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The Man Who Makes Dogs Fly: Dr. Walter Woolf

The Man Who Makes Dogs Fly: Dr. Walter Woolf and the Power of Saying Yes, Knowing Your Purpose, and Mining the Data is just one of the articles from Pet Care Pro Quarterly, IBPSA's digital magazine for pet care services professionals. Read the current issue online here.

“The horses flew by FedEx. Goats, dogs, and cats flew by Continental. And the chickens flew by Delta.”

Sounds like the punchline to a joke but, in fact, is how Dr. Walter Woolf describes the logistics of one of the most intricate pet relocation jobs his company, Air Animal Pet Movers, has undertaken since he founded it in 1977. When a family needed to move 19 animals – 5 species – from California to their new home just outside of Montreal, every animal relocation service had said “no” until Dr. Woolf answered the phone and said “yes.” Did he have a plan at that moment of how it would be done? No, but he knew, based on his experience in pet care and pet relocation, that he could provide the family at least an initial idea of how it could be done.

Right place, right time, right attitude

Photo courtesy Air Animal Pet Movers

Walter M. Woolf, a licensed veterinarian, opened Woolf Animal Hospital in Tampa, Florida, in 1961. The clinic, located near Tampa International Airport, cared for your typical household pets, as well as the occasional farm animal. In 1969, he was approached by an airport cargo manager who had a problem that he hoped Dr. Woolf could help solve. Every summer personnel flew into Tampa for duty rotation at the nearby military base. Thanks to flights where people were bumped, but their pets weren’t, or inaccurate airbill information for the pets that caused delays, the airport ended up with animals that needed to be housed even for just a couple of hours. The cargo manager wanted to know if the animals could stay at the clinic and, of course, be paid for the service. Dr. Woolf said “yes.” As it turned out, there were pets in need of this assistance not once or twice a summer but, rather, once or twice a week, from around July to September every year. A few more would come in during the winter holidays. After providing this service for seven years, Dr. Woolf recalls having his “lightbulb moment” in 1976.

“I was seeing the pets that had flown in but, I wondered, how did they fly out?”

In 1977, while still maintaining his veterinary practice, he launched Panama Pet Travel Agency.

Capitalizing on a lightbulb moment

One of Dr. Woolf’s clients at that time worked for a data services company that wrote the social security system for Iran. This was a company that needed to get workers – and their pets – from Tampa to Iran. Could he help make that happen? Doing so would entail getting health certificates, USDA endorsements, and Iranian consulate documents. Could he house the pets? Document the pets? Get the pets to the airports?

“Yes.”

During that same era, his pet travel agency was contacted by a manager with a large corporation who was being transferred from Tampa to Dallas, Texas. He needed his pet transported and delivered to his new residence in Dallas. This was a first for Dr. Woolf – getting a pet all the way from point A to point B, not just to the airport. Had he ever done that before? “No.”  Was he confident he could do it? “Yes.”  He accepted the challenge which was successfully completed. And so was born his pet relocation service.

He said “yes” and he’s still saying it

An initial take on the story of Dr. Woolf, and the ultimate founding of Air Animal Pet Movers, might leave the impression that he just got lucky. Right place. Right time. Right clients with connections. But none of those “lucky” situations would have meant anything if he had not said “yes” when presented with these new challenges – and he’s still saying it. Dr. Woolf founded his vet clinic in 1961. It’s now 2018. You do the math. When he was interviewed for this article late last year, this founder/owner/managing director or, perhaps more accurately he says, “chief cook and bottle washer,” had personally tended to four clients that week who needed assistance relocating or traveling with their pets. One was a woman who was taking a week’s vacation in the Dominican Republic and wanted her pup with her. Her pet would be flying with her in the cabin, but she came in for a health examination, health certificate, and documentation consultation. He also recently worked with a client who wanted to bring her dog with her on a Caribbean cruise to 10 different ports of call. Because standards vary island-to-island, not all allow dogs to just walk down down the gangplank, 10 ports of call meant 10 different health certificates.

Why, even now (you did the math), is he still going at it? What keeps him going, he says, are challenges.

“With changing rules and regulations every day is a new day…I’m a problem solver; I enjoy solving problems.”

At age 81, Dr. Woolf says he can look at his life and say “been there done that” – he also knows he’s not going to parachute out of a plane or someday become President of the United States. And that’s a-okay. His purpose, he says, “is to help people and their pets move.”

