Two months ago, Bloomberg’s Patrick Clark penned an article that promptly went viral as it touched on a rather unorthodox topic: a pet leasing, or rather rental, company aimed at subprime borrowers who could not afford to buy their pet outright.
The company in question is Wags Lending, a/k/a Bristlecone, was founded by Dusty Wunderlich in 2003. A brief background from the original BBG piece:
Wunderlich dreamed up Wags Lending in 2013, then used the pet-leasing business to launch an improbable collection of financing vehicles—writing leases against furniture, wedding dresses, hearing aids, and custom auto rims. In a little more than three years, his company has originated 66,000 leases for just over $100 million. He once worked out a plan to lease cattle to dairy farmers, though plummeting commodity prices soured the economics. (He got far enough to decide that if a cow gave birth during the terms of the lease, the lessee got to keep the calf.) In another idea that never reached the market, he explored lease financing for funerals. “We like niches where we’re dealing with emotional borrowers,” Wunderlich said.
But mostly pest: “Because dogs can be expensive, and not everyone who wants a fancy one can afford to pay cash or use a credit card. Because others, like Sabins, are more eager to bring home their new furry friend than to read the fine print of their contract. But mostly because—thanks to a 36-year-old Nevadan who ditched a career in private equity to help subprime borrowers finance purebred pets—they can.”
The 36-year-old in question had one simple idea: in the future nobody will own anything, everything will be leased:
“When I take a good hard look at what the world will be like in 10 years, I think most things are going to be on lease,” said Dusty Wunderlich, chief executive officer of Bristlecone Holdings LLC, the Reno, Nevada-based company that operates Wags Lending.
To be sure, Wunderlich certainly practiced what he preached:
Wunderlich rents his apartment. He leases his car. He owns his horse. He’s drawn to the rugged individualism expressed in the novels of Ayn Rand and the blog Cowboy Ethics, but he hastens to argue that while he profits off high-cost lending, he’s also improving the lives of subprime borrowers. He is, he writes in a mission statement on his personal website, “living in a Postmodern culture while maintaining my old American West roots and Christian values.”
Taking his idea further, he decided to target one particular niche of subprime clients: pet buyers who have a less than pristine credit rating. Which is why the article quickly became known as the “subprime pet leasing” piece.
On the surface, Wunderlich had a great, and lucrative, idea even if the loss provisions were sure to be quite high. There was just one problem, as the company’s financially troubled clients soon found out: what was a $2,400 dog purchase would end up costing $5,800 when accounting for total interest outlays. There was another problem: the clients would quickly realize that hidden in the small print was the interest: a whopping 70% APR, double more than double the average credit card.
The Sabins had bought their new dog, Tucker, with financing offered at the pet store through a company called Wags Lending, which assigned the contract to an Oceanside, California-based firm that collects on consumer debt. But when Dawn tracked down a customer service rep at that firm, Monterey Financial Services Inc., she learned she didn’t own the dog after all.
“I asked them: ‘How in the heck can I owe $5,800 when I bought the dog for $2,400?’ They told me, ‘You’re not financing the dog, you’re leasing.’ ‘You mean to tell me I’m renting a dog?’ And they were like, ‘Yeah.’ ”
Without quite realizing it, the Sabins had agreed to make 34 monthly lease payments of $165.06, after which they had the right to buy the dog for about two months’ rent. Miss a payment, and the lender could take back the dog. If Tucker ran away or chased the proverbial fire truck all the way to doggy heaven, the Sabins would be on the hook for an early repayment charge. If they saw the lease through to the end, they would have paid the equivalent of more than 70 percent in annualized interest—nearly twice what most credit card lenders charge.
It wasn’t just the Sabins:
“There is just no way I should pay over $5000 for a $2000 puppy,” wrote one customer in an April 2014 complaint collected by the Federal Trade Commission after financing a Yorkshire terrier from a Kennesaw, Georgia, pet store with a lease from Wags Lending. (That complaint and the others that follow were directed at Monterey Financial by customers who had financed high-end pets through Wags Lending.) “The rep … told me the payments I had been making are rental [fees],” wrote another surprised lessee. “For a dog?? They are renting animals?? No way! Yes it’s true!”
Which goes back to square one: “The complaints raise a valid question: Why would anyone walk into a pet store to buy an animal and decide, instead, to lease?” Well, because some people can be fooled all the time. There was another reason:
Wunderlich considered various credit models before he landed on the closed-end lease, which gave him free rein from usury laws in all 50 states. It seemed well-suited to an era when the housing crisis was threatening to sour Americans permanently on mortgages, credit card loans, even the concept of ownership.
Despite the growing customer complaints, the idea seemed so good, the money flowed in.
In 2014, [Wunderlich] landed a meeting with SenaHill Partners LP, a New York-based merchant bank firm that invests in financial technology startups. It didn’t take long for Justin Brownhill, a partner at SenaHill, to sense an opportunity in the company’s data-driven lending model and point-of-sale marketing strategy. Five minutes into the meeting, Brownhill excused himself. “I walked out and grabbed my three other partners and said, ‘I think we have something special here,’ ” Brownhill said.
Wunderlich parlayed that meeting into a seed round of $1.1 million. SenaHill also connected him with a firm that furnished Bristlecone with a $75 million line of credit, lowering Bristlecone’s borrowing costs.
For a while everything was going great. As Clark concluded his March 2017 piece, “For now, Wunderlich is still focused on launching new credit products. He recently finalized a deal with a Utah-based bank that helps online lenders use the state’s lender-friendly laws to make loans elsewhere. That will let Bristlecone expand its product offerings to include term loans, allowing it to extend more enticing rates to borrowers with better credit profiles and to finance services like veterinary care, elective surgery, even funerals—not just tangible assets like dairy cows and Labradoodles.”
“We’ve gone a long way to making sure that what we’re doing is within the confines of the law,” Wunderlich said. “Is there a regulator one day that’s going to just absolutely not like what we do and pick a fight with us? Probably. And we’ll have to hash it out.”
Which brings us to today, when just 7 weeks after these words were put to html, something went terminally wrong, and it didn’t even involve a regulator cracking down on the predatory pet renter. It was a good old fashioned bankrutpcy, because overnight, Wags – the up and coming subprime pet renter – admitted that its business model was terminally flawed when it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
And yet, even in bankruptcy, the company remained shady because unlike other corporations which file Chapter due to an excessive debt burden, listed a modest $50,000-100,000 in liabilities owed to less than 50 creditors…
… even as it disclosed assets up to 5 times as high. Why not just sell assets to cover liabilities and continue operating instead of impairing vendors such as Affordable Pups, All Pets Club, American Dog Club, Bark Avenue Puppies and so on?
Perhaps we will get some answers when the affidavit in support of the bankruptcy is filed, but somehow we doubt it.
In any case, keep an eye on the subprime entrepreneur Dusty Wunderlich: we are confident that after the “subprime pet rental” venture implosion, he will reappear soon with some new idea, one whose APR this time may be in the triple digits.