Dr. Gary White (top) and Dr. Sylvia Domotor (bottom) ask the City Council in Monrovia, Calif., to reject a proposed PetSmart and Banfield Pet Hospital. Following the April 19 hearing, the council ruled in PetSmart's favor. Photos by Nathan McIntire courtesy of Monrovia Patch.
Plans for a new PetSmart store containing a Banfield Pet Hospital in Monrovia, Calif., were stalled last month by a challenge from local veterinarians but ultimately won approval from the city.
In what may be the first protest of its kind, practitioners spoke up against the nation’s largest veterinary clinic chain, citing the role of big-box operations in driving smaller, independent players out of business.
“PetSmart/Banfield will contribute to what is often referred to as the Wal-Martization of America,” Dr. Gary White, owner of Huntington Veterinary Hospital, told the Monrovia City Council. “Putting small businesses under. Displacing higher income jobs with minimum-wage positions. As we small businesses fold, our well-paid employees will need to seek employment elsewhere.”
Council members and the mayor reportedly were sympathetic but unanimously upheld an earlier decision by the city Planning Commission to grant PetSmart a conditional use permit, enabling it to operate a boarding facility for dogs and cats and a Banfield clinic on the premises. The store is slated to open by the end of the year.
“We want to see all our businesses succeed but I think both bodies would not want the city to assume that much power that they are sort of dictating the market,” Craig Jiminez, manager of the city planning division, said in an interview with the VIN News Service. “They felt that was outside of their jurisdiction.”
Jiminez noted that minus the boarding facility and veterinary clinic, PetSmart would have been able to move into its desired location with a minimum of fuss. The pet store will occupy space in a strip mall that previously housed a Circuit City, an electronics chain that went bankrupt in 2008. After the PetSmart opens, the city will request input from neighbors as part of a check for potential noise problems.
Headquartered in Phoenix, PetSmart is the nation’s largest pet retail chain, with 1,187 stores in the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico. In addition to merchandise, PetSmart sells grooming, boarding, “doggie day camp,” pet training and veterinary services in some locations.
Banfield Pet Hospital, which is owned by candy maker Mars Inc., contracts for space inside PetSmart stores. Banfield has 770 clinics in the United States, all but five of them in PetSmarts. Company staff said in February that 40 more clinics were slated to open in 2011.
Asked for its perspective on the debate in Monrovia, Banfield e-mailed a statement from Dr. Karen Johnson, vice president and client advocate: “We look forward to being part of the Monrovia community — we hope to build lasting partnerships with local pet owners and provide high-quality care to their pets,” it reads. “We continually work to collaborate with specialty hospitals, shelters and general practices nationwide and look forward to doing so with the Monrovia community as well.”
PetSmart spokesman Mike Mullin made a similar comment: “We’re very pleased to be a part of the Monrovia community and look forward to being a member of both the pet retail community as well as the overall animal welfare community,” he stated by telephone. “We appreciate the support that we’ve received and also look forward to working with various groups that have similar interest as us in providing adoptions and providing for the well-being of all pets ....”
Mullin declined to address the protest by local veterinarians and said he had no information on whether PetSmart has encountered similar resistance in other cities.
In an interview with the VIN News Service in February, Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, senior vice president and chief medical officer of Banfield, spoke to general concerns in the profession about his company’s rapid growth and corporate structure.
“We’re not taking over the world,” Klausner said. “But to say we’re not going to have corporate practices — you may hate Wal-Mart, but Wal-Mart is successful because customers love it.”
Aversion to Wal-Mart is exactly what motivated White to speak out against PetSmart and Banfield and to rally other veterinarians in Monrovia to join him. “I’m an anti-Wal-Mart person,” he said. “I refuse to step foot into a Wal-Mart because I think they are the scourge of America. That’s a case where one American’s dream put millions of Americans’ dreams under.”
A veterinarian for 22 years and clinic owner for four, White said Monrovia prides itself on being “small-town America.” Located in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains of Southern California, Monrovia, population 38,000, is a picturesque city often tapped as a setting for movies, White said. City leaders “promote themselves as being good for small business,” he said, so he was hopeful they would be receptive to an economic argument against a chain store.
In remarks to the City Council on April 19, White cited a study done in the Chicago region in 2004 that found that for every $100 spent by consumers at a local business, $68 remained in the local economy, whereas for every $100 spent at a chain, $43 remained.
White outlined the economic contributions he estimates independent veterinarians make to their community, and predicted that some practices, already struggling in the slow economy, would fail, along with some grooming businesses and small pet stores.
“Collectively, veterinarians alone provide jobs to over 70 persons living, shopping and entertaining in the greater Monrovia area,” stated White, who counts nine veterinarians practicing within the city limits. “In my practice, most employees are college-educated or current college students. Our hourly rate averages about $17 per hour with some paid as much as $30 per hour. Most of us provide general health care allowances, as well.
“As small, steady businesses, we generally aim to retain and promote our business family members. Add to this the numerous ancillary services such as groomers, pet-sitters, trainers and pet supply stores, and the number of jobs at risk grows to over 100. I see little hope for many groomers, and the small tropical fish store, longstanding in this town.”
Contributing to the perception that PetSmart employees receive substandard compensation is litigation against the company, described as follows in PetSmart’s latest annual filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission :
“In January 2011, we were named as a defendant in Pedroza v. PetSmart, Inc., et al., a lawsuit originally filed in California Superior Court for the County of San Bernardino. The case has been removed to the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. The complaint alleges, purportedly on behalf of current and former exempt store management in California, that we improperly classified our store management as exempt pursuant to the California Labor Code, and as a result failed to: (i) pay or provide to such managers proper wages, overtime compensation, or rest or meal periods, (ii) maintain and provide accurate wage-related statements and records, and (iii) reimburse certain business expenses, in each case as is required by the California Labor Code.”
In Monrovia, White was joined in his protest against PetSmart and Banfield by two other practitioners; the rest, he said with disappointment, opted not to participate.
Dr. Sylvia Domotor was one who did. A veterinarian for 25 years, Domotor said in an interview that since the downturn in the economy, the hospital she owns has shrunk from a five-doctor practice with a staff of nearly 50 to a three-doctor practice with a staff of about 20.
At the same time, she said, her practice is well-established with a loyal following, so she is not worried personally about losing clients to Banfield.
“I felt that I was speaking not only for the veterinarians in the group but I was also speaking for the other small-animal-related businesses in town that are going to be impacted,” Domotor said. “...I don’t know if people are too shy to get up in a public forum and speak, so I spoke for them, saying there’s a lot of people who have been established in the community and give to the community.”
Domotor noted that she’s personally known some members of the City Council, including the mayor, for years. She said that after the meeting, they came to her to express regret and make apologies but explained that they had no legal reason to deny the permit to PetSmart and Banfield.
Domotor said she understands that, and accepts the outcome.
“We gave it our best shot,” she said.