pretty exciting too and was soon as enthusiastic as me. After all, who doesn’t want to be their own boss?
“But what really swung it was that we were both mad about dogs. We have six of our own, plus two cats, two guinea pigs and two rabbits. It seemed a wonderful chance for John and I to work together on something we loved and make sure we delivered the best possible experience for every dog that holidayed with us.
“The great thing about Barking Mad is that it’s a wonderful alternative to kennels, where dogs are rarely given one to one attention and owners often feel guilty about jetting off on holiday and leaving their pet behind. But with a Barking Mad host, pets have a super holiday too.”
Another plus was that the franchise would give Elaine and John the flexible lifestyle they were seeking, so they could enjoy family life with their 15-year-old daughter Emily.
And as John points out: “The fact we were buying an established territory was also another deciding factor, as we were new to running the business and wouldn’t have to be starting from scratch. Another decider was that full training and support was provided and there were tried and tested operating procedures.”
After initial training, Barking Mad’s experts work closely with a new franchisee for six months. Other training includes business planning, dog behaviour, marketing/PR, social media and emarketing, sales techniques, accounting, administration and customer service.
The perfect host
Elaine and John agree that a vital part of Barking Mad’s success is matching dogs to their holiday hosts and they go to extraordinary lengths to get this right. “Elaine will spend a couple of hours with a new customer and get to know everything about the dog, its likes and dislikes and its home life,” John says. “The information is compiled in a detailed pet schedule that goes to the hosts, so they know exactly how to treat the dog and what to expect.”
Elaine adds: “I’m almost like a Blind Date presenter. Finding a host who will love and care for someone else’s dog as they would their own takes a lot of time and care. But luckily our hosts are made up of wonderful people from all walks of life, who love dogs but for one reason or another no longer own one.”
In fact, Elaine’s parents regularly host dogs for their daughter. And the majority of Barking Mad hosts are retired people who are still active and enjoy the companionship of a dog.
“Many live on their own and love having a dog to talk to and take on walks,” Elaine says. “It’s also an opportunity to meet people - dog walkers are usually a friendly bunch.”
She says many of the younger hosts are teachers who enjoy having a dog in the house during the school holidays.
“The first thing I ask when interviewing a potential new host is not what size or breed they want, but what would they enjoy most about having a dog,” Elaine says.
“For instance, they might have a bit of arthritis and couldn’t manage an ultra active Yorkshire Terrier, but would be fine with a retired greyhound that is happy to walk calmly by their side. It’s all about making sure dog and host are happy with each other.
“It’s a win-win for everyone involved. The dogs are thrilled to explore a new environment and the hosts get to experience the joy of having a pet without the long term commitment.”
John and Elaine agree that Barking Mad has transformed their lives. “I was 20 years in marketing and had become a wage slave,” John explains. “I was away from home from seven in the morning until seven at night and was often away travelling and not seeing enough of my family and friends.”
All this changed when he joined Elaine in the Barking Mad franchise.
“Having been made redundant twice in the course of a year, we didn’t seem to have control, but now with Barking Mad we are in charge of our own future and it’s not just a job,” John says. “After five years, we have grown the franchise by 300 per cent, which has been a great success for us, greatly helped by the support we receive from head office.”
Elaine has no doubt about her major life changer: “I’m with my dogs all the time, which is a massive tick in the box. If I had to do the same again, I would do so 100 per cent. The only difference is that I would have taken on the franchise a lot earlier.
“The dogs are one of the biggest influences in our lives - they connect us with the extended family we’ve made. I’ve got the best job in the world. I don’t think of what I do as work - it’s just continual pleasure.”
But she says the greatest transformation has come from the way her new lifestyle has helped beat the depression that had clouded her life since the end of her first marriage in 1994.
“I have always used exercise to help treat my depression and the happy and active life we have with our dogs and Barking Mad has helped boost my mood in ways I could never have imagined,” Elaine says. “It’s been amazing therapy for me.
“The dogs keep me on an even keel and the effect of this is that my anti depressant medication is the lowest it’s been in a long time. I’m in a much better frame of mind these days.”
It’s a far cry from the time in her mid-twenties when her depression was so severe that Elaine was unable to get out of bed. Later, she treated her condition with a mixture of natural and conventional medicine and health and fitness regimes.
Leaving the police in 2008, she became a personal trainer and fitness instructor until 2014 when, fortuitously, Barking Mad came into her life - and things were never the same again.
Elaine and John love the flexibility of running their franchise. On a sunny day, they can take their six dogs out on the hills, knowing they can catch up on work in the evening. “Work and home activities slot into each other,” John says.
This is confirmed by Barking Mad, which provides details of an average day for the guidance of new franchisees. Some days are spent working from home, while others will involve driving to deliver or collect dogs, meeting local contacts such as vets, dog walkers and dog groomers and networking with potential clients over a cup of tea or coffee or at shopping centre promotions.
They will also meet up with hosts and even organise lunches and group walks. It’s essential to be out and about, making connections with new customers and recruiting new hosts.
“Every day is different, with a new challenge and new rewards,” Elaine confirms. Looking back on the past five years, she says: “We believe that Barking Mad has changed our lives. It certainly has mine, having such a positive impact on my mental health.
“We just hope that others will be inspired to follow their dreams like we did.”
How to run a business and stay married
Elaine and John Warburton have run their Barking Mad franchise since 2014. Here’s their recipe for marital harmony:
1. Play to your differing strengths. We have different backgrounds and skill sets and there are clear lines of demarcation. We depend on each other and that’s good.
2. Give your partner space. We share an office, but are rarely in it at the same time. When we are, it’s nice to chat.
3. Set clear rules of operation and trust each other to do a good job.
4. Create a line between business and married time. We turn off the phones on Thursday evening and have uninterrupted ‘us’ time.
5. Have respect for each other. Set boundaries and don’t leave work in a temper. Get over it and move on.
An award winning journalist and author, Tony James specialises in business and sport
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