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‘We had 50 dogs and extreme fire danger.’ How a pet company coped through fires and COVID-19.

Margie Hennessy is the CEO and owner of luxury dog company, DOGUE.

The brand, which originally comprised of one single store in Woollahra, Sydney, has since extended to 11 boutiques and grooming salons across New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland, as well as the DOGUE Country Retreat, a boutique hotel for dogs in the Southern Highlands.

In this week’s episode of the Lady Startup podcast, Margie sits down with Mia Freedman to discuss how a luxury pet company and boarding facility managed to keep afloat through not only one crisis but two.

LISTEN: Margie Hennessy talks to Mia Freedman about her luxury dog company, DOGUE. Post continues after audio…

Margie began by discussing the 2019-2020 bushfires and how they impacted their DOGUE Country Retreat. Not only was the facility at peak capacity over summer, but they were also facing extreme fire danger.

 

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“Being in the country you’re aware of bushfires. Since 2013 we always knew there was an issue. We always had plans in place,” she began.

“The Green Wattle Creek Fire, which started around late November, was just to the north of us and at times came within 10km of us. In December, we went into lockdown and never left the retreat for about a month and a half really. From that point on, there was constant fire danger.

“Then in late December, there was a catastrophic fire day. But the day we were most worried about was January 4th. And for us, it was our peak period. We had 50 odd dogs and no water in the dams because of a relentless drought.

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“It was a dreadful time.”

However, they managed to put a plan in place immediately and get all their dogs or ‘guests’ as Margie likes to call them, to safety.

“I made the decision to close and evacuate. We knew we were going into a catastrophic fire day and the most important thing was to get all of our guests and staff out,” she said.

“Every morning we would look for more places to fill water and to be more prepared.”

But Margie explained that on this day they decided it was time to move the pets to a safer location. They sent groups of 10 dogs off to the homes of various team members and kept them there until it was safe enough to return.

“By 10am, the entire retreat was empty,” Margie explained.

“We only got great feedback from the owners – they were so appreciative.

“It was a positive experience.”

Coping through COVID-19

While Margie explained that the first crisis mainly affected the DOGUE Country Retreat, COVID-19, affected the entire business.

“We were warned pretty early on [about COVID-19]. Our DOGUE Design business, which is our manufacturing business, stopped production in late December-early January in China. And we had some pretty big orders we were waiting for.

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“So around the same time as the bushfires, that was all happening,” Margie explained.

And although the company didn’t know how serious the pandemic would get, they understood early on how badly it would affect their business.

“We didn’t get any insight that it would hit the world as it did, but we were already cancelling new product ranges and having a lot of difficulties.

“DOGUE Design business was impacted very early,” she continued.

How they adapted

Margie explained that while it was a very stressful period in the beginning when social distancing measures were first implemented, they ensured that had a plan in place as soon as possible.

“We had a COVID-19 action plan formulated,” she explained.

“The plan was really comprehensive. But also we needed to get on top of information, we were really strong on that.

“We did lots of communication. We ensured our managers were communicating with our team.”

But there were complications when businesses were instructed one thing and employees were told another.

“We were a business that was told we didn’t have to close but we had many of our staff being told to stay home,” she said.

And that proved to be complicated.

“Our grooming and retail businesses were open and actually reasonably busy. That to me was the most stressful because I didn’t know what was really responsible.”

How they are coping now

Margie explained that these days they are still struggling due to the ripple effects of COVID-19, however, they hope it will give them a chance to reevaluate what they’re doing and how to possibly do it better.

“We have one store that’s been closed for a month – our new store in Melbourne. I worry about that store and it’s future, definitely,” she shared.

“The retreat, we haven’t had dogs boarding for three or four weeks. And different parts of the business fund other parts of the business. So, if the retreat isn’t doing well, then that puts a lot of pressure on the other parts of the business.

“It’s definitely a time for us to reevaluate what we’re doing. And try to get back to what we love doing. Which is providing great service for dogs and their owners.”

Listen to the whole interview with Mia Freedman and DOGUE CEO, Margie Hennessy here. 


Feature image: Supplied.

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