Mark Klaiman and Virginia Donohue’s partnership is a quaint love story. Two government bureaucrats meet, fall in love, turn their mutual concern for pets and the environment into a successful business and live happily ever after.
The two have been pioneers of sustainable pet care for 12 years, developing a thriving business that does right by the planet. Their company, Pet Camp, is a full-service overnight kennel and daycare facility for dogs and cats. It received certification as a Bay Area green business in 2004.
As former employees of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Klaiman and Donohue were always concerned about the environment, but those concerns initially took a back seat to creating a business that could survive financially.
“If you’re out of business, it doesn’t matter how green you once were,” said Klaiman. First, you have to master the basics and provide a service people want. No one would come to Pet Camp if we weren’t good at what we do,” he said.
In fact, it wasn’t until rolling electricity outages swept across California in the early ’00s and the idea of drilling for more oil in Alaska floated to the top of the national agenda that Pet Camp took stock of the business’s impact on the environment.
“We decided there had to be a better way,” said Klaiman, which spawned a new approach to thinking about green innovations. Practically speaking, new investment ideas still had to pencil out before they would be implemented, but a new emphasis was placed on sustainability.
This more comprehensive rubric for evaluating investment decisions led Pet Camp to install two Big Ass Fans® (high-volume low-speed fans) that outperformed its existing system of 12 conventional box fans along every dimension. The gigantic low-wattage air foils provide better, quieter air recirculation in the odoriferous kennel and use just a fraction of the energy to operate. This means that even though they had a higher upfront cost, they will reduce utility bills and power plant emissions.
Klaiman considers the ability to think long term as one of the many trade-offs that benefit small businesses. “The downside is that we don’t have access to other people’s money,” he said. “The upside is we can define our own rate of return. I don’t have a bunch of shareholders to answer to next week, and that gives us a lot of flexibility.”
So he didn’t balk when he learned that installing solar panels on his roof would take six years to pay off. With an expected lifetime of 25 years, the solar panels would still provide 19 years of free electricity and indeed now yield savings of $11,000 a year.
Other amenities have a somewhat less apparent profit motive but reinforce the environmental theme nonetheless. Pet Camp’s latest addition, dubbed Cat Safari, is a landscaped garden jungle inside a greenhouse where cats can play. The glass enclosure traps heat from the sun, which passively heats the rest of the building and workspace to defray heating costs.
More creative still is Pet Camp’s participation in East Bay Municipal Utility District’s organic waste-to-fuel program. Doggie doo from the kennel is mixed with other organic waste to generate methane gas as the waste decomposes. The methane can then be captured and used to generate electricity that powers the water treatment facility.
Because of its ability to make decisions flexibly, small businesses may be the perfect incubator for innovative solutions like this, says Klaiman. “Small businesses are a good model for thinking creatively,” he said. “We understand that you have to keep evolving and changing. The trick is being open and listening and paying attention.”
Maintaining strong connections to the local business community is often the best way to find tried and true solutions. Most small businesses can’t afford to hire their own energy efficiency experts, so they must rely on each other to learn about new technologies.
“Being able to reach out to others is key so that you can bounce an idea off them,” said Klaiman. “What makes sense for my business may not make sense for other businesses.”
There’s also power in becoming part of a community and being able to take collective action. One business has only limited resources, but a whole community of small businesses can have substantial impact when major change is needed.
“If a bunch of small businesses change their behavior, the aggregate is much better than one large business changing behavior,” he said. That notion of pooling the combined efforts of a community is one that’s directly applicable to facing the challenges of global warming.