Should You Buy A Practice?

A personal take on why every practicing veterinarian needs to consider buying a practice.

I never thought I’d buy a practice. Though I’d gone to a swanky business school and impressed my professors with projects demonstrating remarkable returns on veterinary practice investments, they’d only grudgingly forfeit the “A” … while not-so-subtly stifling a B school-sized yawn.

Verbatim quote: “Why buy a candy shop when you can run Nestlé-Purina?”

Translation: We’re not in the habit of inviting the unambitious to our exclusive club and charging $100,000 a year just to churn out small-minded, shiftless, endowment-sucking slackers.

I guess it was that kind of slim thinking that stuck to my ribs as I contemplated all my decidedly undelicious options upon graduation.

Pharma? Ag? Corporate practice? Yuck! For me, anyway. What’s worse, I’d inconveniently taken on a parasite whose presence would loom larger than my student loans.

It’s true. The untimely arrival of an infant (while ever so beloved) didn’t do much to recommend a practice purchase. Which only makes sense to anyone who’s been there, single-handedly or otherwise. I mean, who has the energy to consider running a business when you’re derriere-deep in babyland?

All of which explains why I dabbled—admittedly half-heartedly—in the dot-com thing. It also sort of excuses me for subjecting myself to a hellish stint in mind-numbing management consulting. How else, I figured, was I going to make my business school investment pay off?  

But here’s the thing: All the while, I never stopped practicing. Come hell, high water and plenty of hurricanes, I somehow stuck to my roots.

In truth, my determination was partly to do with the curious disappearance of my debilitating cat allergies (ironically, after producing the above-mentioned infant), practice had never let me down. Not yet, anyhow.

After all, practice hasn’t always been a cherry pie picnic. I’ve seen my share of hellholes where receptionists perform spays when they’re not answering telephones (sometimes at the same time). And I’m not ashamed to say I’ve been sacked over “fundamental philosophical incompatibilities” with a corporate practice (i.e., I insisting on referring).

Come-back Kid

But I’m not about to keep the creepies from cramping my style, you know?

In fact, even after I’d developed a nasty case of burnout circa 2005, I managed to turn it around by combining the creativity of writing with what I’d come to regard as über-mundane (though, to be sure, getting the ax at the better paying of my two practice gigs had a thing or two to do with my bad attitude).

Despite the gradual resurrection of my career, owning a practice still never made it on my radar. Writing a blog (and soon a book!). Speaking. Advocacy work. And in between, practicing three or four days a week—not to mention raising a teenager who requires a constant supply of carrots and sticks for reward and punishment if I’ll ever have the pleasure of paying for a top school.

So why buy a practice when life is so hectic—and so good? And who has the free cash for it anyway? Fewer and fewer of us … particularly when so many of us are still paying off student loans—my still-sizable leftovers included.

Six months ago, however, I was faced with a challenge: Buy the practice I’ve been employed at since the tender age of 10 or suffer a sale to a possible devil I don’t know (and likely move myself ever so uncomfortably elsewhere).

The answer? Buy it, of course. But how?

Despite my pricey MBA, turns out I’d failed to do some basic math: Based on the recommendations of a financial planner/accountant duo I’d hired over a year ago, I’d scored some savings. Yes, sometimes it pays to save if your student loan interest rates are low enough.

Though these funds had been dedicated to my son’s education, a little fancy accounting (along with some austerity measures) allowed me to reallocate them for practice purchase purposes.

But all that stress was for naught. Despite my student loan debt, almost no assets to speak of (save a little equity in my house and an 11-year-old Lexus) and just a smidge of decent credit, I easily qualified for practice loans at reasonable rates.

Additionally, I had identified creative opportunities for practice financing through new groups aimed at helping veterinarians finance and manage their purchases in exchange for a percentage of the practice. Which sounded great to me! Who wants all those headaches, right?

What’s more, the projected profits from either approach to a practice purchase meant I’d be able to pay off my student loans in short order and refresh my savings for the kid’s education. It made complete sense—no brain surgery required, just some simple arithmetic anyone with access to a financial professional can manage. And so it goes even for those with well over $100K in debt.

Needing a Guide

Still, I thought it only made sense to get some professional and financial help from an invested party. Why struggle with the dreariness of practice management? Which explains why I ended up offering a significant minority of the business to the hospital’s highly capable and well-motivated practice manager.

This begs the question: Why would a veterinarian with any amount of business acumen prefer not to run her own place? Why give away the upside of a practice’s growth and profitability, especially when she has the goods to make it happen?

I believe the answer has more to do with the life goals and lifestyle choices that characterize Generations X and Y more than previous age groups. For example, mine are more writing- and single mom-related, while yours may be more likely to do with your predilection for medicine over management.

Whatever the case, I urge you to abandon the same biases that held me back from pursuing practice ownership for far too long.

After all, if more of us chose to discard the fearsfinancial, managerial, familial or otherwise—that keep us from meeting our personal ambitions, not only would we be more likely to meet our generations’ teeming economic obligations more expediently, we’d be surrendering a whole lot less of our profession’s future to those less likely to hold the values and convictions that endeared us to veterinary medicine in the first place.

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