Let’s start at the very beginning …..
Picture a bonny two year old dressed in white toddling round her Grandparents’ farm cuddling the hens (who would peck everyone else), collecting eggs and then toddling on to have another cuddle only this time with the pigs and you have Sheena in your minds eye. The Founding Director of VIPPIES was always going to end up looking after lots of animals.
She also had her own more traditional pets – Susie and Sleepy the cats, Leo the apricot poodle and Joey the budgie who helped build the foundations of her love of all animals.
Sheena had been working at Tescos but wanted a job to fit in better with looking after her children Jake and Jade so she took herself off to Lincoln College to study Business Administration and IT thinking it might help her find a job at a school. Her partner Rob was working as a postman and they lived in Branston Booths in an extended home with Sheena’s parents, Deryck and Sandra. One evening they sat and watched a programme ‘how to pay your mortgage off in two years’ fronted by business guru René Carayol, one of the featured couples who were achieving their goal were running a dog walking business. To say this was a light bulb moment is not to be understated! Next day Sheena got on the ‘phone to a random dog walking company in London to ask their advice and Very Important Pet Services – the forerunner to VIPPIES, was born.
The intention was to focus on walking dogs while owners were out, Deryck would help as would Rob when he finished his post rounds and the children would tag along from the start when they were at home. Like all good ideas for a business it soon became necessary to expand the offer and grow organically in response to client needs. One of the regulars wanted their dog looked after while they went away and asked Sheena if this could be at Branston Booths as they did not fancy kennels. Foster care was added to the business – a home from home comfortable environment where the dog could sleep on the beds if they wanted to. No rows of cages, so definitely not boarding, just luxury love and care in a proper home environment. The next step came when a lady in Washingborough wanted her dog Taz looked after during the day while she was at work, so doggy day care was introduced.
Early promotion of VIPS was via leaflets distributed around Branston, Heighington and Washingborough to keep the locations nearby. Then came the ‘phone call from Doddington! Time for another bit of growth and also time to take on new team members.
In 2006 VIPs had one employee outside the family, in 2008 they moved the business and family to bigger premises in Reepham where Sheena and Rob developed The Works – a booklet advertising local small businesses, why not when you need that vehicle for your own core business and have an experienced roundsman on tap?! They also were able to expand the numbers and varieties of pets they could care for offering different areas of their home for different temperaments and also a team of individual foster carers opening their homes to clients’ pets. The name changed to VIPPIES and now boasts a team of almost 30, including Denise who has been with them for ten years, all sharing the same values as Sheena and her family: “it’s all about the animals”.
Well over a decade on and Sheena recognises how much has been achieved, “It really is a big small business that has brought such pleasure and pride to the whole family. We have made good friends with many of our clients and our team not to mention the other small businesses we have come across at networking events. It is wonderful how the local SMEs all support each other, we are not in competition, we are there to provide mutual support, throw around ideas and enjoy each other’s successes.”
VIPPIES is quite some enterprise; as well as the obvious dog walkers, pet carers, pet fosterers, house sitters and equine specialists Team VIPPIES also has roles in administration, accounts, HR, health and safety all keeping the business on track. Sheena explains: “We have to keep on top of new developments in employment law as well as areas like data protection; for example Lincolnshire Police are training us in cyber security to make sure our clients’ and team’s data is kept safe. Then there is the duty of care to our team and the pets we look after – walks can be in the wilds of rural Lincolnshire so we have to make sure we get to grips with all the ‘what ifs’ of accidents or runaways; which are thankfully few and far between.” A business that has access to people’s homes and looks after their pets has to be sure its team is not just reliable but also ‘fit and proper’ so DBS checks are carried out into everyone’s background; driving licences and insurance policies are also checked. VIPPIES insures every team member – including those who are self-employed, to cover accidents at work and any non-liable animal accidents, “A premium service has to operate to the highest standards”.
Sheena is a shrewd businesswoman who recognises now that whenever she gets the ‘what am I doing moment?’ it means the business is about to change again and move to the next phase. That shrewdness however, is not just about profit but it is always about the animals, “it gives me so much pleasure to be part of their lives and share their love”, she says, “and the clients friendships and relationships last beyond the animals, sometimes I am even able to introduce them to their new pet”. Sheena readily acknowledges that the hardest part of the business comes when, in the absence of the owner who may be on holiday, she has to take the decision to let an animal go or when she is asked to go with an owner to the vets to support them as they say goodbye to a much loved pet; “I can’t cry then because I am there to support the owner but when I get home Max and Holly always get a bit soggy.”
So, what next? Team VIPPIES has expanded into Pet First Aid Training and supplying food and treats for pets but behind the business sits a strong corporate social responsibility. Sheena explains: “We have always done fundraising for local charities such as Hearing Dogs for the Deaf, the local branch of the RSPCA that gets no central funding as well as an annual donation to a pet charity voted for by our clients. We have always offered a structured programme of work experience for students but our latest project is taking us a step further.”
The Network Lincoln offers support to young people aged 16-24 years who need help to take the next step in life. TEAM VIPPIES has become involved through Pawsitive Possibilities, a six week programme held at VIPPIES HQ, where the young people learn about a range of life skills such as cyber security, budgeting, their responsibility as an employee, mindfulness, first aid etc all with a dog on their knee or while walking and playing with a dog. Once again VIPPIES goes that extra mile.
Sheena’s love for the business she and her family have built is clear but she also knows it is time to release her grip on the reins while she can still be around to help the new Directors take over and move it on. Her children are the new Directors; Jake and Jade are really stepping up to the mark as Team VIPPIES evolves into J&J Pet Services over the next few years. Though I bet nobody can imagine that Sheena won’t always be available to cuddle the animals and squeal with delight at the new puppies arriving for care!