Staying on-trend, on top, and mining the data

Air Animal Pet Movers is an air cargo agency endorsed and appointed by more than 225 airlines. As of November 2017, the company was on track for 1,500 pet moves for the year. The venerable National Academy of Sciences, founded in 1863 by President Abraham Lincoln, asked Dr. Woolf to assist with a study regarding the efficacy of the Service Animal Registry of America. This is not a company – or man – without respect and name recognition in powerful circles. But what about the family moving from Cincinnati, Ohio, to Milan, Italy?  They want to bring Harvey, Jake, and Jemima (their two pups and one cat) with them. How do Harvey, Jake, and Jemima’s family hear about Air Animal Pet Movers?  When asked how people typically learn about his company’s services, Dr. Woolf’s answer begins simply enough – and might even bring a smug smirk to the face of a younger, tech-savvy generation born with a smartphone in one hand and an iPad in the other.

“We have a sign outside and people see us when they’re driving by,” he says.

But hold up, smug ones, that was just the start. Without missing a beat, he then shares that the company’s website has around 65 pages (notably regularly updated with new content including blogs and videos featuring Dr. Woolf). From January to October 2017, he continues, 4,814 website visitors had filled out the website’s contact form. Of those, he notes, 4,232 had filled out the online estimate calculator for the cost to relocate. Also, during that timeframe, Air Animal had received 150 B2B referrals and 477 B2C referrals. Social media, other than Facebook, had pushed 8,941 sets of eyes their way. Facebook accounted for 18,792. With no advance inkling of what he would be asked during this interview on that Friday morning, how did he know all of that? Because every Thursday afternoon at 3:00 p.m. he receives a “trend report” that tells him exactly where his business is.

Dr. Woolf preaches the gospel of “data mining.” It takes “time and needs someone with curiosity” but, he says, Air Animal analyzes – mines – all of the data that they can.

“Whether you’re a groomer or a pet sitter, you’ve got to know what your numbers are,” he advises.

Doggy daycare? What are your bookings for Monday through Friday? Are people coming in just for the holidays? What does the data say?

“When people say they don’t know their business numbers and that they need to talk to their CPA, that is baloney,” he says. “You can be busy as hell and lose money – pricing is an art form. You need a basic understanding of numbers.”

If you’re the owner and don’t have the capacity to do it, then “find a bright 20-something who grew up with computers.”

Air Animal also utilizes an online reputation management service – one that monitors the company’s online presence so they can stay on top of who is saying what about them online. If you see something negative, he advises to address it immediately, “don’t just let it sit there…that’s business today.”  Ed. Note: see Start Turning Negative Reviews into Positive Results also in this issue.

Avoiding burnout
For an industry with a reputation for burnout, someone who has worked in pet care since 1961, with great success, seems the right person to ask about how to avoid it. His immediate bit of advice?

“Take a vacation! Take a weekend off.”

Dr. Woolf mentions friends who are solo practitioners who bemoan, “but my clients need me!” He says if you’re not taking time off you’re “letting the tail wag the dog.” Leave on a Thursday and come back on Sunday. Detach yourself from your work. With smartphones today and all of the “messages-messages-messages-messages” he notes that your brain can only hold so much information. If you’re forgetting things, it doesn’t mean you have dementia, it’s just “intellectual overload.” If you have good people working for you, he notes, “they can run the place.” And when you return, he says, your vacation becomes a fun talking point. He reports that a photo he took of a Czech hot dog had his place buzzing following a vacation he took.  Ed. Note: We want to see that hot dog.

In short, say “yes” to taking some time off.

“What do you want your epitaph to read? Take more vacations.”

And about those flying dogs, cats, horses, goats, and chickens

Dr. Woolf reports that the successful relocation of those 19 animals – 5 species - ultimately involved two months of set-up and the assistance of three different veterinarians. He recalls the funniest part of the entire endeavor being when the client let him know that one of the freshly relocated California chickens, now safely tucked in a barn just outside of Montreal, had just laid an egg in the client’s hand. Stressed chickens don’t lay eggs. She thanked him for not stressing her chickens. But what the client didn’t know was that earlier in their journey, one of the apparently quite calm chickens had laid an egg at the airport in Los Angeles. One of the relocation assistants at the airport called the wise vet to ask what he should do with that egg. Dr. Woolf’s reply?

“Do you like hardboiled or scrambled?”