Christina Russell: President, Camp Bow Wow

Passion has led Christina Russell from editing physics textbooks to a job as the chief editor in the physics division of New Mexico’s Los Alamos National Laboratory. It then led her to take a leap along with her now-husband (then boyfriend) in opening four Curves franchises when the company was in its infancy, and then to a role leading operations at franchise headquarters overseeing 7,000 locations in the United States and Canada. And ultimately, it led her to her current role as president of premiere pet care franchise Camp Bow Wow, which provides a camp concept for (wo)man’s best friend.

“Camp Bow Wow’s Founder, Heidi Ganahl, had the vision to put a model together for an opportunity so if you go on vacation, your dog goes on vacation too. It’s like sending your kids off to summer camp,” Christina says. “Before this model, you basically put your dog in prison when you went on vacation. We look at it the same way as when you send your kids to camp. Your kid goes off to camp. She gets to meet new friends. She gets to do activities she enjoys. She gets to get out there and play hard during the day. But when you pick her up, she’s glad to come home but also very happy.”

Even though Christina didn’t have a dog growing up – “My family lived in a tiny house with four kids, two adults and one bathroom in Florida,” she says – she did fall in love with our favorite four-legged furry friends when she and her husband got a chocolate lab puppy, Peso. Shortly after, Penny, a red heeler and pit bull mix, was adopted by the duo so Peso could have a friend. Although both dogs have since passed away after long, healthy lives, Christina wants to add another to her family soon.

“My daughter is 16-months old, and we’ve been very diligently shopping breeds trying to figure out the size and temperament as far as breeds we want to get. My husband is a stay-at-home dad, so he’s going to have to potty train two at once!” she laughs.

What drew you to working at Camp Bow Wow?

Coming to this brand I was doing a lot of research. When you make a transition in franchising, you get approached by a lot of recruiters. Franchising is a very specific industry in terms of how you run the relationships with the business owners, because it’s actually the owners of the units that you are supporting.

Leaving a big brand like Curves, and putting myself on the market, there were a lot of different companies I spoke with, but the main filter for me was joy. I wanted a brand that was joyful. I wanted something that brought a smile to people’s faces or made a difference in their lives in some way. When Camp Bow Wow approached me, I immediately got online and the thing that resonated with me right out of the gate was one of the company’s taglines was, “Happy healthy pets. Happy healthy people.” I loved that, because you get to understand the values of what this company is based on. You get a pet for one reason and one reason only: Joy. You get a pet to bring joy into your life, so everything we do is really around making that relationship between the pet and the pet parent work.

A lot of franchises are owned by parent companies, and when I was approached by Camp Bow Wow they had just been purchased. I was curious who bought it, because that mattered to me. A lot of times the companies that buy companies do it more for the PNL than they do for the mission.

However, our parent company is VCA – owner of the largest chain of veterinary hospitals in the country. I asked Bob Antin, the head of that company, “Why did you buy Camp Bow Wow? What made you decide to do this?” I wanted to see how they saw us fitting into their portfolio along with veterinary hospitals, and they also do diagnostic services and diagnostic equipment.

His answer said everything about the relationship. He said, “We bought you because you are a smile brand. You bring a smile to the pet parent’s face.” That mattered to me because he sees that. On the veterinary side some of it is preventative, but a lot of what they deal with is illness and trauma and some of the harder parts of being a pet parent. But we deal with the joy. That’s what we deal with. We make it a better world for the pets and pet parents. I love that about it, and you see it at every level of the company.

How would you describe what you look for in Camp Bow Wow employees?

The main filter is: Love dogs. People who work here have this instant communal camaraderie around this common passion for pets. What I love about the brand is the true passion – not just my passion – but of every person in the company for what we do.

What is the culture like at a Camp Bow Wow camp, and what does a “typical day” involve?

Within the camp environment, each camp is independently owned and operated, but we have a very specific set of operational processes that help those owners to succeed. Typically, we see two different kinds of pet parents coming on a regular basis for two different reasons. One is typically boarding. These are people going on business travel, or taking vacations, and they need a place to board their dogs overnight. The boarders come and check in at various times throughout the day and leave for their travel. The other type of pet parent that typically comes is our day camp parent. These are parents you see two or three times a week who are bringing their dogs into camp. You get to know these pet parents very well.

