In 1936, Cameron Animal Hospital opened as the first standalone veterinary building servicing dogs and cats in the Northeast United States.
Seventy years later, the hospital's namesake and solo owner stand as testament to his father's vision, but the landscape has changed. The Montclair, N.J. practice sits amid enough competition to make most battle-hardened small business owners nervous.
Dotted along New Jersey's concrete landscape in two-mile intervals, companion animal veterinary practices provide income for most of the state's 1,908 licensed DVMs. Yet 18 miles south of dense New York City, Dr. George Cameron's business appears unscathed.
Too close for comfort? More than 66 percent of respondents have at least three competitors within five miles of their practices.
Since joining his father's practice in 1970, Cameron has enjoyed a reputation as the area's cat whisperer, drawing up to 30,000 clients who visit the practice and sit through its sometimes legendary three-hour waits.
The camera-shy, modest veterinarian is guarded about his age, his success and his relationship with colleagues. Cameron labels such attention advertising, even among the pages of DVM Newsmagazine. "It's unethical. Nobody in the neighborhood does it," he contends. Yet Cameron's been around long enough to see practices come and go. The secret to longevity? Don't sweat over your neighboring colleague's prices or equipment. Cameron's advice: Focus on relationships; forget the competition.
"It's very hard for practices to do that considering there are so many out there," he says. "But veterinarians need to treat their neighbors with respect, make sure no one on staff has a negative thing to say about another practitioner and take their phone calls no matter what. That is the key to friendly competition."
Trend data shows that might be easier said than done. According to DVM Newsmagazine's 2006 State of the Profession report, 28 percent of 625 survey respondents from across the country rank other traditional veterinary practices as their top competitive threat, with Internet sales Web sites trailing by four points.
Forty-five percent of respondents reported their geographic region as highly competitive, up from 40 percent in 2003. And while about 59 percent of respondents reported no practices opened in the past three years, nearly 38 percent report five or more direct competitors are located within five square miles.
Dr. Faith Krausman is one of Cameron's neighbors, though she's created a niche among her colleagues as a house-call veterinarian. That distinction brings about more cooperation than competition, she says, yet Cameron's practice sits less than two miles away from the Vet-on-Wheels home base.
There are local veterinarians who don't pass on referrals, and likewise, Krausman admits she rarely offers them her cases. But collegiality reigns in the upper middle-class community, she says. The home environment prohibits Krausman from caring for a client's blocked cat or an animal hit by a car. In those instances, she relies on neighbors like Cameron to work those cases.
"There's no threat here," she says. "There's always a give and take. I don't actively compete with anyone. That's just how I approach it."
That feeling of camaraderie is mirrored in Dr. Nancy Katz's business philosophy, although as the area's newest practitioner, she's not as established.
Four years ago, the former relief veterinarian opened up shop roughly two miles from Cameron and Krausman. While Katz admits the New York City tri-state area has an "incredibly Type-A competitive flavor," that rarely translates to veterinary medicine, she says.
Still, Katz & Dogs Animal Hospital doesn't shy away from bolstering its 2,022-member client base. Katz says she sets her practice apart by offering extraordinary customer service.
Cameron, who contends there's always room for growth, rolled out the welcome mat by presenting the practice with an autoclave.
"He's a role model for me," Katz says of her gift-giving colleague. "There's a mutual respect."
Yet that doesn't mean Montclair's practices don't draw from the same pool of qualified technicians and front-of-the-house staff members. If there's a hint of competition in Montclair, it's for support staff, Katz says. While Cameron boasts low turnover, Katz hasn't had time to identify such long-term candidates.
"We're all competing for skilled technicians," she says. "And we could easily be of the mindset that we have to watch our backs. But I think you get a lot more out of working together than you get out of competing with other people. Could this area support another veterinarian? That's hard to say."