A GOLDFISH from a funfair was responsible for the birth of a pet store business which will have 54 branches next year.

Steve and Debbie Fowler founded the first branch of PamPurredPets in 1981, after winning Goldie and needing a tank to put him in.

“We threw darts at a card and ended up with a little goldfish in a bag. It’s illegal now,” he said.

“We ended up with this goldfish and didn’t know where to put it so we put it in a pudding basin.

“The little fish was still swimming around in this putting basin the next day. We lived in Ferndown and we had to travel to Winton to find the nearest pet store.”

Steve was a 23-year-old assistant manager for Safeway in Southampton. He was keen to be a branch manager, but the supermarket was slowing down its expansion programme, and the alternative was to set up his own business. “We thought Ferndown needed a pet store so we went to the manager at the Midland Bank. He said ‘If you put £3,000 down, I’ll put £3,000 down’ and that’s where it started,” said Mr Fowler, now 57.

Debbie had also worked for Safeway. “I brought skills from the shop floor, she brought skills from the administration side,” said Mr Fowler.

They focused on making their pet store “clean and tidy and hygienic,” he said. “Most of the others in those days were smelly and dirty,” he added.

It was seven years later that the couple opened a second store, at Canford Heath. A third followed at Upper Parkstone. Twelve years ago, the company moved its headquarters to a 30,000sqft site on the Ebb Lake Industrial Estate at Verwood. Steve also established a buying group called Fab Creations, teaming up with a Midlands chain called Just For Pets to exploit economies of scale when importing products. The warehouse in Verwood supplies its shops with new stock every day.

The business aimed to keep the family ethic as it grew. The Fowlers’ daughters, Natasha and Samantha, have been working in the business since around the age of 14 and now have senior roles.

“We’ve got a low staff turnover which is really advantageous for the business and I think everyone feels part of a family-owned business rather than working for a big conglomerate,” said Mr Fowler.

The number of accessories available to pet owners has grown enormously. A major chain, Pets At Home, has sprung up as competition, but Mr Fowler believes there is room for “more than one big player”. PamPurredPets’ newer stores tend to be on retail parks with plenty of parking.

Earlier this year, the chain announced it had secured £250,000 from the HSBC to help finance an increase in its store network from 47 to 54 branches over the next two years. It remains focussed on the M4 corridor and southern England.

The next stores to open will be at Bordon in Hampshire and at a retail park in Bristol.

The borrowing involved is not huge for the company’s size. “We’ve learned not to over-borrow and we’ve learned to plough the money back into the business. We’ve done that for 33 years,” said Mr Fowler.

Despite the rise of online retailing, he believes there is still a role for the high street retailer and says he is as enthusiastic as ever about the business.

“We’re lucky to be in an industry that’s a hobby,” he said.

“People love to spend money on their pets and they enjoy looking after them.”