Sizing up your equine veterinary practice


Why are so many equine practitioners having trouble selling their practices? Don't let it be you.

I'M A MEMBER OF ONE OF THE FIRST graduating classes of baby-boomer veterinarians heading into those so-called golden years. And, boy, did time fly. Now my boomer colleagues are crossing their fingers and hoping that the right one, someone, anyone will look at their practice and say those magic words: "I'll buy it."

Why are so many equine practitioners having trouble selling their practices? Well, for one, more veterinarians are heading to the suburbs and cities to predominantly small animal practices. We've all heard about the shortage of large animal doctors in the field. But three other factors are also making things difficult on hard-working but ready-to-retire equine practitioners. All three factors relate to your ability to listen to a new generation of equine doctors and find out what they want in a practice. Read on to learn about these top three practice-selling troubles—and how you can beat them.

Problem No. 1: The generation gap

Why does it seem that there are still lots of veterinarians, but fewer and fewer willing to buy a practice? Gender is a big factor. During the 1960s, new veterinary classes were 98 percent men and 2 percent women. Now the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction. Entering classes are predominately women with a few men in the mix. A similar trend is under way in other professional schools; doctors, lawyers, and dentists are facing a similar phenomenon.

James E. Guenther, DVM, MBA, CVPM

Women are looking for—and finding—careers other than motherhood. In more and more families, the primary breadwinner is the wife and the husband is taking on the role of caregiver. The stereotypical nuclear family has changed.

With these societal shifts taking place, the average associate's mindset has changed. These intrepid doctors—mostly women—aren't interested in the old-fashioned "my way or the highway" practice culture. They don't want to be on the road for 18 hours a day. Owners need to understand the generational and gender issues present and adapt accordingly. Flexibility and understanding will go a long way in hiring associates and eventually selling your practice.

Solution: Be proactive, not reactive. Don't just wait for the phone to ring to plan your day. This creates large gaps of waiting and longer days as appointments trickle in. The new generation doesn't want to stay late for no reason. Progressive practitioners realize that being proactive and making calls is more efficient than waiting for the calls to come in. It can make for busier and more profitable days.

Problem No. 2: Overvaluing your practice

Most practice owners believe they can get someone to buy the practice for at least the value of one year's gross because of all of the hard work they've invested over the years. The practice is their baby, and they've poured their blood, sweat, and tears into it. The trouble is, it's also a business. And the value of any business is based on profitability. (See "The new generation of low-value practices," November 2007, to figure out your practice's real profitability.) Successful practices are well-run businesses that make money and have systems in place to make your work more efficient and your services more appealing to horse owners.

Make a savvy sale

What sort of systems? Well, if wellness care is more effective and rewarding for patients than "fire engine" medicine, why not use that same philosophy on your business?

Solution: Focus on preventive medicine, which is better and more profitable than treating your practice's trouble spots. Business wellness protocols are just as crucial as a 12-part equine exam. Developing your practice's 12-part exam is a matter of checking key performance indicators and responding to changes that have occurred between exams. If you spot a negative trend, you can delve deeper and fix it before it turns into something that can't be repaired. Over time, the key performance indicators will give you a great feel for the wellness of your practice and its improved value. (For an example of key performance indicators, see "12 Ways to Take Your Practice's Pulse" this Equine Section.)

12 ways to take your practice's pulse

Problem No. 3: A lack of work-life balance

One of the biggest concerns professionals face today is finding the right work-life balance. Many equine practitioners act as if their patients are more important than their own families. When I practiced equine medicine, I treated practice as my life instead of as a means to have a life. When I discovered I didn't have time to do everything myself and started hiring the right people to help, equine practice became fun again.

Future equine-practice owners are looking for balance. They don't want to work 24/7. They want to enjoy their time on the job as well as their time away from it—they're looking for an ownership opportunity that provides both emotional and financial rewards. Can your practice do this?

Solution: Delegate. It's just as essential for you as it is for a small animal doctor. And any doctor's team of talented professionals is crucial to creating and maintaining high-quality customer service and conveying a sense of medical expertise. In a strong team environment, all employees know what they're responsible for when it comes to providing client service. By delegating and leveraging your team, you as the owner regain balance in your life while the practice grows and becomes more valuable.

What potential owner wouldn't be attracted by a talented team that increases profit and enables the doctor to have more quality time for medicine and a personal life?

Management is about understanding the past to create a better future. And if you're a progressive equine practice owner, you're probably realizing that change is inevitable. You adapt or you go extinct. Many equine doctors' all-work-and-no-play model is old and needs to be retooled. And the change starts with listening to new doctors, observing how they work, and trying out new management strategies the same way you try new medical techniques. Out with the old and in with the new will help any equine practitioner eventually find a buyer for his or her practice.

Veterinary Economics Editorial Advisory Board member Dr. James E. Guenther, MBA, CVPM, is a consultant with Brakke Consulting in Asheville, N.C. Send questions or comments to

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