by Dr. Ben McClelland
The time had come and the man had been found.
Wildrose Kennels has evolved into a sophisticated business operation. The lifelong passion of Mike and Cathy Stewart and their commitment to the highest standards of quality has resulted in an unparalleled complex of operations at Oxford, MS; along the Buffalo River near Jasper, AR; as well as summer mountain training at Clear Creek Ranch in Granite, CO; plus a yearly calendar of workshops and special appearances across the country.
Years of careful, incremental development eventually equaled exponential growth.
Even a casual surfer on the website or a first-time visitor to Wildrose Kennels instantly recognizes the sophisticated organizational structure and elaborate facilities of the oldest and most selective trainers and breeders of imported British and Irish Labradors in North America. Those with closer understanding of the workings of this exceptional business realize the hands-on, detail work required in daily operations.
The Oxford breeding and training facility has five organizational divisions: breeding and healthcare, training, business office, retail store, and inline store. It requires a business model with numerous checks and balances to manage a staff of five full-time trainers, a crew of kennelmen and groundskeepers, healthcare technicians, and store manager.
To keep moving the business forward with sound quality control the time had come to appoint a general manager. And the search for the right man led to Wildrose’s next-door neighbor and former associate trainer, Tom Smith, who has been a peripatetic owner-manager of a large construction business, which he had the good fiscal opportunity to move on from last summer after a twelve-year career.
Joining the staff in October, Tom hit the ground running, using his unique skill sets in construction, organizing labor, project management, personnel oversight. We’ll discuss later more of the work he’s involved at Wildrose, but let’s get to know our new general manager.
Tom Smith grew up in a very small Southern Indiana town on the Ohio River, running with beagles, hunting rabbits, squirrels, and deer. He attended the University of Kentucky on an ROTC scholarship and then served seven years as an army infantry and maintenance officer stationed in Georgia, Alaska, Virginia, and Kentucky. During this time, Tom also enjoyed traveling to many other states for schools and training, plus visiting Japan, Thailand and Egypt. With his military background Tom shares leadership style with Mike, who also sharpened his skills in the military and law enforcement. (They’re also motorcycle enthusiasts.)
After the Army Tom became a plant manager for Cintas, the uniform company, and then entered into the industrial construction field and shortly thereafter started a business with a couple partners, managing up to 275 people and millions of dollars of equipment. Mike and Cathy recognized that Tom’s range of experience and training would enable him to bring a different level of thinking into the fold at Wildrose.
Tom’s philosophy of training has a familiar ring to it: start with a great bloodline and bring out the best of the dog with consistence, repetition, praise, and correction. Not using force training, but rather working with the dog to help them bring out its natural abilities. He says that’s what attracted him so much to Wildrose.
In October of 2008 he got a yellow pup, Dixie [Hamish & Susie]. After backgrounding her, Tom sent her to Ben Summerall for gundog training because of his job location and demands. Dixie has hunted all over the place, including Canada, and she traveled extensively with him for work. Tom calls her personality crazy friendly and claims that she would rather chase birds than eat. And we all know how much a lab loves to eat.
Tom long had the intention of settling in this area. In January of 2010 he became an associate trainer and in September of 2010 bought the house next door to the kennel for a possible retirement or second career location. Turns out the plan worked.
Tom’s comments about Wildrose show why he’s so pleased to join the staff: “Wildrose is such an awesome place and the people and dogs you meet are great. And Mike and Cathy are just so down to earth and treat people like family. The staff here from top to bottom is a great group of people who take the dogs and customer satisfaction very seriously so that has really helped with the transition. And I really love the wide range of clients we have. Plus, I love Oxford. The wide range of great dining options really impressed me. Because I’m not a big city kind of guy, the village atmosphere in Oxford is right up my alley. I had been wanting to move to the country for years so the combination of dogs, Mike and Cathy, Oxford and living in the country was a slam dunk.”
Tom describes his duties at Wildrose as “chief cook and bottle washer. I run a gamut of mucking pens, mowing, training, scheduling, doing shows, selling, planning, just about anything that could pop up in a given day. Of course my biggest challenge is becoming the best trainer as I possibly can while also growing and solidifying the Wildrose brand with current and new clients. My goal is to make everyone who comes thru the gate feel welcome.”
When asked about goals, Tom has a list at hand: “I have some organizational things that are on the front burner with some facilities upgrades we would like to schedule in the budget for next fiscal year and continue to adapt to the daily ebb and flow of training, facilities management, and marketing. Long-term goals include helping Wildrose continue to grow and adjust the ever-changing landscape of client requests and continue to fine tune our training methods and programs. I would also like to help our young associates with their professional development not just with dog training but to be prepared for a corporate structure if they ever decide to change careers. I was very fortunate with the mentors I had as I grew up including family, military, and professional and I feel an obligation to share what I have learned.”
In just the short time that he’s been aboard, Tom has already installed an advanced technology system in puppy whelping building, re-organized the storage area, and has begun clearing land for a training site for young starter dogs (seven weeks to seven months). He is also coordinating the Wildrose activities at Westervelt Plantation and Prairie Wildlife. Daily he is working alongside various individuals to get close up view into the work they do.
Besides his experience and skills, Tom brings an energetic presence and an upbeat attitude to work every day, which is why everyone is pleased as punch to have him onboard.