What to do when the clinic's being sold


Hard questions smart associates ask themselves when ownership is changing hands.

Her veterinary hospital is changing hands, and this associate needs to do some thinking about her goals, her current job and her future. (Photo: Getty Images)Consider this: An associate veterinarian wouldn't park her car in an unfamiliar city without taking a good look around to be comfortable with the neighborhood and know how to find her way back to her vehicle. So why would that same associate work for months or years at a clinic without critically scanning the landscape and objectively analyzing the agendas of the practice owners in the clinic “neighborhood”? And just as she'd check out her parking spot, a smart doc should know what signs in a practice might mean she needs to scram unexpectedly. The biggest reason? The owner's selling-and not to her.

Be honest with yourself if you've seen any of these warning signs of a practice sale at your hospital. Has your owner:

… changed purchasing habits for drugs, supplies or other inventory?

… stopped investing in new or more modern diagnostic modalities?

... increased or decreased overtime, staffing levels, the use of part-time or relief DVMs or even his or her own hours?

… invited in real estate appraisers, insurance professionals or practice consultants lately?

… asked associates who previously worked without contracts to sign one?

… skipped “re-signing” discussions with associates approaching the end of contracts?

Even a new coat of paint or driveway sealer could be telegraphing a hospital owner's intentions.

‘Am I valuable enough?'

If change is in the wind, associates need to do a little thinking. There's no use in approving or disapproving of a potential change in ownership. (That's not really an associate's business.)

No, it's time for a little brainstorming on more personal questions about your work at the practice. Ask yourself:

> If a private practitioner buys the practice, am I valuable enough-and team-oriented enough-that the new owner would want me to keep working here? Could I expect to be paid the same?

> If a corporate chain buys the practice, would I be comfortable being more closely monitored in the way I practice and charge for services (or don't)?

> If a new owner wanted to change the way associates were paid-say, switching to production-based compensation-could I produce enough to earn the same money?

> Would my favorite staff members (beloved mentors, favorite technicians, trusted classmates) likely leave? And would I still like working here if they did?

Don't say, ‘I've never thought about it.'

Of course, we haven't touched on the most sobering question of all: If you want to leave, will it be logistically or legally hard to do so? Some associates can pull up stakes and move on, thanks to their own mobility, contracts and forgiving noncompete clauses. Others can't. Consequently, it's a huge mistake for any of us not to periodically take a reading of our professional situation, our options, our career vulnerabilities and our goals as they relate to work and employment.

So if you see the signs your practice could be sold, transferred, relocated or downsized, it's time to get to thinking. Here are some places to start:

“I've never really thought that hard about whether I would like to own my own clinic.”

(Time to do that. Now.)

“Maybe it's time to talk to the practice owner about selling some or all of this joint to me.”

(Yes, communicating with your boss is a good thing.)

“Huh. I wonder if our location is performing doing well for the corporate owner?”

(If it's not, your job could be at risk.)

“If this corporate buyout turns out disappointing for the new owners, I wonder if they'd entertain an offer from me.”

(Find out!)

“Oh man, if this place is sold and I have to leave, will my noncompete agreement make it impossible to move on without taking my kids out of school?”

(Check those clauses now.)

“I wonder if a new owner could even enforce my noncompete agreement.”\

(Talk to a lawyer.)

“Shoot, I can't remember if my agreement is with the business or the owner?”

(Again, dig out that contract.)

“I know I'm a valuable, productive associate who gets along with people.”

(You sound confident and that's good. Make sure your colleagues agree with you.)

“If a corporate chain buys the practice, they could be looking for a medical director. I could do that.”

(Find out and position yourself as an attractive option.)

Here's what it comes down to: The world of veterinary practice is changing. Forms of ownership, styles of management and what DVMs want out of their jobs and careers are always in flux. The best advice today-really the only rational advice-is to always look around carefully at the spot where you've parked your car. And where you parked your stethoscope.

Christopher J. Allen, DVM, JD, is president of the Associates in Veterinary Law PC, which provides legal and consulting services exclusively to veterinarians. He can be reached via e-mail at info@veterinarylaw.com.

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