The mornings are full with checking dogs in, making sure that they’ve got their things (much like if you were taking a kid to kindergarten every day and packing their backpacks). We build that relationship with the furry client, which is the dog, and also the pet parent.

The other thing camps spend a lot of time doing is the front of the house and interviews. When you bring your dog in for their interview, that is a big day for you. You’re probably wondering, “Is my dog going to pass? Is she not going to pass?” We take it very seriously because it’s a key element to the safety of the dogs in the facility. If you have a dog that’s overly aggressive, it’s not going to be good for the dog to be in that environment. It certainly isn’t going to be good for the other dogs in the facility to be in that environment. On the other end of that, sometimes you have dogs that have a little too much fear and reticence, and so they may not be a great fit for camp either because it may be overwhelming to them.

We interview every dog, and 10% of them don’t pass the interview, but we also have training programs that we offer in a lot of our camps called Behavior Buddies. Sometimes that can help to overcome concerns, we can then get them comfortable with the camp environment and then we can re-interview them to see if they pass. So, there are ways that we can help with that. It’s a really important part of what we do.

The real magic of the brand is what happens in the back of house. That’s where the dogs are. We have certified camp counselors who manage every yard in the camp. We divide the dogs by size, and certainly by temperament. We try to get the right mix of dogs so we get really good energy in the yard. Some of the dogs that are more timid or reticent are brought into the play environment and maybe some of the dogs that are a bit more high-energy get calmed down by some of the calmer dogs. So it creates a really comfortable environment where it minimizes any kid of fights that could break out.

The times that we see most of our pet parents front-of-house is in the lobby at check-in times and check-out times, but the bulk of the day what we’re doing is working with those dogs, doing health checks with the dogs, making sure that we’re keeping the energy good in the yards, looking for the times when they might need to go down for naps or eat their lunch. In the evenings, our day campers go home with their parents, but for the dogs staying overnight, we tuck them in their cabins. They are all fed in the evening and have a little break to get back out in the play yard, and then we put them to bed with a campfire treat, which is frozen peanut butter. It gives the dogs a way to calm down and feel special. It puts a feel-good energy in the back of the house so everyone goes down for a nice night of sleep. It’s an incredible environment.

What is the culture like at the corporate office?

Here at the corporate office, where I work, we are the franchise support center. We exist to serve our business owners and help them succeed. We also have dogs in the office. We’re very dog centric. We play a lot with dog puns, and do a lot of fun things here as well. It’s a base of who we are, and goes in every direction of the company. I will never work in an area I’m not passionate about, and I think this is an area where we have that in spades.

What is something about your job that others might not realize?

I think a lot of people don’t understand franchising in general. From the franchise perspective, it really is a model in which the franchise parent company is actually there to help business owners go into business. In this particular industry in the pet space, a lot of people want to be in this industry, and while it’s something people are passionate about, they don’t always have the know-how to do it. Building a facility like ours is no small feat, so you need the support to be able to do it. What we look for is people who are passionate about pets and passionate about getting into business for themselves. (Oftentimes they are leaving careers to come start their own business.) We bring that industry knowledge and understanding of how to build a successful doggy daycare and boarding facility, and then we share how to put premiere processes in place to make sure pets are safe, pet parents are happy, the dogs leave happy and want to come the next day, and that you have a business that really starts to build through the positive word-of-mouth.

These businesses really are – from the sense of Mom and Pop – true Mom and Pop-owned businesses. Most of our franchise owners only own one unit, so they are a single owner-operated business that exists in that local market. What we’re able to do is to help them figure out how to do that, and how to use all of the things that we’ve learned in our 15 years in this industry to help them be successful right out of the gate and grow a camp that’s going to be there for the long haul.

What is a learning lesson you’ve had in your career, and what did you learn from it?

I could give you a 15-page list of what I’ve learned! Most of what I’ve learned in my career has been through mistakes and setbacks. At the time they seem like the biggest problem and you wonder, “How the heck am I ever going to solve this?” But as you go through these things, take the attitude that these are growth experiences. If you think, “Whatever I’m supposed to learn from this, I’m going to learn, apply it and get better and stronger,” then you tend to grow.

