Walter Morris Jr. has hoped for some time that his daughter Joanne would take over the family’s pet spa business, the Morris Animal Inn in Harding Township. In fact, he started working with tax and estate planners two decades ago to begin the process.
The paperwork, however, is the easy part. Walter, who took over the business from his father, had a bigger concern: That she earned it.
It’s not enough to merely have a family member ready to take over a business, Morris said. They need to not only be competent, they need to have learned firsthand how the business world works.
“Transition of ownership is the hardest struggle in family business,” Walter said. “You have a vision of what you want to make it work. But you also have to separate what has been earned.
“In my mind, Joanne has earned what she has. She has put in the hours, commitment and dedication.”
And most importantly, she did a lot of that elsewhere. Joanne worked for Invisible Fence for 15 years before joining the family business in 2000.
“We encourage the family to have other experiences and teach them the business from the bottom up,” Walter said. “We want them to bring something new to take our business to the next level as the industry grows.”
And oh, how it’s growing.
Joanne now serves as the vice president of a company that has nearly three dozen full-time employees, more than 50 part-timers and more than $5 million in revenue a year ago.
Her time away from the company — and the family — taught her one big lesson: It’s business first.
“We’re very respectful of the roles we have and separate our personal lives from the business,” Joanne said.
It’s always been that way.
Walter Morris Sr., a former winner of the Westminster Kennel Club dog show, started the business in 1960, when he opened the Poodle Palace. In 1978, Walter Jr. and wife Marianne bought the business. They renamed it and moved it across town to its current location in 1986.
They view Morris Animal Inn as a luxurious pet resort — please don’t call it a kennel. It has day and overnight services in a 24,000-square-foot, multimillion-dollar facility. There is a swimming pool, TV for cats, gourmet treats and suites instead of cages.
Think that’s too much? Think again.
“It’s transitioned much like the hotel/motel industry, which started with roadside cabins to little by little bigger hotels being built,” he said. “This industry was mostly ma (and) pa owners in backyard kennels. With real estate becoming more expensive, some closed. What drove this was more and more the dog and cat became part of the family, and people wanted better facilities and care for their pets.”
Walter predicts more growth.
“This is a recession-resistant industry,” he said. “Most owners are not going to stop taking vacations.”
One day, however, Walter and his wife will stop working. They are confident that Joanne and another daughter, Tricia Downs, who serves as the director of finance, have the skills to keep the family business going.
After that? Well, some of the grandchildren have worked there part time. That generation may eventually take over, too. But they’ll have to earn it first.