The early years of running our own veterinary hospital were hard. We were open 6 days a week, on call 7 days a week and raising two young children with no family close by for support. I know this sounds like one of those stories you tell your kids… “you think you have it tough, well let me tell you about tough! Ever try to repair a smashed pelvis and fractured femur with a drooling baby on your back and another one screaming in a playpen next door?” I’m not complaining, it’s just the facts of what our early years as practice owners were like. It was the life we chose and after every exhausting day we looked at each other and agreed it sure beat being back in the dysfunctional partnership we had escaped. In those early years of raising a practice and raising a family, one of the highlights of every night was bedtime. I know, all you parents out there can relate…please, please just go to sleep, we need some adult time. No, the highlight wasn’t getting the kids to sleep, (although this was sweet too), the highlight of our day was story time. Clean and warm from their bath and cuddled in their jammies we would take turns laying down on their little beds and reading stories. Often, for two exhausted vets, this turned into the kids poking us and saying mommy/daddy finish the story, as we found we were reading ourselves into slumber. I recall Dr. Suess books being especially effective at putting us soundly to sleep.
A little book called “Pizza for Breakfast”, was one of our favorite stories from this period. I do not recall how it ended up in our home, but it was a lovely little fable about Frank and Zelda, two portly restauranteurs who ran a small mom and pop pizza shop. They worked hard making their delicious pizza but were always wishing for more…more customers, a bigger restaurant, etc. After each wish, a “little man” would show up at the restaurant and their wish would be granted. Unfortunately, as each of their desires came true, a set of new problems appeared and they would end up lamenting to each other…”Frank/Zelda we need a plan”.
Our journey as veterinarians was not unlike Frank and Zelda’s (minus the magic little man to grant us our wishes, we just had hard work and staying power on our side) and over the years on those particularly difficult, stressful or truly draining days one of us would catch the other’s eye and say “Frank/Zelda we need a plan”.
How do you sell a veterinary practice? Well, obviously you need a plan and be prepared that plan is going to take some time to execute. Our goal was to get out before we were a couple of washed up, cranky shells of our former selves but still had enough energy to start a new chapter. So how do you sell a multi doctor veterinary practice without going corporate? These days it ain’t easy but we have a few tips for those of you in the same situation.
- Stop being a dick and start mentoring your young associates. I am not kidding about this, treat your entire team the way you would want to be treated if you were in their position. Respect, responsibility and appreciation for what they do for you goes along way with all your employees. Model the leadership you want to instil in the new owner and be patient. If you deal with your employees with honesty, transparency and respect you are setting the foundation for a respectful ownership transition.
- Evaluate your motives for selling and make sure your are truly ready to let go of the reins and give up control. This was a big one for me. Are you mentally ready to move on and let someone else take control of your practice? Only you can answer this question but you better spend some time reflecting on it and make sure you will be able to step aside when the time comes.
- Have a professional evaluation long before you decide to sell. Address any management problems and get the place in tip top shape prior to looking getting serious about a sale.
- Recognize it is going to get stressful and set up expectations at the beginning of your negotiations. We have a great relationship with the associate who purchased our practice but even so, we all agreed that what was most important, to the three of us, was to remain friends. Then, when things get tense, and they will, be ready to step back, put yourself in the buyer’s shoes and be reasonable. Do you really want to sell? You better be willing to give a little and not always get your way.
- Let go of your ego, the stories of how much you sacrificed to build your practice and say goodbye to your ridiculous expectations of what your practice is worth. At the end of the day, it is worth what someone will pay for it. Get an evaluation, negotiate for a fair price but again, don’t be a dick. That will just lose you a sale and potentially a valued friendship.
- Don’t look back. When the documents are signed and you hand over the keys to the kingdom just pat yourself on the back and be happy. When the dust settles, you will realize you’ve given yourself a gift, the freedom to begin a new chapter and the chance to turn to each other and say “Frank/Zelda we need a plan”.