RACINE COUNTY — Lori Mendelsohn Thomas had reached some lofty corporate perches in the world of clothing design. She’d even designed the muscle-ripping clothing for “The Incredible Hulk” TV show.
But in 2008, when Thomas was downsized out of her well-paying corporate post, to earn money she created for herself a much humbler job: pet-sitting and dog-walking.
That job has become Wisconsin Pet Care; Thomas now has 25 employees and a six-county service territory.
And Thomas, who lives a bit north of the Racine Zoo, took in $400,000 in the past 12 months. She expects to top $500,000 this year.
And this spring she will open a related service, Wisconsin Poop Cleanup.
“I was meant to do this,” Thomas said. “This is my passion.
“I never thought it would get this big.”
Although Thomas runs a thriving pet-sitting and dog-walking business, and has three rescued poodles, she didn’t grow up with pets.
“I always had a strong attraction to animals, but my mother was deathly afraid of animals.”
Thomas, who grew up in Malibu, Calif., graduated at 19 from the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising.
She went to work for a company that Universal Studios approached to make “The Incredible Hulk” clothing; it popped apart when actor Bill Bixby, as Dr. David Banner, transformed into Lou Ferrigno’s Hulk.
In no time, Thomas had left that company and was personally making the Hulk’s clothing — and dating Bixby.
Her sojourn through the fashion-design world took her to New York, Chicago, Kenosha, then the Racine community.
After her 2008 downsizing, for months Thomas tried unsuccessfully to find a fashion field job.
“I’m not a spring chicken, and I’m expensive,” she said.
In the meantime, she started pet sitting after putting the word out on Craigslist. For more than a year, she worked solo — seven days a week, 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.
She started with three dog-walking clients.
When clients went on vacation, Thomas would make four visits daily: morning; midday; suppertime; and “tuck in.”
“The most I did was 16 visits in one day,” she said. “That was making me insane.”
It was time to hire helpers.
The next step
To take her one-woman business further, Thomas built a website and started “cloning” herself, at first with part-time independent contractors. In June, she made them employees.
The average pet-sit visit is 30 minutes, Thomas said. Besides feeding pets and letting dogs out, her sitters do home checks, take in mail and newspapers, adjust draperies and turn lights on and off. “In the winter, they shovel driveways.”
They walk dogs for at least 20 minutes when the weather is good.
“If it’s too cold, we play with them indoors,” Thomas said, “or do basic commands, leash skills.”
With every pet-sitting visit, the sitter sends the owner a text message update, and Thomas also encourages a short video.
She said her whole team knows pet first aid and CPR, she said.
Her client contract includes, “If you were to die, what would you want us to do with your animals? And if your pet were to die, what would you want us to do with it?”
She also does continuing education with employees six times a year. For example, in January the topic was animal behavior and leash skills.
Thomas carries liability insurance, an indemnity bond “in case someone would steal, which has never happened,” and workman’s compensation in case a sitter is ever injured. That hasn’t happened, either.
Her methodically built business is showing results. Thomas said last year revenue grew by 67 percent and profits more than doubled, from 2012.
With this spring’s thaw, Thomas will open Wisconsin Poop Cleanup.
“I wanted to use WPC — it works for both (firms),” she explained. “... And those are very high key words on Google.”
When she was in the corporate world, Thomas used a dog sitter.
“My business model is based on what I needed,” she said. “... It’s the level of care that I demand.”
Wisconsin Pet Care sample rates
Single pet sitter visit, dog (or two cats) — $19
Additional dogs — $3 each, up to $45 maximum visit charge
Minimum buy — $95 (five visits)
Rovernight (sleepover, eight hours) — $100