Photo courtesy of Dr. John Fleming
Dr. John Fleming
My perspective on Dr. Don Woodman's commentary "Veterinary practice consolidators feign independent ownership" comes from personal experience.
I am a 1981 graduate from the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine. My wife and I opened our practice in 1989, and have grown Prairie State Veterinary Clinic to be a very successful 15-person practice in suburban Chicago, in spite of being surrounded by practices owned by major corporations.
Three years ago, I sought out one of the top financial advisers in the Chicago area to discuss the future of my life and practice. He laid out the three obvious choices: I could try to sell my practice to a younger veterinarian; I could sell to a corporate entity; or I could ride my practice into the sunset. I was glad to hear such a smart man tell me it was OK to ride my practice into the sunset because, in my heart, that is what I wanted to do.
Early one morning in 2016, one of my veterinary associates announced she was quitting because she wanted more time for her personal life. Increasingly, I have had to fight my staff's desire for work-life balance in order to keep the clinic going. Well-qualified veterinarians whom I have interviewed refuse to work Saturdays. One of my star veterinarians, who came up through the veterinary profession ranks in our practice starting in high school, trimmed her workdays to three a week after she had children. I know I'm old school and considered 50- to 60-hour workweeks normal, but that's what it took to be an owner and build the practice as I wanted it to be built.
There are scant few young veterinarians who would, or could, buy our practice.
When I received that early-morning kick in the gut two years ago, I also began to notice that a number of my classmates were selling to corporations. I began to think about my wife, Connie, and how she would be burdened with our business if something happened to me. I began to rethink that ride into the sunset.
Connie and I undertook a two-year journey interviewing, and being examined by, different corporations. We chose last month to go with one of the corporations that Dr. Woodman mentioned. I was offended by his use of the quote from George Burns, "If you can fake that, you've got it made." My wife and I chose to sell our practice to Pathway because they were upfront and honest with us. There has been nothing fake about Pathway, and they have never placed any restrictions on what we could tell our clients about who owns whom.
I tell my young veterinarians that to have a successful business, you must build a good reputation in the community, and that a good reputation is built 20 minutes at a time in the exam room. The secret ingredients are honesty, integrity, competence, courtesy to your fellow human beings and compassion for your clients and their pets. I've written the local newspaper column in our town since 1986, and can't sneeze around here without everyone knowing it. We won't be faking anything. And believe me, no client cares about who owns whom. All they want is to be treated by the five principles I've listed.
At age 67, I am as independent as any veterinarian ever was or ever will be. I am now proud to be a Pathway clinic, and my clients will be as well served as they always have been. Pathway has given us a plan for our future, which includes me being able to hang around and even treat the grandchildren of my old clients, if I so choose. Also, my staff has a secure future, if they so choose, to continue the good work we started here.
At a recent Illinois State Veterinary Medical Association meeting, I looked at the vendor booths and was interested in some new equipment for digital radiology and digital dental radiography. When the salesmen learned I was in a Pathway clinic, I was presented with discounts for the equipment. As a small independent practitioner for decades, I've dealt with the fact that I did not get a discount on drugs and equipment like larger entities. So what? I lived with it and thrived. Still, it's nice to get that discount.
My friend and personal physician had a private practice that mirrored mine for decades. We both worked our butts off. Two years ago, he sold to a corporate consolidator. He's happy, and as a patient, I haven't noticed anything different except he seems less stressed, and now I can get in touch with him more quickly since they implemented a doctor-patient email system. This has been a welcome transition in our lives and, as in all things in life, we hope we have made the best decision possible.
Down the line, if I feel differently about my decision, I will let you know.
I understand why Dr. Woodman is speaking out, and I wish him well. When Dr. Woodman is my age, I will not fault him if he joins Pathway.
John Fleming, MS, DVM, earned his veterinary degree in 1981 from the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine. After graduation, he served in the Strategic Air Command at K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Following his military service, Fleming worked in a busy five-doctor small animal practice in suburban Chicago. He opened Prairie State Veterinary Clinic of Orland Park, Illinois, in 1989. He sold in 2018 to Pathway Vet Alliance, a national veterinary management group headquartered in Austin, Texas, that acquires practices and operates them under their founding names. Fleming lives with his wife, Connie, and enjoys reading, walking his dogs, gardening and feeding squirrels.