Assets of a slow economy

Putting life back into the work-life balance equation

December 7, 2009 (published)
By Edie Lau

If someone had asked Dr. Beth Saldivia three years ago whether she could skip working on most Saturdays, the veterinary clinic owner would have said, “No way!”

Of course, that was back when the economy was moving a million miles a minute and clients had no time to bring in their pets on weekdays.

Life’s pace is altogether different today. With a national unemployment rate nearing 10 percent, many Americans are richer in time than money. That has prodded changes in veterinary operations around the country in ways large and small.

Most obviously, many practices are dealing with lower revenues, as with businesses everywhere. But that hasn’t necessarily diminished profits. And perhaps more meaningfully, some clinic owners report discovering blessings in the downturn: More time to talk to clients. Greater tolerance for walk-in traffic. Ease in finding qualified help. Extra hours for family, friends and outside interests. A chance to catch up on sleep. A new resolve to strengthen their communities by supporting local businesses.

“It’s actually nicer to practice this way,” said Saldivia, owner of Animal Hospital of Kentwood in Grand Rapids, Mich.

For 13 years, Saldivia experienced nothing but growth in her practice. Keeping up with the thriving business meant missing out on activities of her four children. She and her associate worked half days every Saturday and were booked solid.

Then the recession hit. Business slowed; weekend traffic became lighter and lighter. “Pretty soon, we were saying, ‘Why are we here?’” Saldivia said.

They cut one Saturday, then two. Now Saldivia covers one of the remaining weekend shifts; her associate covers the other. They enjoy the new schedule immensely.

“I don’t want to work a bunch of Saturdays in a row any more,” Saldivia admitted. “I kind of like going to the soccer games, or whatever diving meet. I don’t know that I’m ever going to go back to that. Everybody has to have a life.”

Saldivia found through a Veterinary Information Network (VIN) discussion board that she wasn’t the only practitioner to recognize benefits in a cooled-off economy.

Dr. Rich McAroy of Merrimack, N.H., started an online conversation on the subject this way:

“As I walked up to see a walk-in client over my lunch break, I realized I was smiling. A year ago, I would have been irritated that someone had the audacity to walk in over my lunch break and just assume I’d drop my Quizno’s sammich to see a pair of dirty ears. Now here I am grinning like an idiot.

“That got me thinking ... thanks to the economy, I’m happier seeing walk-in clients than I ever was.”

Others chimed in enthusiastically.

“As a solo practitioner in a small town, I am thrilled to resume my normal sleep schedule,” wrote Dr. Laurie Ward of Cortez, Colo. “It makes me a happier person in the daytime, too. I have more time and energy to play with the pets and talk non-shop to my clients (neighbors, really, since this is a small community).”

Ward said she was making a conscious effort to patronize businesses in her community, as well. “We have a Walmart in town and I can order advertising calendars, pens, a sign and banner from Internet vendors, but I’ve made a commitment to support my local businesses,” she wrote. “I am paying them more for the same product but I can afford it, and I want to get through this recession with my community intact.”

In Herriman, Utah, Dr. Robert Myrick echoed the sentiment. “We have altered our shopping to support small business over the big box,” Myrick wrote. “The small business, in my opinion, has been what has kept the economy from really crashing.”

In addition to changing his shopping habits, Myrick said the recession spurred his clinic to improve customer service. “We’re routinely calling clients (to follow up), whether they came in for a health exam or the dog was sick,” he said in an interview. Clients are asked: “How was your visit? Is there anything the doctor didn’t explain well?”

Saldivia likewise is giving more attention to each client. “I think the first thing we noticed (about the slower economy) is that we had some extra time to actually spend time talking to people and making sure we are addressing (all of) their issues,” she said.

“Often in a visit, four or five things will come up, and you can’t work on them all. Or you might say that the pet should lose weight but not get into depth on how to do that.” With business slower, she said, there is time to be more thorough.

Another blessing of the economy, from Myrick’s standpoint, is the increase in high-quality job candidates. “At the end of 2007, we lost an associate,” he said. “At that time, to find an associate was like raising the Titanic with tweezers. ... We looked and looked and looked. We were getting no resumes. ... Then, boom! The economy went in the toilet. We had five people applying for this position, and good people.”

