Semiretirement: The saga continues

It's not easy to leave veterinary medicine—especially when the economy steps in.
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Apr 06, 2010

With my practice sale in place, my old team trained, my dream home built, and my bags packed, retirement was beckoning for me and my wife (see “The journey begins” in the Related Links below). I should have known it wouldn’t be that easy.

Because then the recession hit. When we left, the economy was starting to show signs of weakness, so we postponed the final sale of the clinic. We saw the practice’s gross income drop significantly, and the new owner wouldn’t have been able to make the payments on the purchase loans. Because the net was declining, the practice’s value dropped monthly. These were uncharted financial waters, and so my wife and I retained ownership, helping the site staff with management from 2,000 miles away.

Like most practices in Florida, ours was hit hard. Our gross dropped 18 percent in two years, and our personal income took a dive. Our priorities became keeping the team employed, maintaining the practice’s standards of care, and showing a bit of positive cash flow, albeit with a lot less personal income. By and large we met those goals, with a lot of work and stress. All of the improvements in cost savings, client care, and communications paid off. This year we’re seeing improvement.

After a year off, I felt I’d reached the limits of management by phone and e-mail, so I began making weeklong visits to the practice every month. This enabled me to see the changes in the practice firsthand and make a few tweaks as needed. I took over most of the stressful management chores, freeing up my staff and doctors to pay attention to our clients and patients, which has always been the core of our practice.

And here I still am. I spend my time in the practice coming up with new ways to serve clients and train new doctors and staff. I’m also handy for covering days off and vacation. (Other than that I may still be irrelevant.)

So this “retirement” is working out quite well. I’m enthusiastic than ever about the profession. I enjoy medical debates with my associates and finding new ways to make our patients whole. My wife and I still live primarily out west, but part-time practice fills a void that became apparent when I stopped working. As many of my clients told me, I wasn’t ready to retire. Here are a few bonus lessons I’ve learned in this wacky economic environment:

1. The future is never certain
When one set of plans go awry, good things may still be coming your way. I’ve learned to be flexible and calm about things beyond my control, and I know now that whatever happens, I can probably handle it. I have many new friends, a bunch of old ones, and a reaffirmed love my work. My wife and I have new adventures planned, but if they don’t work out, something else will.

2. Trust is still paramount
For 25 years, I’ve tried to put myself in my clients’ shoes and practice medicine in an ethical and mutually beneficial manner. I try to give honest value for what I do and admit my errors when I’m wrong. For this, many people have entrusted our practice with their pets’ care, and we’ve profited financially and emotionally as a result. Nothing has changed these days. The phrase “good medicine is good business” still rings true.

3. Cash is king. Debt is bad.
My wife and I went into our now-delayed retirement debt-free, which enabled us to do what we needed to do when the economy tanked. Our personal homes, vehicles, and veterinary practice were paid off. Our clinic had said no an ultrasound, lasers, or digital anything. We’d chosen instead to invest heavily in knowledge, and it paid off more handsomely than technology. The practices I see that are in trouble now are those with a lot of debt.

Looking back at the past two years, I realize how dangerous it is to prognosticate about the next ones. I’ll probably continue my gypsy doctor ways for a few more years and then really sell the practice. Perhaps someday I really won’t want to go to work, or some infirmity will prevent me. Barring that, I’ll strive—as we all do—to mix personal time and professional success. Whatever comes, though, the past two years have taught me that with perseverance and some preparation, things will probably work out better than I had planned—retirement or not.

Dr. Craig Woloshyn is a Veterinary Economics Editorial Advisory Board member and owner of Sun Dog Veterinary Consulting in Custer, S.D.