Many of us are the proud owners of pets, which have become part of our family. In a number of cases, our furry friends are treated very well, and perhaps even better than people in distant lands.
The pet industry has expanded dramatically in the past number of years, as our little four legged buddies need as much attention as is available.
One person in our community, whom we rely on to look after our pets’ needs, is Scott Riley, who together with his wife Pam, own the Pet Valu and Paulmacs stores in Port Perry. I know when I bring Kayla, my foxhound, in to buy her food, her tail begins to wag and her head bobs, because she knows Uncle Scott most certainly has a treat for her.
I assumed the pet industry has always been in Scott’s blood, but that was not the case. Born in Richmond Hill, Scott’s father worked for the Toronto Star and his mother looked after the household. Scott was soon joined by baby brother Todd, and although the first names are somewhat different, Scott explained that one syllable names caused problems. “Whenever one of us got into trouble my father would call our name. Depending where we were in the house, we often had no idea which one he was calling; and with my father, you did not want to linger when called.” Scott smiled as he reminisced.
I wondered if perhaps Scott worked as a dog walker or pet sitter when he was in school, but alas, he had a paper route, just like everyone else. I guess with his father working for the Star, a paper route was a must.
Scott was always intrigued with airplanes and flying, and joined the Air Cadets when he was 15. His intent was to get a pilot's license, which is something he still plans to pursue… one day.
Another interesting hobby Scott had was painting. During the construction of the CN Tower, Scott painted a picture of what he thought the massive structure would look like. His art was noticed by an official of the Tower project during a local art display, and Scott was approached about selling the artwork.
“I was so flattered, and when I went for lunch in the brand new tower, as their guest, I was shocked to see my painting was on the cover of the kid’s menu.” He beamed with pride when he relayed the story. “I was only ten, so it was quite a big deal.”
An opportunity arose for Scott’s dad to move to St Thomas, and begin a career at Ford. It gave Scott an opportunity to start a new high school and make new friends. His passion was physics, and computers intrigued him. He set out to create communications software and ran his own bulletin board network of 15 or so computers, all linked together throughout Southwestern Ontario. “I did it mainly to make free long distance calls, and it was an amazing learning experience.
The project, which took most of his high school free time, paid off as Scott received a scholarship to attend Sir Wilfred Laurier University. His honours course in physics and computer science was serving him well, and his job at a bank kept him busy throughout his late teens and early twenties.
Scott had no intention of pursuing anything other than physics, until a prospectus came across a senior person’s desk at the bank where Scott worked. It was a business plan for a newly formed franchise group, called Pet Valu. Scott was intrigued and studied the document in depth.
After careful consideration Scott, along with his brother, each opened a Pet Valu franchise. Scott in Markham and brother Todd in Scarborough. “The training and support was amazing, and it turned out I loved the pet business,” Scott explained. His store was number 46. Today there are over 700.
“I loved the idea it was a Canadian company.” Scott said. “As a kid I had a goldfish and named him Paul. When he died, I got a second one and named him Paul 2. I went up to Paul six, before I realized goldfish were not my thing.” I laughed when Scott told me the story, and realized under his quiet, shy exterior, lays a terrific sense of humour.
From Markham, Scott went on to run a store in Pickering, along with his brother. It was there he met Pam Whyte, a young woman with the Town of Pickering’s planning department. It was meant to be, as in 1998, the couple were married.
They decided to make their home in Courtice, and life was quite good. Ten years later, however, an opportunity arose when a Paulmacs store (a brand owned by Pet Valu), became available in the up and coming community of Port Perry.
Scott did his research, and he and Pam placed a successful offer on the franchise. Pam quit her job in Pickering, and joined Scott in the store. The only downside was the commute from Courtice, as anyone who owns a business knows, there is no such thing as nine-to-five. Three years later, Scott and Pam made their home in Port Perry.
Business was great, and when Pet Valu approached him about a franchise at the new Smart Centre mall, Scott again went into research mode. He decided there was more than enough business to support a second location.
“It was a struggle at first,” Scott admitted. “We had competition, and we were trying to grow two businesses. Thankfully the people of Port Perry were willing to support us, and make us feel we were part of the community, making our choice the best decision of our lives.”
Just as life was showing signs of normalcy, the pandemic hit and created havoc with pet stores across the country. They were deemed an essential service, however they had to keep the doors closed and only offer curbside pickup.
“Instead of ordering on line, most people would call in their orders, as they did not really know which brand or flavour of food they had purchased in the past.” I realized, as Scott told me this, that the food I buy has a picture of a dog on it, but if you asked me to pick it out from a picture, I would have no idea.
Scott continued, “We were competing with grocery stores and big box stores, who were allowed to be open. I was grateful we had detailed records of what every customer had purchased, linked to their telephone numbers.” Now as we approach a fourth and hopefully less severe wave, Scott and Pam have the formula in place, to smooth the process.
Scott and Pam enjoy travelling, albeit somewhat difficult as small business owners. They support the annual Walk for Dog Guides, as well as the Chamber of Commerce. Scott is the first to say yes when asked for involvement in charity events, and I have had the pleasure of photographing their ‘Pet Portraits with Santa’ event for ten years.
Scott and Pam Riley have dedicated their careers to helping pets and their owners, in our area. In addition, they are fully immersed in the community. If you have a pet, you are probably familiar with Scott and Pam, but if you ever have questions concerning a pet, talk to them, as their knowledge is amazing.
Jonathan van Bilsen is a television host, award-winning photographer, published author, columnist and keynote speaker. His show, ‘The Jonathan van Bilsen Show,’ on RogersTV, the Standard Website or YouTube, features many of the people included in this column.