When struggle meets veterinary success
Florida veterinarian's determination pays off after sacrificing for a better life for her son and a career in veterinary medicine.
Elizabeth "Dixie" Brown, DVM, didn't long to be a veterinarian. Or a business owner. She just wanted to be successful.
Dr. Dixie Brown, left, and Erica Helbig, practice manager, East West Veterinary Care Center in Cape Coral, Fla., stand outside their newest hospital the day they received they keys in November 2013. Brown first bought a failing practice she turned into a success, then bought another location and still continues to expand. (PHOTO COURTESY OF EAST WEST VETERINARY CARE CENTER)
Now the Florida veterinarian has two booming practices and is looking to expand further, and she did it all despite tough challenges along the way. The determined veterinarian has gone from a single parent working three jobs to get through veterinary school to a successful practice owner in an area of Florida hit hard by the recession.
Earlier in life, Brown was married and working in Los Angeles as an animal trainer for movies. She dreamed of being a stay-at-home mother of six children. But fate had another plan: She found herself newly divorced in Reno with her then 4-year-old son.
She had few options for work that would support her and her son, let alone give them a better life. "I had decided at that point to go back to school with the help of some very wonderful people at the Nevada Empowered Women's Project," Brown says. "They were the wind beneath my wings."
Brown started her education by working full time and taking a few classes. She transitioned to working three part-time jobs and going to school full time and secured a scholarship that moved her education from community college to the University of Nevada, Reno.
"At first I was going into nursing because I needed to provide for my child and I didn't think I had a chance for a degree in animal science," Brown says. "But I finally just bit the bullet and decided that's what I needed to do."
Luckily for Brown, she also won the single spot reserved for Nevada residents at Ohio State University's College of Veterinary Medicine. She says she believes the school saw how much she wanted to achieve her dream. "I had given up everything to make this happen," she says. "I'm a determined little thing."
To get by as a veterinary student and single mom, Brown worked multiple jobs, lived in public housing and juggled classes along with her other responsibilities. And she did it all without much outside support. "I remember my father saying, 'When are you going to quit that school thing and get a real job?' No one really supported me emotionally or financially," she says, adding that her own determination and study groups with her veterinary school peers saw her through.
Her son was her biggest cheerleader, she says. He used to sleep under computer desks on campus while she studied, carrying his sleeping bag along, then getting up for school the next morning. After a particularly trying day in class, Brown recalls coming home and throwing her bag across the apartment saying she was quitting. "He put a finger up and said, 'I didn't eat my dinner in autopsy class for nothing!' and pushed me to finish," Brown says.
So she continued to chip away at her degree, working on research projects during the summers for extra money. When she graduated with her DVM, she spent the next few years attending veterinary conferences and soaked up all the advice she could on buying a new clinic and making your practice run smoothly. Working as a relief veterinarian also helped her develop her own business strategies. "I was able to see things that don't work and do work," Brown says. "That, for me, was a big eye-opener. I knew what I wanted."
Her opportunity came in 2007 when a failing veterinary clinic became available in Cape Coral, Fla. At the time, the practice was about to shut down. With one part-time employee and almost no clients, Brown jumped right in and opened East West Veterinary Care Center.
Two weeks later the air conditioners broke, followed by most of the equipment. But she took loans to make ends meet and cut back on her personal expenses. Then the economy sank.
When she purchased the practice, Brown had signed a three-year lease-to-own agreement on the facility with an $800,000 purchase price. By the end of the term, the building was appraised at just $225,000. She eventually cut the payments on her lease by hiring an attorney to renegotiate it for her. "It was pretty bad. There were many days we didn't make anything. But I didn't get discouraged," Brown says.
She sent out letters to old clients, did presentations on veterinary medicine at local schools and got out in the community. Brown says she adopted a client-centered philosophy and instead of telling a client "no" found ways to get them what they needed.
To win clients, she stopped charging to write prescriptions and she hired staff members who could help her transform the philosophy of the practice. "You could see it slowly getting better," she says. "We did little things. It was very much our service."
She expanded emergency and critical care services, improved her diagnostic equipment and capabilities, and decided to forego time off and vacations to be available for client emergency cases 24 hours a day. Brown even had her staff deliver a pet's medication if the client couldn't get in to pick it up. When customers began asking about Eastern medicine, Brown expanded her certifications to meet client demand. Though skeptical, she took advanced courses in acupuncture, chiropractic care and traditional Chinese medicine. Her income increased 25 percent.
Her hard work began paying off so much that in 2011, when the IRS shut down a practice a few miles up the road, Brown went to the building owner, rented the space and bought all the equipment from an IRS auction. She reopened the practice within two weeks and spent the next year developing it into the successful South West Veterinary Care Center.
Brown operated both practices seven days a week from early morning until 9 p.m. She only then took on additional veterinarians, one new graduate to work the morning shift and another veterinarian to cover weekends.
From there she continued to grow. She negotiated a $1 million small business loan to fund expansion and now has a new building that doubles her space, two hospital locations, three full-time veterinarians, one part-time veterinarian and 15 staff members.
Currently, Brown is adding another 1,000 square feet to her existing buildings to include canine suites, physical rehabilitation and aqua therapy, weight loss programs, boarding and doggy day care, more retail and pet grooming—plus a dozen more staff members to help her offer these services.
Brown has gone years without taking a vacation, and even though going back to school and getting back into the swing of learning was a challenge, she says she loves working. She didn't grow up dreaming of being a veterinarian like so many others in the profession, but she wouldn't have it any other way now. "I wanted to do good medicine and I wanted to be successful in whatever I did," Brown says. "My mom was a business person and I know how hard all the little teeny details are."
Brown says she still sees two to five new clients every day. While she admits to losing a lot of money the first two years in practice, she says she and her staff pulled through with hard work and determination. "Owning a clinic is great, but it's a 20-hour day at first. You can delegate, but you have to stay on top of it," Brown says.
Rachael Zimlich is a freelance writer who lives in Cleveland, Ohio. She formerly worked for dvm360 magazine.
Tips for a successful practice
Here's what Dr. Dixie Brown has learned in her years transforming her life—and her veterinary practice—into a success.
1. Find a good office manager and someone to handle human relations. Brown says she underestimated how difficult that part of running a business could be.
2. Treat your staff well. Brown says she employs a long-term staff because she pays them well, treats them well and offers full benefits. "I believe in fairness and want a long-term staff, so we encourage everyone's good points and talk about the bad points." She doesn't allow any gossip in the workplace and demands professionalism at all times. "When people come in, they leave their problems at the door."
3. Follow the trends of your practice. When Brown sees trends in her practice, she usually finds room for improvement. An increase in cancellations lead her to make more reminder calls to clients before a visit. Increased lab fees revealed the end of a promotional price she didn't know existed. "If you don't pay attention to the bottom line and your overhead, you can't get ahead," she says. "And you can't save money by not spending. You can only make money by being proactive, and that's hard."
4. Don't send employees home. "When we're down and slow, I send them out to talk to groomers and pet stores, to Chamber of Commerce conferences and business exchanges. Then you feel like you're being proactive instead of feeling sorry for yourself."
5. Establish a physical presence. Don't simply send out flyers and make a website. Brown says being physically present in the community will help clients know you are there and what you're all about.
6. Treat the clients well. Instead of telling them you can't do something, find a way to help them. Create a positive client experience, be there for them and make sure there's a perception of value for them.