Q&A with millennial practice owners

Q&A with millennial practice owners

Their student debt is frightening. The generation's urge to own is lightening. Find out from two young veterinary practice owners why they did it, how they did it, and what their advice is for their generational cohort.
Nov 07, 2017
By dvm360.com staff

(Photo courtesy Dr. Corrin McCann)Corrin McCann, DVM
• born in 1982
• graduated in 2008 from University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine
• May 2016: Bought Medford Animal Hospital and Wellness Clinic, Medford, New Jersey

How big a barrier was student debt? How did you navigate it financially (and emotionally)?

I graduated with nearly $190,000 in student debt, but my husband has a background in finance and banking and encouraged me to start paying it off on an aggressive schedule. I'm happy to say I "only have" $50,000 left. As a result, the student debt load, while life changing in terms of our life decisions to date, wasn't a barrier for practice ownership. I believe most of the banks involved in veterinary practice purchases are aware of the debt load of veterinarians but know that veterinary practices have a low level of failure.

On the emotional side, buying a practice was tough to say the least. It was hard to imagine my husband and I going back into a massive amount of debt after having success in paying down my student loan debt over nearly a decade. Plus, this was going to be a major commitment. I can't just switch jobs if I don't like it. There are many questions you try to answer before you buy, but you don't truly know the answers until you're the practice owner.

How do you feel about being classified as a “millennial”? How does your approach to personnel management and practice ownership differ because you’re from a younger generation than most practice owners today?

To be honest, I haven't given a lot of thought to being classified as a "millennial." That being said, I can tell you how I approach practice ownership and personnel management, which has been an all-new experience for me.

Staff is key. I probably care too much about my staff and their everyday feelings. It can be a huge burden on me emotionally, but hopefully my staff members realize just how much I care about them, their well-being and their success. The customer is priority No. 1 obviously, but I often put the staff ahead of myself as well. It can be a major struggle for me if they're unhappy, feeling stressed or sick. The biggest struggle I face is to keep both sides (customer and staff) as happy as possible in what can be a very challenging environment.

What can this sometimes mean for owning a business? Maybe lower profits, as I want extra staff on hand, rather than cutting costs and running bare bones to improve margins. I do want more free time—the all-elusive work-life balance. I hired a third doctor and additional technicians when the numbers may not have supported it. However, I am willing to cut my personal income for a few more hours with my two little boys and family.

Fewer veterinarians every year, it seems, want to own. Why did you?

I did not want to own—seriously. My husband convinced me over multiple years. To be honest, I probably wouldn't have done it if the perfect opportunity hadn't fallen in my lap—twice.

In 2012, Dr. Eddie Frame and his lovely wife, Kathleen "Bunkey" Frame, approached us to see if we were interested in buying Medford. We did some initial due diligence, but our son was less than 1 year old at the time. We put it out of our mind and went on to have another son.

I changed jobs a few years later and was working at another hospital when the Frames reached out again. I now had more experience, and we were pretty set on two kids. However, it still sounded like too much work with two little children, and I wanted more free time, not less. My husband convinced me I wouldn't be working more than the 50 to 60 hours I already was as an associate. The jury's still out on whether I'm still working too much, but I'm certainly not working more than I was, perhaps even slightly less.

The other major reason was the hospital. I knew Dr. Frame since I was a young girl, and my husband and I also planned to live in Medford one day regardless of owning a hospital, as I have several family members who live here, the schools are excellent and the community and local nature is beautiful.

What’s the No. 1 piece of advice you have for younger graduates with lots of student debt who may or may not be thinking about becoming practice owners?

Own your debt. Don't ignore it. My husband still gives me grief about a $22,000 student loan bill that came in the mail that I had no idea was out there. Be cognizant of it, don't run from it.

If you can't make a plan to handle it alone, find someone who can. I was lucky to have my husband, but maybe you have a parent, aunt, cousin or friend who's good with finances. Ask them for advice and come up with a plan.

Our aggressive student loan repayment wasn't so radical that we couldn't take a vacation or buy a car, but we did live on a tight budget for a number of years.

(Photo courtesy Dr. Brad Twigg)Brad Twigg, DVM
• born in 1984
• graduated in 2010 from University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine
• July 2016: Bought Plaza Animal Clinic in Kansas City, Missouri

How big a barrier was student debt? How did you navigate it financially (and emotionally)?

It wasn't a barrier. It was more an incentive to own, because I felt like that was a good option to pay them off earlier rather than later.

How do you feel about being classified as a “millennial”? How does your approach to personnel management and practice ownership differ because you’re from a younger generation than most practice owners today?

I'm on the border [of Generation X and millennials]. I grew up without a cell phone until I was 16 or 17. I used to play outside in the summer until the street lights came on, I didn't have all the video game consoles. I don’t feel like I relate to a particular generation. I went straight to college out of high school and didn't stop, working three jobs during undergraduate studies. I did everything I could to save and make money during school.

The younger generation after me, working in hospitals and in general, want their personal time. They let everybody know when they want time off, and they're going to get that time off. They work hard those 30 to 35 hours a week, and I may have to hire two people instead of one. That's what it takes to give people work-life balance and that's fine with me.

Fewer veterinarians every year, it seems, want to own. Why did you?

I remember in veterinary school, one day a teacher asked for a show of hands of who wanted to own a practice. One person raised a hand, and it wasn't me. They asked that just before graduation. I remember sitting in that auditorium and we all laughed at it. Now, a couple of other classmates of mine own too.

Practice ownership used to be a way of life for veterinarians. And I think it'll come back around one day, especially with the huge size of student debt and the small size of salaries.

I didn't know I wanted to own. I graduated, started practicing and considered specialty certification, internships and residencies. I did an internship, and after that I knew that wasn't the path for me, but I learned I kind of had a knack for the business side of it. I put time into education in practice management and surrounded myself with smart people.

What do I like about owning? There's financial freedom, freedom to do the right thing that needs to be done for the practice and the staff without waiting for corporate.

What’s the No. 1 piece of advice you have for younger graduates with lots of student debt who may or may not be thinking about becoming practice owners?

I have two. First, for future veterinary students, get your undergraduate degree done as soon as possible to reduce pre-vet loans. I had a football scholarship and I still had $12,000 in debt at the end of undergraduate studies, and I know some people that easily have four to five times more on top of veterinary loans.

Second, right out of school, if you're thinking at all of being a practice owner, find a mentor in the first three to five years. In hindsight I should have taken the leap one or two years earlier. I kind of dragged my feet and stayed longer in an associate position that made empty promises to keep me there and learned more of what not to do in practice ownership. Don’t wait like I did. The grass is greener on the other side with owning your own practice. It was scary to take the leap, but I don’t regret it one bit. Surround yourself with a good team and the rest will fall into place.

As a practice owner, I work hard, but I get more return from my investment. As long as you're willing to really commit to the practice, you can do it.