Starting a business in rural Mayenne

For Stephanie Lack, running a kennels in rural Mayenne during a recession has been a challenge. Stephanie Sheldrake finds out how she has made it a success

When Stephanie Lack and her late husband Bob moved to France in 2008 to open a kennels and cattery, Mayenne was the logical choice of location. Not only was the department within easy reach of the northern ports, it was also home to a big expat community who would be potential clients and, importantly, properties with land that were good value for money.

The couple’s decision to move to France was made mainly so that Bob, who was suffering from terminal cancer, could receive treatment. Stephanie and Bob had been living in West Sussex where Stephanie ran a cleaning business, as well as working at a kennels and running a livery yard. She loved working with animals, so the idea of setting up their own boarding kennels and cattery suited them perfectly.

In January 2008, the couple started looking for suitable properties in Mayenne, with the help of Stephanie’s sister, who had already moved to the area four years earlier.

“We came over and looked at about a dozen properties in a week, and just as we were leaving to go home, the immobilier rang to say he had a suitable property. My sister went to see it, and it perfectly matched what we needed, apart from the fact it was absolutely uninhabitable and it was a complete mess outside,” laughs Stephanie. “We came back over and made an offer that day.”

Situated in a rural setting, one kilometre from their nearest neighbour, the buildings were perfect for what the couple wanted – a traditional farmhouse set in three acres of paddocks and garden, with a large barn for their two horses and two rescue Shetland ponies.

When it came to renovating the farmhouse, time was of the essence. “Unfortunately, because of Bob’s treatment we were always against the clock; we were always under a lot of pressure to get things done quickly,” says Stephanie.

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But with the renovations under way, and the planning application approved, the couple were able to erect the kennels and cattery buildings, which they had custom-made in the UK and shipped to France flat-packed. Despite having had life-saving surgery and undergoing chemotherapy at the time, Bob was able to erect the kennels with the help of a friend and a neighbour. The hard work paid off and the couple opened the kennels and cattery, named ‘Les Creature Comforts’, in time for Christmas 2008.

Stephanie did a mail shot to the local vets and business soon flourished, mainly by word of mouth. “Word travels very fast in the expat community,” says Stephanie.

To start with, a good proportion of clients were British expats, but now the majority are French. “I did think, to start with, that all my business would be expats but it hasn’t turned out that way – about 65% of my clients are French,” says Stephanie. “My business has changed in the last two years; without my French clients, I would be bankrupt.”

There’s no denying that the economic climate of recent years has hit this part of France hard. “Running a business in a recession in France is really hard work,” admits Stephanie. “It’s getting more and more expensive almost daily with price increases.”

Stephanie has also found that the older French farmers in Mayenne don’t tend to use the kennels. However, there is a strong market among younger French people.

“The young French tend to spend a lot of money buying pedigree animals and are thrilled when they come to the kennels to find it as it is,” she says. “I have some really good French clients who come every year. They book the same holidays so the dogs that come in July and August come every year, which is great.”

Stephanie points out that one couple who moved away from the area now travel nine hours to use the kennels because there is nothing like it where they live. “My French clients bring me presents back from their holidays. They are so sweet; they send me postcards,” she adds.

Despite the tough economic times, the business is flourishing. “During the summer, the kennels are full. I only take nine dogs and up to 20 cats but the cattery is probably not even half full, even in the summer – cats aren’t as popular in France.”

Sadly Bob died in 2010 having enjoyed an extra two years of life. Stephanie owes a lot to the French healthcare system. “The healthcare here is fantastic, not only from the sad experience with Bob, but from personal experience. I’ve had a couple of things, nothing serious, and they’ve been fantastic,” she says. “I think some expats worry about becoming old and infirm in France, but in fact the healthcare service is superb and the French really look after the elderly.”

Stephanie explains that it is too expensive to take on employees, so all the work is done by herself and her new partner David.

Despite the circumstances that brought Stephanie to France, she is glad to now call it her home. “I didn’t move here for a dream; I moved here for a reason and I have had to make it my life. I don’t ever think I want to move back to England. I go back about once a year and when I return to France, I feel like I’ve come home,” she says. “I like my house and my surroundings and I can afford to keep my horses at home, which I could never have afforded to do in England, so there are lots of positives.”

And having made a success of her business during these hard times, it seems there is a lot for Stephanie to be positive about. LF