Saturday 15 December 2018

PR high-flyer swaps hectic 24-7 career for dog days at her grooming business

Maria Murphy has swapped the boardroom for the dog grooming table, writes Gabrielle Monaghan

Former PR executive Maria Murphy, who wanted a change of career and now grooms four dogs a day, at her Paws Parlour in Blackrock with Ella. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Former PR executive Maria Murphy, who wanted a change of career and now grooms four dogs a day, at her Paws Parlour in Blackrock with Ella. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Some happy Paws Parlour clients
Some happy Paws Parlour clients

Gabrielle Monaghan

Maria Murphy realised just how much she was married to her high-profile job as director of communications at the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO) when her engaged best friend suggested arranging her wedding around a conference Maria had to attend.

Maria had held the communications role at the medical profession's representative body for 17 years and had spent 26 years in all at the IMO. Her duties included advising former IMO presidents, such as James Reilly before he was minister for health.

She was also involved in an IMO campaign, carried out in conjunction with RTE's Operation Transformation, that saw GPs test for type 2 diabetes at centres around the country, and a road safety campaign that won an award from the European Road Safety Charter. But the advent of smartphones with social media feeds and instant email access meant work was increasingly becoming all-consuming for Maria.

"Media and communications had become very different to when I first started at the IMO," the 47-year-old says. "In the old days, you might get the odd call at 6am. But with the development of social media and the 24-hour news cycle, I was effectively on call 24-7 and health was forever in the media. My friends and family got used to me have my phone attached to my ear, with my work interrupting conversations and dinners."

Some happy Paws Parlour clients
Some happy Paws Parlour clients

On her late-evening commute home, the long-time dog lover would drive past a dog-grooming salon and wistfully imagine a less stressful job working with pets. After leaving the IMO in January 2015, Maria was compelled to reconsider her career. She opted to leave behind the corporate world and to pursue what had once seemed a pipe-dream: setting up a dog-grooming business of her own.

"After 26 years working in public relations, I wanted a change," she says. "We always had a dog at home and I then had dogs myself. Dogs offer honesty, trustworthiness, loyalty and fun - all traits we all seek for ourselves and seek to find in others."

Paws Parlour was born after Maria set up the company at her home on Carysfort Avenue in the Dublin suburb of Blackrock in April 2016. But the prospect of transitioning from a well-paid, steady job to a more modest way of life seemed daunting.

"The biggest challenge was fear of failure," she says. "I had come out of a career with a secure job and a secure income, and the country wasn't exactly out of the recession. I wondered if I really could make a go of it."

The Dun Laoghaire-raised singleton already had diplomas in industrial relations, personnel management and public relations under her belt. But, at the age of 45, Maria found herself back in college to retrain as a dog groomer. The four-month City & Guilds practical course was intense and her fellow students were in their early twenties.

"At first, I thought, 'oh my gosh, what am I doing?'," she says. "But the others doing the course were brilliant and we've maintained contact and given advice to each other." Maria's career change didn't come cheap. The course cost €4,500 and, afterwards, she interned for free at an established dog-grooming parlour to gain experience. Once she was fully trained, she invested €22,000 on converting an old garage at the back of her house into a grooming parlour, buying equipment such as a bath and grooming table, and on products like dog shampoos and brushes.

Some happy Paws Parlour clients
Some happy Paws Parlour clients

Maria started small, grooming just two dogs a day and posting some of the results on Facebook to glean more clients, including Éabha McMahon, a singer with musical ensemble Celtic Woman.

Traditional word-of-mouth marketing has also proved effective. "There's a park right across the road from me, and one client who had left here with her dog said a woman ran after her to ask who her dog groomer was. I take my time with my dogs because, in effect, they are my walking billboards."

Just a year and a half after creating Paws Parlour, the venture is beginning to pay off for Maria. "I now have a two-and-a-half week waiting list for appointments. Clients start making Christmas appointments for their dogs in September and by the end of that month, all of December will have been booked up."

She believes there's still plenty of scope for growth in the Irish market. "I don't think we are anywhere near where the market is in the US. Here, people in the countryside traditionally had working dogs, but we are veering towards all of the country treating dogs as house dogs. People from all walks of life, from the legal profession to the local sergeant, dote on their dogs.

"And if the dog is going to be on the sofa rather than out in the garden, people want the dog to look nice.

"Also, families are getting types of dogs that are non-shed, like cockapoos and cavachons. People might not have to spend their time vacuuming up dog hairs but these breeds do need grooming every eight to 12 weeks."

The highlight of Maria's new business was coming second in the newcomers' class at the K9 Grooming Competition in Lisburn last month and clinching first place for her handling technique. And the preparations for the competition were a far cry from the glamour of Maria's previous career.

"I was up at 4am preparing a cockapoo for the competition to be ready for the judges at 8am - you have to use a fine comb to take knots out," she says.

Grooming a dog can take between two and four hours, depending on its breed, the condition of its coat, and the dog's temperament.

"Everyone thinks it's just a haircut but it involves working from the nose to the tip of the nails, including the ears, hygiene areas, de-matting, washing, and fluff-drying. You also have to take into account the Michael Flatleys on the table - the dogs who dance around too much on the table. Some rescue dogs might never have been groomed until they were rescued and associate grooming with a painful experience, so they could be more nervous and even border on aggression and you have to build trust with them. I once had an Alsatian's mouth around my arm; it didn't penetrate and it was only because I had caught a bad knot."

Not all of Maria's new life has been plain sailing. Rhett and Coco, her two smooth-haired fox terrier pets, died last year, one from old age and one from a kidney condition.

"It was like they had waited until the business was nearly established, that they had hung on and thought 'you're okay now'," she says. "So, I've remembered them by incorporating their silhouette in my logo."

Related: Use our calculator to estimate your small business loan repayments

These days, Maria only grooms about four dogs a day because she is keen to avoid the stress that began to encroach on her previous career. To paraphrase the indie band Florence and the Machine, her Dog Days are Over.

"I love that when I go for a walk, the dogs that I groom will come bounding towards me," she says.

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