Entering a brand like Curves in the highly competitive fitness market, it was a great concept that grew very, very quickly. Watching that happen you see that there’s always some uncertainty that happens in the foundation with fast growth like that. It was a real lesson learned to me to see how important it is to take a step back, breathe deeply and pace yourself. You want to grow, but you want to grow thoughtfully. You want to grow with the right people. And you want to grow with the right processes.

Camp Bow Wow has been innovative from the get-go with its concept, but a lot of the moves the brand made during the recession helped it to grow. One of those new ideas was Home Buddies, in-home pet care. It gave new revenue opportunities to our owners. Behavior Buddies also added another revenue stream for our owners, but it also was a way to help those dogs that didn’t qualify for camp. In the long haul, that’s the kind of growth that I want to see for the brand. I don’t want to grow so quickly that we’re not stable. I want to grow this brand in a way that we are here 10 years from now. I want people to still look at us as the leader in this industry, and I want to see a lot more camps and more of a difference in these communities for the lives of the pets and pet parents.

What else do you envision for the future of Camp Bow Wow?

Everyone talks about Millennials and where we’re headed with them. Every day my optimism around Millennials increases. Most of the employees who run our camps on a day-to-day basis are young men and women coming into a lot of new ideas. I like to listen to them and understand what they’re telling us. They are the customers of the future, the managers of the future and the business owners of the future. We want them to help guide us in terms of what their needs are going to be.

You see a lot of Millennials waiting to have kids, but what they are having is pets. Millennials don’t typically want to do transactional things with other humans. They like to do all of that online. So, a lot of what we’re looking at with our digital strategy is, “How can we simplify the check-in/check-out process for pet parents to make it very quick and efficient, while maintaining that social connection?” What you lose when everything is done online is that face time we have with you, as a pet owner, to really understand what your needs are through those day-to-day conversations. We’re looking at ways to do that through social media platforms and still be able to create efficiencies when you drop off your pets, because we know that matters to people.

Additionally, a lot of things in the digital space from the consumer side are going to matter. A texting app is something that we’re rolling out that’s an innovation pet parents will really appreciate. There are a lot of other pieces of our digital strategy that I think are going to be difference makers as well, in terms of how we interact and create those kinds of social environments around something like pet care. People can build a community around it.

For a reader interested in becoming a franchisee of a business like Camp Bow Wow, what direction would you point her in?

The best place to go is where we have information for people interested in becoming a franchisee. I got into business through franchising. I would never have had the courage to step outside of my career and do it on my own. Going into it through a franchise, I got to do it on my own, but with the help of an incredible community. At Camp Bow Wow we have 135 open units today. We’ve got another 35-to-40 units in our pipeline ready to open in the next 12-to-18 months, and that will continue to grow. When you look at this as a potential business owner, especially as someone looking to step out of a corporate job and do it on your own, you’ll get the franchisor as a resource but also a community of peers who can tell you, “These are the mistakes I made.”

There’s a quote someone gave me early in my career that has always stuck with me. It says, “The man with the experience leaves with the money, and the man with the money leaves with the experience.” In other words, you sometimes have to learn the lesson the hard way and take the hit in order to learn. What franchising does is simplify it so you don’t necessarily have to make those same mistakes, because you can leverage the experience of a lot of other people. The whole system starts to get stronger and stronger over time.

Whenever you’re ready to make that career transition, peer-to-peer support is absolutely invaluable. It will make a difference and keep you out of trouble along the way. Franchising is a great way to consider doing that. If you’re passionate about dogs, we’d love to talk to you!

After Hours graphic
I’d love to grab coffee with:

Joe Maddon from the Chicago Cubs.

If I could tell my 30-year-old-self one thing it would be:

Don’t give up. Persist. The hard things today will be the things that get easier tomorrow.

My favorite show to binge-watch is:


I can’t live without:

My 18-month-old surprise daughter.

My favorite way to unwind:

Hiking – I love the mountains.

I feel my best when:

I’m doing something around my passion.

I got into business through franchising. I would never have had the courage to step outside of my career and do it on my own. Going through a franchise, I got to do it on my own, but with the help of an incredible community.