Priceless lessons: One veterinarians practice ownership journey

September 17, 2019
Eva Evans, DVM, MBA, CVMA

Eva Evans, DVM, MBA, CVMA, is the owner of a small animal practice in Nashville, Tennessee, focusing on combining gold standard medicine with five star client experience.

The good, the bad and the awesome lessons one veterinarian learned as a new practice owner.

Finding good employees is always a challenge, but there are other positives that come out of the practice owning experience. (Antonioguillem/stock.adobe.com)

Four years ago, I got the bright idea to start my own veterinary practice. I was tired of working for other people and corporations and wanted to experience more professional growth as well as freedom in my personal life. I wanted to navigate my own career path and work in a practice that I loved with a team I loved and clients I loved.

Although it seemed like a fantasy to me, I came across practice owners who seemed to be living this very dream. I saw practice owners who developed (and retained) amazing teams, provided excellent care, had committed clients and were financially stable with time off for family, hobbies and travel.

Two years ago, I opened my practice, and it's been one heck of a roller coaster ever since. As a roller coaster enthusiast, this isn't a bad thing! This journey of practice ownership has taught me so much and reinforced the ups and downs of life. My lessons learned center around personal and professional growth, the challenges of managing people and the priceless relationships I've built within my community.

The good: Personal and professional growth

Learning and more learning. I've always enjoyed learning and growing and becoming better at my hobbies, but pushing myself professionally was tough while working for a corporation where numbers mattered more than client experience or patient outcomes. Practice ownership has stretched the boundaries of my knowledge and expanded my comfort zone from both a business and a medical perspective.

Being able to learn as you go and to realize that you truly can run a business by yourself is empowering! While knowing how to use QuickBooks and payroll apps is not exciting to most, my financial literacy and business acumen grew as I learned how to perform every job in the hospital. From taxes to insurance to credit cards to inventory management, the ability to run a financially successful business is a valuable skill that many people never have the opportunity to acquire.

Losing your crutch. Medically speaking, I worked at a great practice right out of school. Over the years, managing common conditions become second nature. But what about the weird cases that just didn't add up, or the cases that didn't resolve when they should have? As an associate, I felt like I never had the time to conduct research on rare diagnoses or cutting-edge treatments. As a solo practitioner, not only can I flex my schedule for research, but it's expected of me!

There is no crutch to lean on when you are the boss. I still refer clients to specialists when necessary, but my ability to continue learning and improving my medicine is now motivated from within. Two years as a practice owner has provided more in-depth learning on those once-in-a-career cases than in my first five years as an associate combined. The ability to provide continuity of care (as opposed to the revolving door of larger practices where clients see a different doctor every visit) and proper follow up has given me the opportunity to hone the skill of recognizing subtle clues and drawing on previous experience. This means healthier patients and happier clients.  

Interpersonal skills. From a personal standpoint, opening and operating a practice made it necessary to develop my intrapersonal skills with clients and my team. Every interaction matters in life; being keenly aware that my ability to pay my mortgage every month depends on how well I treat my clients and team significantly boosted my desire to master the soft skills and bedside manner that are so powerful in developing trusting relationships. Patience, grace, encouragement, understanding, support, forgiveness, boundary setting, emotional control and the ability to see both sides of a story are invaluable personal skills that college just doesn't teach. I apply these same skills to my personal life, and it has benefited my relationships with my family, friends and neighbors.

The bad: Managing people

Building a team. Good employees are hard to find, especially during an economic boom. Finding and hiring great employees remains my biggest challenge. Before owning a practice, I had never hired anyone and certainly never fired anyone. Practice ownership has shown me the very best and the very worst in people. I've learned that phone prescreening, conducting a thorough working interview and calling references can save a lot of headaches; in the end, even that awesome new hire with great potential may fail to be the leader you thought you hired. After seeing this firsthand, I've started to hire fewer seasoned veterans who may hesitate to embrace the practice's culture. Instead, I now focus on training greener prospects who show a strong desire to learn and grow. In the end, what matters most in a team is reliability, integrity and respect. The technical skills can be taught; kindness, self-motivation and the drive to learn cannot.

Managing your team. When it comes to managing the team, I've learned that an open mind and forgiveness are essential for practice owners. Everyone makes mistakes, including you. Focusing on lessons learned and not the fact that a mistake was made is a healthier more progressive way to show your team that you care about them. This culture of honesty and support should come from the top down. Supervisors who freely admit their own mistakes are more likely to have employees who admit to mistakes rather than cover them up. In an industry where mistakes can cost a patient its life, practice owners need to create a culture where mistakes are freely discussed as learning opportunities and not as shameful personal failures.

Letting go. The absolute worst part of practice ownership for me is terminating employees. Although it doesn't happen often, removing someone from your practice is tough emotionally. Finding out an employee has lied, stolen or shown abusive behavior toward others can sometimes feel like a personal failure: “How could I have hired someone who would do this? Why didn't I see this coming?”

The more I grow and develop in this position, however, the more I realize that other people may not live up to the standards of my practice. Even well-meaning employees may not be compatible with your practice, and that is OK. Employees whose values do not align with the practice's values are not necessarily bad people, but they are a poor fit. Learning to let go of employees who fail to meet the professional expectations of their job description has been the greatest challenge for me, and I continue to learn from it.

The awesome: Building client relationships

Perhaps the greatest thing I didn't know before owning a practice is the degree of personal and professional fulfillment that comes from building great relationships with my clients and patients. Human beings are meant to connect with others; good relationships and serving others are the foundation of long-term human happiness.

As an associate, I had very little professional fulfillment because it felt like what I did every day didn't really matter in the long run. Becoming a practice owner has forced me to increase my dedication to my patients, my clients and my community to a level that I did not experience previously. Because I want my practice to be successful, I work hard to provide the very best care to my patients and clients, which in turn builds trusting relationships. As a result, the level of dedication and support I receive from the community has been a wonderful joy. I have a feeling of purpose and I know that what I do every day matters.

The bottom line

Practice ownership is not easy. Balancing (sometimes conflicting) client, patient, team member and practice needs is a delicate process, and I don't always get it right. Hiring good people will always be a challenge, and I continue to work on letting go of my personal feelings of failure when I terminate an employee. My ability to manage time, money, cases, conflict and relationships has improved drastically since becoming a veterinary practice owner, and that has translated to a sense of purpose along with a better, more stable, more fulfilling life. Some days are tough. Some are awesome. This is life. Practice ownership isn't the only path to purpose and fulfillment, but it's certainly helping me live my best life.

Eva Evans, DVM, MBA, CVMA, is the owner of a small animal practice in Nashville, Tennessee, focusing on combining gold standard medicine with five star client experience.