When it comes to opening a practice, many veterinarians opt either to buy an existing one or start fresh, building from the ground up. Each requires significant funds and each can lead straight to the bank to discuss financing options.
Sari Kanfer, DVM, took a different approach. Two years ago she launched Exotic Animal Care Center by renting space in an existing
Exotic Animal Care Center is nestled in Animal Emergency Clinic of Pasadena, giving Dr. Kanfer access to two exam rooms, cages, an X-ray machine, washer and dryer, anesthesia and other equipment. The veterinarian who owns the facility had previously rented the space to a veterinary ophthalmologist.
Before opening her practice in March 2010, Dr. Kanfer worked at a veterinary hospital that cared for dogs, cats and exotics. She focused most of her time on exotics and when her clientele continued to increase—reaching nearly 90 percent of her work load—she knew it was time to move on.
Kanfer’s case load at Exotic Animal Care Center comprises mostly rabbits, but she also treats guinea pigs, chinchillas, lizards, turtles, goats, pot-bellied pigs, raccoons and foxes. Kanfer’s associate, Tiffany Margolin, DVM, Dipl. ABVP, is a bird specialist, acupuncturist and chiropractor.
Kanfer says she knew she didn’t want to buy an existing practice because she already had a strong client base, built by being active in the rabbit rescue community and word of mouth.
“When you buy a practice, you buy the clientele,” she says. “I didn’t need the clientele. I just needed a place to practice.”
But Kanfer didn’t have the funds to build a new hospital. “The banks laughed at me,” she says. She had student loans and credit card debt.
A Unique Approach
One day, Kanfer was talking about the situation with Kim Scharf, a good friend and client. Scharf said she wanted to loan the doctor money and was going to get some other people to help as well, Kanfer says. Within a few days, five people came up with $75,000.
“It was just enough to open my doors and pay rent space within the existing emergency clinic,” Kanfer says.
Scharf, who has known Kanfer for about 10 years, says she has never made this type of investment before.
“Dr. Kanfer is an amazing vet,” Scharf says. “She is virtually on call to her close clients 24 hours a day, besides the fact that she knows exotics, specifically rabbits, incredibly well. On top of that, I’ve learned so much from her over the years.
“Dr. Kanfer has a large, established, devoted clientele,” she continues. “They know she is the best at what she does. Many people travel a long distance to see her, even though they have vets close by. I knew going in that she has this following of people, so I was not too concerned about her going under.”
Kanfer adds, “It was as if my clients were setting up their own personal vet.”
The Business Plan
Kanfer and her investors sat down with a certified public accountant to go over loan specifics.
“I wanted someone objective and knowledgeable,” Kanfer says.
The plan specified that the investors be paid back in services over about a year, although the time period was extended for some, Kanfer notes. The clients were to receive 15 percent off all services and a discount on medications (cost plus 10 percent). Interest rates ranged from 6 to 10 percent.
Having a detailed payment plan was extremely important, Kanfer says. The veterinarian she had worked with previously had had money loaned to her by clients but specifics were never spelled out, she says. Clients would come in and the vet wouldn’t charge them anything and she didn’t keep track of what was still owed, Kanfer says.
Kanfer says her arrangement with her investors was basically a prepayment of services.
“If a bunny got sick and it was going to be $800, they didn’t have to wonder where they were going to get the money,” Kanfer says.
Many of her investors have multiple rabbits, anywhere from six to 15, along with other pets, Kanfer says. Vet bills can quickly escalate with that many animals.
As of mid-March, one investor had been completely reimbursed with services. Scharf and another investor are still being repaid with services.
When it became apparent that two investors weren’t going to use enough services to be repaid, Kanfer decided to reimburse them. One of those has been repaid in full and the other is in the process of being paid back.
Where the Passion Began
Although Kanfer knew she wanted to work with animals since she was young, exotics veterinary medicine wasn’t on her radar until veterinary school.
While at Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, from which she graduated in 2000, Kanfer explored equine medicine. She joined student organizations such as the American Association of Equine Practitioners. But after taking courses on exotics medicine and joining related groups, she got hooked on rabbits.
“The physiology fascinated me,” she says.
She also liked their personalities. Rabbits are calm and mellow, yet when you sit back and watch them, you can see their intelligence, she adds.
It was at that point Kanfer knew she wanted to focus on exotics.
“A professor said, ‘You can’t make any money just treating rabbits,’” Kanfer recalls. She says she likes to think she has proved him wrong.
After vet school, Kanfer worked at a practice in Pasadena that included about 30 percent exotics. She says she went to exotics-specific conferences and continued to learn.
Working with rescue groups has also been a big boon, says Kanfer, who is medical director for Zooh Corner Rabbits Rescue and the Bunny Bunch. She also donates time to Ferrets Anonymous, Orange County Cavy Haven and Pot Bellied Pig rescue.
“Some vets may pooh-pooh such groups, but I’ve found them to be very helpful,” she says.
“There’s stuff that these people know that is not in the textbooks,” she adds, giving various types of syringe feeding as one example. “I’ve learned from them. Plus, I also try to educate them so that they do a good job [caring for the animals]. In turn, not only have I gotten their respect, I’ve gotten their referrals. They’ve become good friends, too.”
Kanfer says she has already outgrown her current space and is looking to expand. Her choices include moving to a different facility, which could cost up to $200,000; staying put if the owner of the current building is able to expand the facility, or sharing space with a rescue group.
At press time, Kanfer was undecided as to which choice would be best for her practice. She was also looking into various financing options. Kanfer says her previous business plan was successful enough for her to consider borrowing money from clients again. But she hasn’t approached anyone yet, she says.
Kanfer would also like to hire a third veterinarian to help with the growing clientele.
No matter which move she makes, it’s still a stepping stone to her ideal, she says.
Her long-term goal is to have an exotics practice that includes an adoption area, retail store and a modern, comfortable waiting area complete with Wi-Fi for pet owners. This is probably 10 to 15 years down the road, she says.
Kanfer enjoys what she does. “In fact, people have told me to take a vacation. but there isn’t really anything else I’d like to be doing,” she says.
“I’m doing what I love,” she says. “I’m married to my practice.”