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Reinvent and renew your practice

Article

The story of a practice makeover that's been years in the making. It's inspirational and humorous because of the owner's positive outlook, along with his love and respect for his profession, his team, his patients, and his clients.

Television Is Awash With Makeover shows for everything from houses to personal appearance. Extreme Makeover: Home Edition is heartwarming and inspirational (these are deserving people!), while What Not to Wear can be hysterical and appalling (are you kidding me with that outfit?). So, in keeping with the cultural landscape, I'm sharing the story of a practice makeover that's been years in the making and in which I've been privileged to play a role. It's inspirational and humorous because of the owner's positive outlook, along with his love and respect for his profession, his team, his patients, and his clients. I hope you'll enjoy this transformation as much as I have.

From large-animal to small

Dr. Charles Curie ("Charlie" to those who know him) started his practice in 1979 in his hometown of Jefferson, Ohio, after graduating from The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine. Originally naming the practice Ashtabula County Veterinary Service, Dr. Curie was a solo large animal practitioner until 1983, when he built a facility, hired an associate, and expanded his services to include companion animal medicine. He changed the practice name to Country Doctor Veterinary Clinic—a carefully chosen title that he felt represented all he believed in: honesty, integrity, compassion, good medicine, and good value.

The practice focused primarily on large animal services at first. "We didn't make much money in those years," Dr. Curie says. "I was too busy practicing medicine to give management much thought. I would have made a good dairy farmer—my work was a labor of love!"

Denise L. Tumblin, CPA

All of that changed in 1995 when Dr. Diane Veale joined the practice, bringing an expertise in companion animal medicine and an enthusiasm for leadership. Dr. Curie says that before Dr. Veale arrived, he allotted companion animal services about an hour a day—and that begrudgingly. He couldn't have chosen to expand the companion animal practice at a better time—the dairy industry was taking a hit and the number of large animal clients was dwindling. But with Dr. Veale on board, things were looking positive for the clinic's future.

Then, in the spring of 1996, tragedy struck. Dr. Curie was severely injured by a horse, and as a result he was left with fractured vertebrae, bulging discs, no cervical range of motion, and a numb, weak left arm. Thus ended his ability to practice large animal medicine.

Before and after

"I spent several years visiting specialists," Dr. Curie says. "They all wanted to know how a man of my age got to be in such deplorable condition. And then each one announced he or she couldn't help—no surgery, no miracles, and no hope." So Dr. Curie focused on rehabilitation through physical and massage therapy, which did help him feel better.

In 2000, Dr. Curie heard Dr. Marty Becker speak and had a revelation. "Honestly, I was struggling," Dr. Curie says. "I didn't know if this old busted-up large animal veterinarian could make the switch. But Marty helped me realize that companion animal medicine is a celebration of the bond people have with their pets."

Marty Becker weighs in

Dr. Curie realized he didn't have to be a high-tech wizard and that excellent specialists could provide the care he couldn't. "I could just practice solid, everyday medicine—good family-practice care at a good value, served up with honesty and integrity," he says.

From medicine to management

Dr. Curie's injuries didn't prevent him from thinking, so he began to focus on the business side of his practice, and this is still his primary role due to his physical limitations. He admits that when he used to encounter practice-building ideas in Veterinary Economics and from other resources, his first thought was usually, "That won't work in Jefferson, Ohio." But he implemented some of the ideas, and they did indeed work. For example, he stopped prejudging what he thought clients would pay and started offering his top recommendation—period. "I was shocked," he says. "Clients would listen and say, 'OK.' If that approach works here, it will work anywhere."

But just as Dr. Curie's goals for Country Doctor Veterinary Clinic were really starting to be realized, fate dealt him another blow when his wife filed for divorce. The protracted legal battle left him with frozen assets and the reality that both he and his practice needed to survive on cash flow. "I was forced to take a hard look at the financial details—all of them," he says. As a result, he developed a crystal-clear vision of where he wanted the practice to go.

Country Doctor's vision

Dr. Curie also came to believe in seeking expert advice to help diagnose his management "diseases" before they became terminal. "Veterinarians get frustrated with clients who wait until their pet is almost dead before bringing it in," he says. "Yet too often we allow our business to suffer through years of chronic mismanagement disease before taking it to the doctor."

With this in mind, Dr. Curie hired my firm to help him understand the details of his fiscal health and develop a treatment plan for the business of his practice. After a thorough analysis of his financial statements and production reports from his veterinary software (see "Country Doctor's Financial Transformation") and extensive discussion of the results, we identified the areas of opportunity for growth and developed the initial stages of his business plan, as summarized in "Strategy for Fiscal Well-Being," below.

Country Doctor's financial transformation

From average to thriving

Since embarking on this program, the practice's improvement has been slow and steady. No magic, no silver bullets, just an unwavering resolve by Dr. Curie and his team to stick close to the vision for the practice and focus on the mission—to celebrate the bond between people and pets. Country Doctor Veterinary Clinic's focus is true: excellence in family-practice pet healthcare and five-star client service. Revenue for 2007 is on target to increase by 50 percent over the past two years.

Strategy for fiscal well-being

But Dr. Curie says the most important transformation has come not from implementing a specific management strategy or participating in a certain financial exercise. Rather, he says, it's involved a hard look inward. "I can tell you that the biggest change in my practice is the man in the mirror," he says. "I'm still not very good at the management side of things. But I'm a much improved version of the me 10 years ago."

The soul of the practice

As a result, the practice's new-client growth rate is "phenomenal," he says. "Most new clients tell us they chose our practice because they heard we're honest. I can't think of a better reason for them to come."

Getting to yes-88 percent more often

Veterinary Economics Editorial Advisory Board member Denise L. Tumblin, CPA, is owner of Wutchiett Tumblin and Associates in Columbus, Ohio. Send comments to ve@advanstar.com

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