Living through divorce, practice sale

November 30, 2018
Shannon Newton

Our veterinary hospital was caught in a practice-owner divorce. We weathered that storm by remembering our mission, showing sensitivity to each other and doing good work.

"I saw my main challenge as keeping our staff intact, so clients would see the same friendly faces each time they visited while things played out in divorce court."

In 2013, our veterinary practice owner at the time graduated with a nonveterinary advanced degree and was doing a lot of public speaking, our part-time doctor was growing her client base, and we were seeing good year-over-year growth. Then, in the span of a few months in 2015, our practice owner took a job in industry and put the practice up for sale. Then, we found out that the practice owner was getting divorced and that his ex-wife (also a veterinarian) would take over the business until it sold, although she wouldn't be seeing patients.

Whoa.

Clients were worried. Our staff wanted to jump ship. And the new boss had owned an equine practice but had never practiced small-animal medicine or managed a small-animal hospital.

Little did any of us know we'd be in this difficult holding pattern for almost three years.

I saw my main challenge as keeping our staff intact, so clients would see the same friendly faces each time they visited while things played out in divorce court. I really didn't have to offer any incentives. I also assured the team that I was sticking things out with them and that they would be the first to know if I felt things weren't looking good for the future.

We have an “open book” policy here, so every team member knows the financial status of our hospital at all times. We have weekly meetings so that we can vote on changes in protocols and air any concerns we have.

I also lead my team with empathy. I know that if something's going on with them personally, they aren't doing their best at work. Self-care and family come first, because you can really burn out in this field. It's extremely important to take time for yourself, so I encourage team members to take a longer lunch or a day off if I see they need it.

Oh yeah, we had an AAHA inspection too

During this time, we reaccredited with AAHA. I don't know how other practices prepare for an inspection, but I'm a big “plan ahead” person. Months before, I printed a list and noted all the areas still good from the last inspection.

I then assigned the action areas that needed attention to different team members and checked in at our weekly meetings to make sure we were hitting the marks.

The week before, each person reported on their assigned area and shared any changes or updates they made to help us get an even better score than before.

We earned the rare compliment from the inspector, who said we were one of the easiest clinics she'd ever scored.

My second-hardest task was helping the ex-wife define her role as a would-be nonpracticing practice owner while she worked to acquire the practice in the divorce settlement. I helped the new owner see that we should stop making rapid changes so that the staff could ease into new ownership. We both worked to keep the drama out of the clinic and focused on providing healthcare in our loving, upscale environment.

These are all the reasons I think our staff stuck around. The whole staff also truly believes that we practice some of the best veterinary medicine around and didn't want to see Southpark perish. When everyone buys into the mission statement, you're a strong force.

Southpark happily survived three years of being for sale (including an offer from a competitor who wanted to fold our practice into his) and being the object of a legal tug-of-war.

As of this February, Southpark is solely owned by Dr. Jennifer Mathews, and we were all able to breathe a sigh of relief.

Shannon Newton is office manager at Southpark Veterinary Hospital in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. She is a finalist in the 2018 dvm360/VHMA Practice Manager of the Year contest.