In a day when big box chain pet stores seem to be popping up on every corner, B&B Pet Stop is a mom-and-pop shop taking on the big boys. But there was a time when B&B, recently named the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce’s Small Business of the Year, was the big guy.
“We had a big box before there was a big box,” said Bill Trufant, founder and one of a trio of family members who operate B&B at the intersection of Cottage Hill Road and University Boulevard in west Mobile. “We opened this store 25 years ago when there were no big box stores.”
Today, B&B has 14,000 square feet of floor space dedicated to just about every kind of pet imaginable. Parakeets twitter in one corner while colorful saltwater reef fish glide silently in tanks on the opposite side of the store. There are reptiles and rodents and just about anything a dog or cat needs.
The Mobile Chamber defines a small business as one with 100 or fewer employees. B&B Pet Stop employs 44.
Trufant owns the store with his sisters, Mary and Sally. They’ve developed a division of labor that allows their talents to complement each other.
“We never dreamed it would get as big as it has,” Trufant said.
Always in the plan
A New Orleans native who grew up working in pet shops, Trufant opened B&B in 1981 after graduating from Spring Hill College. His father mortgaged the family home to enable Trufant to buy out a struggling pet store in Saraland, a suburb north of Mobile.
For Bill, it was the culmination of his plan from the beginning. He chose Springhill because of its relationship with the Dauphin Island Sea lab. He wanted to major in marine biology and use that as a springboard for owning a pet shop that specialized in fish. Looking back, he figures he would have been better off taking business classes in marketing, accounting and finance.
But it turned out his timing was excellent.
“Mobile was the perfect place,” Trufant said. “There was a fish-only store. There was a guy who tried to open a pet store and did a really poor job at it. And there was a Dr. Pet Store in the mall, and its claim to fame was puppies. I didn’t want anything to do with puppies.”
The first store was in a tiny 600-square-foot location. Its entire dog department was in an old heater closet. Within a year, B&B moved to a roomier shop on Government Street. In 1991, it moved to its current location.
As a teenager, Trufant had worked in the pet department at Sears in New Orleans, which had the second-largest pet department in the Sears chain. Although Trufant was only a youngster, the store manager realized his acumen for the pet trade and had him run the department.
The experience helped him build relationships that were crucial to his later success. As a representative of a retail giant, when he called a supplier, they dropped what they were doing and catered to him, not knowing the voice at the other end of the phone belonged to a teenager.
Trufant knew the animals and what they needed. Animals were the reason he got into the business.
“To me, that’s what a pet store is – the animals,” Trufant said. “And the ability to have different animals.”
But the animals don’t run the store; people do. And somebody needs to manage the people. When B&B made its move to the big store in 1991 and expanded its staff, Trufant’s father believed B&B could use some expertise in managing people. And he knew just the person to do it.
The human element
Trufant’s sister, Sally, worked for The Gap and ran its highest-volume store in New York City. She had moved to New Orleans and ran four stores. But at the Gap, executives moved up or they moved out.
“My next move was to Arkansas, and I didn’t want to go to Arkansas,” Sally said, laughing. “My parents saw a chink in the armor.”
They wooed her to B&B in Mobile in 1991 to help open the new store and hire the staff. She said she’d give it a year. She’s still there.
“I didn’t know anything about pets,” she admits. Over the years, that’s changed and she has become knowledgeable about the store’s inventory. But her specialty is people and sales. In addition to managing human resources, she handles promotions for the store.
“We started having the specialty events and promotional events,” Sally said. “That was part of my job description. Now, that’s what we’re known for.”
Just about every month there is a hamster and gerbil race, a bird day, a bunny hop or some other kind of event for customers and their pets. Customers enjoy bringing their pets to the store.
Hitting the books
Mary Trufant was happily coaching and teaching high school in San Antonio, Texas. But her father thought her experience could be helpful in the business.
“A coach is nothing but a manager of people who bounce a ball,” Mary said.
Her father and siblings visited her in San Antonio. What Mary thought was nothing but a family stopover turned out to be a recruiting visit. In 1994, she joined the team.
Their mother had been handling the store’s books since the beginning. But when she began treatment for cancer, Mary assumed the job.
The three siblings see their roles this way: Bill – buying; Sally – sales; Mary – money.
“We all have our hand in each thing,” Mary said. “But that’s how we separate our duties.”
“We don’t try to do each other’s jobs,” Bill said.
The canine revolution
The store started out heavily into fish, following Bill’s interests. But the business changed with the advent of premium dog food. Before the 1980s, people bought dog food like Gravy Train or Gaines-Burgers at their grocery store.
“We went from a heater closet to half the store,” Bill said.
For a time, B&B was by far the largest pet store in town and had little competition. Chain pet stores had yet to come onto the scene.
“We call those the ‘fat and happy days,’” Sally said with a laugh.
“You could do no wrong,” Bill said. “You could bring in any product and sell it. And you were the only ones selling it.”
Big box chain stores, nonspecialty retailers and internet marketers have all put pressure on the market. B&B had to learn how to negotiate a more competitive environment.
“One way that we are different is that we have the live animals,” Sally said, pointing to Bill’s experience in buying and selling animals. “It’s fun to watch Bill unpack a shipment of fish.”
For Bill, the animals are why the business stays fun and fresh.
“I’m not burned out and the reason I’m not burned out is we deal with the live animals,” Bill said.
Part of the community
Bill is a member of the board of directors of the World Pet Association. And he thinks the relationships he’s built within the industry as well as with his customers are important.
But the Trufants also believe they are fortunate to be in Mobile.
“People in Mobile are loyal to Mobile-based businesses,” Bill said.
The Trufants are also loyal to Mobile, contributing to the arts and cultural events. They have a “Round Up” program at the store. Customers can round up what they pay to the nearest dollar and the amount rounded up is given to charity.
Mary notes that the store has employees with 20-plus years of service, and that makes a difference.
“When people come to work here, they stay,” Sally said. “It’s not unusual for someone to come to work here as a senior in high school, then work through college and beyond.”
Their employees are knowledgeable about animals and products, and provide customer service that the Trufants believe sets the store apart. When the Trufants go to a trade show, employees consider it a badge of honor to take care of the business without calling the bosses.
“Our employees handle it,” Mary said. “They’re smart people. They’re capable. They take care of things.”
B&B now shares the Mobile market with seven chain pet stores. That makes for a competitive environment. But the Trufants believe there are advantages to being independent. Mary notes that over the years, the store has demonstrated remarkable adaptability.
“We’re more nimble,” Sally said. “We don’t have to get permission from the home office. We are the home office.”