By Jennifer Marshall

The sunny days and blue skies of Arizona lured Liz Illg to Phoenix. Professional and personal success — she’s the owner of Puff & Fluff Grooming and Pet Sitting — have enabled this Iowa native to plant deep roots in the community she loves and calls home.

Have you ever had a dream that you allowed to go unrealized simply because you lacked the courage and conviction to put it all on the line?

Small businesses are the foundation and lifeblood of this country’s economy, and Illg is living proof that with hard work, dedication and perseverance, you can surge forward with total confidence in your abilities to build the life of your dreams

“I came from a home where my mom raised us on a lower income,” Illg said. “I didn’t have things given to me. I had to work very hard to get to where I am now.”

While majoring in business at Arizona State University, she started a pet-sitting business to make money to pay her own tuition. A brand-new business degree in hand and an interest in learning sales led her to accept a corporate job in that field. Her pet-sitting business continued as a hobby until, one day, she envisioned transforming it into a beautiful storefront.

“I’ve always wanted to work for myself,” Illg said. “I’ve always wanted to have my own something—I didn’t know whether it would be a product or something else. But I wanted to be the one to create the vision for something that was all mine.”

One night, she enthusiastically Googled “pet businesses.” Her searching yielded a local grooming shop.

“I had no money at that time,” Illg said, “and with a ton of student loan debt to my name, I had no business looking for a business to buy.”

But she didn’t give up on her pipe dream. She persevered.

Still working at her corporate job, she took her lunch breaks to apply for a business loan. Bank after bank rejected her.

“I didn’t have a business plan,” Illg said, “I was not in a place to be buying a business, but one bank told me they would give me a personal line of credit. This line of credit was going to allow me to buy the storefront.”

“The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” While she was thrilled to have been approved for the personal line of credit, she was still $4,000 short what was required to make her purchase. Committed to her dream and full of belief in herself and her abilities, she contacted members of her family and respectfully and professionally asked them for a loan. Despite her lifetime of nurturing her entrepreneurial spirit, she listened as, one by one, no one was willing to loan her the money as they all saw her venture as being too risky.

“My last resort was to call my dad who was still a farmer back in Iowa,” Illg said. “He didn’t understand what I was thinking; he thought my idea was crazy. I was still waiting to hear from him regarding the money when I checked the mail one day. Inside was a check from him for $4,000 with a note that said, ‘You can pay me back when you’re a success’.”

In the end, because her father believed in her, she was able to purchase her first business location. Business bought and finally in her hands, she was deeper in debt than ever. Debt management and repayment was critical to her overall success. After assessing everything she owed to everyone, she reasoned that her personal line of credit had to be satisfied first because it carried the highest interest rate.

She dug in and worked hard, and she paid everything off that she owed in full. Sadly, she was unable to repay her dad as he passed away. But better than money, he lived long enough to see her first storefront thrive as she was on her road to success. No papa could ever be prouder or ask for more.

“My dad was my lifeline to making this dream come true,” Illg said. “I’m a risk taker. I took a big risk, and there was a lot on the line that I could’ve lost if it hadn’t worked. But I wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t taken that risk and if my dad hadn’t believed in me.”

Now, she’s living the life she’d always imagined for herself, and last year, she got married.

She bought that first store, called Puff & Fluff, in March of 2013. While she’s not a pet groomer, she loves animals, and she’s very hands-on in her ownership and management of all the business operations. What started out as a small 450 square foot shop employing one groomer and one bather has grown into a total of five Puff & Fluff locations in the Valley located in Arcadia, Arrowhead, Litchfield, North 32nd and Uptown.

“I’m a very organized and systematic entrepreneur,” Illg said. “I took one storefront and mastered it. I learned about how to serve my community well, and I connected with each community in the process. And once I did, everything changed — everything took on a whole new life as people supported my small business.”

Puff & Fluff offers a spa experience for dogs, cats, bunnies and hamsters. Bathing and grooming services include haircuts, nail trims and nail polish. Pet-sitting is also available, and customers have two options. They can choose to have a sitter come to their home and stay with their pet, or the sitter can take their pet home with them.

“Keeping up with a pet’s hygiene is key to maintaining their overall health,” Illg said. “So it’s affordable for everyone, we do discounted grooming days throughout the month. I also have special programs, like my Pamperships, where clients pay a monthly fee, and they enjoy unlimited bath, brushes and grooming services for their pets. We love educating our pet parents on how to keep their pets healthy.

Respecting her customers and their beloved pets, her faithful employees and her community are central to the way she conducts her business and all are reflected in her set of Core Values: Patient | Customer Service | Teamwork | Transparency | Create Community | Be Local | Quality | Integrity | Aim to Please | Love Animals.

“I’m constantly evolving my business to better serve my pet parents,” Illg said, “as it’s super important to uphold what they need. It’s a true honor for people to trust me with their pets, and I don’t take that responsibility lightly. And if one of my customers ever has an unpleasant experience, I’ll make it right by them. When I lay my head down at night, I want to know I’ve served everyone well and to the best of my ability.”

Her fifth location, which is located in the North 32nd neighborhood, is particularly close to her heart as this is where she, her husband and their five dogs live. Opening a store in the area she calls home not only felt right but it’s deepened her bond with her community. They love residing in the foothills of the Phoenix Mountains Preserve and patronizing the many local restaurants and businesses.

Community connections are essential to Illg, and she interacts and gives back via many mediums. Each of her five storefronts reflect the particular neighborhood they are in, and she loves hosting community events. Puff & Fluff has been featured on many TV outlets, and she often guest writes pet related articles for various animal magazines. During numerous speaking engagements, where she’s been the keynote speaker at business summits and meetings, she’s shared her inspiring story of how she got started by never giving up on herself and her aspirations. She’s never forgotten how hard she worked to get to where she is today, so she counsels budding entrepreneurs and does consulting for other small businesses.

Photo by Rennai Hoefer with ten22 studio