Economic pain does have its gain, he’s concluded. “My generation (I am 36) has never been through an economy like this,” Myrick wrote on VIN. “I think it is good — hard, but good — to make one appreciate a job.”

Jon Dittrich, a practice management consultant based in Tennessee, agreed that the downturn is imparting valuable lessons.

“I think this recession is retraining Americans to live more within their means, not only as a household but also in a business sense,” Dittrich said in an interview. “I think overall, that’s healthy. So even though the recession is painful, it ultimately strengthens the overall economy. ... When we come out on the other end, my hope is that the personal borrowing consumption won’t be as great.”

Dittrich said many of the 50 veterinary practices he works with already are reaping benefits from exercising better discipline. “My average client’s revenue this year is less than last year, but ... profitability is higher than last year,” he said.

How so? “They’ve been much better stewards on the expense side,” Dittrich explained. “They have not bought new equipment (or) added lease payments this year. They have looked (with) a jaundiced eye at their staffing. With less transactions, they don’t need as many people.”

Dittrich said his clients for the most part have cut staff five to 10 percent, which has helped to shrink expenses significantly. “In a veterinary practice, about 51 percent of your costs are people costs: staff and veterinarians and the taxes and CE (continuing education) and the benefits that go with it. It’s by far the largest expense category in a practice,” he said.

But some practitioners have managed to slice costs without eliminating personnel. In Michigan, where automotive industry troubles have driven unemployment above the national average, Saldivia trimmed staff hours but deliberately avoided layoffs.

Instead, a slower schedule granted her the leisure to examine other expenses, such as inventory, advertising and even trash service. “I’ve never had time to have that quoted out before,” she said, referring to refuse removal. “We just continued doing what we were doing because we were too busy to worry about it. Now that we have time to worry about it, I found one that’s half the price. It’s not a lot, but if you can do that with a lot of things, it adds up.”

Another thing Saldivia has changed is her state of mind. Although her gross revenues are down this year compared with 2008, business is on par with 2004.

“I felt that we were successful in 2004 when we had the same growth that we had today,” she reflected. “So why am I so upset today? If I can make expenses the same or better, I’ll be an even more successful practice. It’s that expectation: that feeling of, ‘Oh no, we slipped.’ When really, we’re still where we were in 2004 when we were happy.”

Saldivia realizes now that the year-after-year growth she experienced in 13 years of practice ownership was abnormal. “Ever since I owned this practice, every single year, we were up somewhere between 5 percent and 15 percent,” she said. “We just got to the point where we expected it. To be honest with you, I didn’t work that hard at it. We just grew. That’s what the economy was doing. It was probably unnatural. I didn’t know, because I hadn’t owned a business before.”

Like Saldivia, Myrick said the economy has not stalled his earnings. In fact, he said his practice will post double-digit growth this year.

Counting their blessings has not, however, blinded practitioners to the unhappy consequences of hard times on their clients and patients. Myrick, for example, said many clients seem hypersensitive and edgy — out of fear and stress, he suspects.

In one instance, a long-time client who brought her pet to the veterinarian’s grooming parlor and disliked the result disintegrated into anger and sobs.

“Her comment — this is through tears — was, ‘I feel like you’ve butchered my child!’” Myrick said.

McAroy’s experience is grimmer still. “I’m seeing a shift to less preventive care, less vaccinations and more medicine and surgical treatment of diseases,” said the clinician in New Hampshire. “I’m getting fewer (cases) but the problems are more advanced. ... It’s terrible. I’m getting tired of neglect euthanasias.”

McAroy feels less optimistic than he did in September when he began the online discussion about benefits of the slow economy. Nevertheless, he keeps doing what he can to lift his and his staff’s spirits. He buys lunch for everyone once a month. He's doing more pro bono work.

For a rat named Penelope, McAroy’s determination to fend off the blues was life-saving.

Penelope’s owners brought her in to be euthanized. The rat could barely get around because of a mammary tumor 10 cm in size. But the giant benign growth did not get in the way of her ability to communicate.

“The rat jumped in my hand and just stared at me,” McAroy recalled. “I said, ‘I have had enough death.’ Surgery was empty anyway. I just went in there and cut the tumor off the rat.”

Penelope recovered nicely. She lives at the clinic now. “She’s just awesome,” McAroy said, cheered from telling her story. “I just love her to death.”

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