When tragedy strikes, does the practice die?
It’s a terrible time for any veterinary practice when its owner—especially a solo practice owner—dies unexpectedly or becomes suddenly incapacitated, ill or disabled. In these moments of crisis, employees can pull together to emotionally cope and can sometimes keep the clinic intact. But it’s not easy.
If the practice lacked a succession plan, a practice manager involved in the finances or an associate or relief doctors who can lend a hand to keep the doors open, the practice might simply close. If there’s hope to keep the practice open and the team members employed, then Veterinary Economics Editorial Advisory Board member Jeff Rothstein, DVM, MBA, owner of Progressive Pet Animal Hospitals in Michigan, says there are four things that need to be done immediately by remaining management folks or in conjunction with an inheriting or responsible spouse of the practice owner.
1. Fill the void
Rothstein says doctor coverage and availability is most significant. Spread extra appointments between associates if possible or enlist more coverage from relief veterinarians in order to avoid sending clients elsewhere. “As soon as you start sending clients to other hospitals, you start losing them,” Rothstein says.
2. Keep the lights on
If the owner was largely involved in paying bills, payroll, ordering inventory or scheduling, those essential tasks must be delegated immediately. If the absence is short term, delegation may suffice, but a long-term or permanent absence may require someone taking over certain tasks on an ongoing basis. Rothstein says this may require expanding job titles or increased compensation.
3. Watch the till
Cash management is critical. “I've seen the death of the owner be the start of embezzlement, so someone in ownership should be tracking the till," Rothstein says.
Smaller clinics may face a bigger challenge with this than larger clinics where the owner may not have been as involved with the day-to-day cash flow, but renewed oversight is never a bad idea. Checking in with the existing cash manager consistently or naming more than one person to manage the practice’s cash may help maintain transparency.
4. Talk about it
Communication with staff is key, Rothstein says. “Depending on how close the practice owner was with the staff, some may take it harder than others,” he says. “Some may just find it stressful if leadership is missing and if uncertainty exists in terms of whether someone new will be taking the helm.”
Rothstein says a manager, associate or spouse should be up front and communicate the near-term plan of action with the team. “Be open and let them know what your goals are and ask everyone to pitch in on the owner’s behalf so you can still provide premium care to your patients and the pet parents,” he says.