Lecturers say practice ownership possible for recent graduates

AABP leaders try to dispel myths and recruit members
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Lecturers at a meeting of cattle veterinarians said recent graduates from veterinary school can own their own practices, and those who do make more money than associate veterinarians.

Dr. Jessica Trichel, who performs outreach for the North Carolina–based Live Oak Bank, said during September's meeting of the American Association of Bovine Practitioners that her bank has given million-dollar–plus loans to veterinarians who had hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt and few assets. Whether to grant such loans depends on analysis of the practices and the buyers, she said.

AABP job board
Veterinary students and veterinarians at a job board during the American Association of Bovine Practitioners' September meeting in Omaha, Nebraska (Photo by Greg Cima)

Her lecture was the first in a series on practice ownership myths at the AABP annual meeting, this year running Sept. 14-16 in Omaha, Nebraska. The meeting had about 1,400 attendees, of which about 400 were students and 100 were American Association of Small Ruminant Practitioners members.

Dr. Jennafer M. Glaesemann, who bought two practices in Nebraska within two years of graduation, said in another lecture that veterinarians who buy early in their careers increase their career earnings. She also said veterinarians can buy mismanaged clinics at a discount, but those clinics require more work.

Drs. Mel Wenger and Gabe Middleton of Orville Veterinary Clinic in Orville, Ohio, together encouraged buying into clinics to earn more income than working as an associate. They are two of the four owners of a group of clinics, a pet spa, a dog day care, and a large animal haul-in facility that employ six associates and more than 70 total staff members.

David F. McCormick, a certified valuation analyst for Simmons & Associates, a veterinary practice appraisal and selling company, said during the series and an interview after the meeting that he thinks the number of veterinarians interested in buying practices has been stable despite a rise in the number of graduates each year. He noted in the interview that his impression was anecdotal.

But McCormick also said in the interview that extracurricular education on veterinary practice finances and ownership is available at veterinary colleges, and he thinks it is increasing interest in ownership. Today, most veterinarians who buy practices do so within three to 10 years of graduation, he said.

McCormick said practice buyers tend to hire professionals to guide them through the purchase process, including experts to determine the value of the practices they would buy. Practice owners may have misconceptions about their practices' values.

New equipment increases practice value only if it increases income. Potential is not value. And, despite a belief that a practice is worth one year of gross income, he said that is one of many factors in determining a fair sale price.

Dr. Mark J. Thomas, the outgoing AABP president and a dairy veterinarian from New York, said in a breakfast presentation for news media at the meeting that the AABP has worked to correct misinformation about the job market for cattle veterinarians and help practice owners thrive. He noted that the AABP had taken to task a widespread belief that the U.S. had a shortage of veterinarians who wanted to work in rural practice.

In 2011, the AABP published a report indicating regions that have livestock but no food animal veterinarians may be unable to support practices. Then-president Dr. Christine B. Navarre said programs to pay educational loan debt in exchange for serving in a shortage area were providing short-term help, but alleviating the mismatch between veterinarians seeking jobs and areas without veterinarians would require study on how to create sustainable practices. (See related story for a relevant AVMA Report on the Market for Veterinarians.)

The AABP founded its Practice Sustainability Committee in response.

Dr. Brian Reed, chair, said in a committee meeting at the AABP gathering that the Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture was providing $224,000 for seminars for veterinarians who own practices in shortage areas and have five years or less in practice. The seminars constitute two-year courses for those practice owners.

The first class, 59 practice owners, entered the program this spring and finish in spring 2018, and the next one will start in spring 2018.

The day after the presentations on practice ownership, dozens of veterinary students crowded a bulletin board with about 30 job postings at the start of an evening job fair at the AABP meeting. Several fourth-year students expressed optimism about the job market, and all plan to spend a few years as associates before considering buying practices.

Kaitlyn Revercomb, a fourth-year student in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, said jobs are available. Finding one in a specific region is more difficult.

She noted that AABP meeting sessions on practice ownership provided assurance veterinarians can buy into practices after graduation. She already was interested in buying into a clinic, and those sessions increased her interest in buying in more quickly.

"I would really like to be an associate first and make sure the practice fits what I'm looking for, we have common goals, that kind of thing," she said. "But, eventually, yes, I would like to buy into a practice within 10 years of graduation."

Bryant Soulek, a fourth-year student from Iowa State University, described a good job market in his home state of South Dakota. He was deciding where to live in the state and which clinic would provide the best fit.

"I would like to go into it with the idea of buying in later," he said. "I don't necessarily want to own right away."

He was looking for multiple-veterinarian practices with shared workloads and on-call schedules that also provide mentorship.

Dr. K. Fred Gingrich II, AABP executive vice president, said the AABP was considering how to make bovine veterinary practice attractive for young veterinarians who want a balance between their pay and their time off for themselves and to spend with their families. He and others at the meeting contrasted that desire with what they described as solo practice work performed by previous generations without days off.

In a meeting with reporters and a subsequent interview, Dr. Gingrich said about half of student members of the AABP tend to still be active members two years after graduation, but only about one-third tend to be members after three years.

Dr. Gingrich said the AABP lacks data on why those recent graduates are leaving. But he also said during the meeting that, in general, leaving bovine practice has been the top reason why veterinarians let their AABP membership lapse.

While the Practice Sustainability Committee was founded with a focus on finances, Dr. Gingrich said it has expanded investigations into human resources and quality of life. Increasing mentorship also may help reduce stress, improve mental health, and reduce the number of suicides in the profession, he said.