Semi-retirement from your own practice

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semi-retirement
Photograph: olegdudko – 123RF

When you sell your business but continue working in the practice as an employee, is it easy to hand over the reins? By Kerryn Ramsey

When the pressure of ownership becomes too much, some owners choose to sell the business but continue working in the same practice as veterinarians. Their reasons are varied—more family time, the chance to concentrate on surgery rather than admin, freeing up time to spend on other pursuits—but the process can be challenging. When you’ve spent years building a practice, It can be difficult to hand over the reins to someone else. It can also be very liberating.

A difficult transition

Dr Helen Purdam started working as a sole veterinary practitioner in Hall, ACT, in 1982, moving into Hall Veterinary Surgery’s first purpose-built rooms in 1988. Over the next 25 years, the business grew, the practice expanded, and the original building was demolished so a brand new clinic could be built. More support staff and vets were taken on and in 2007 associate Dr Lesa Potten became a co-owner of the practice.

“At that time, I really wanted to share the load,” says Dr Purdam, “It was also my intention that my business partner would eventually buy out my share. I just didn’t expect to sell the practice before I was ready to retire”.

After becoming a partner, Dr Potten was eager to keep expanding the business and open a branch practice. Dr Purdam had already grown the practice through seven iterations and didn’t want to take on the financial risk and extra workload of further expansion.

“Our partnership was put under stress because we had a divergence of goals,” she says. Drs Purdam and Potten agreed they needed to part ways in a business sense. In 2017, after 35 years of practice ownership, Dr Purdam sold her share to Dr Potten. 

“After the sale, I felt a lot of grief and anger,” says Dr Purdam. “The practice was very much a part of who I was and a large part of my identity was tied to it. Over time, I’ve done a lot of personal work to come to terms with my feelings.”

Drs Purdam and Potten have a good working relationship today. Dr Purdam works at the practice three days a week and is also involved with animal behavioural issues. As she heads towards retirement, she will be able to reduce her hours further.

“Veterinary work is what I always wanted to do,” says Dr Purdam. “Being liberated from the business side of things allows me to appreciate that general practice veterinarians do really meaningful work. I feel very fortunate to be involved in a profession where I can extend care with compassion and kindness to animals and their owners.”

Avoiding burnout

When Dr Karen Koks purchased Zillmere Vet Surgery north of Brisbane in 2000, it was a basic clinic. At just 60 square metres in size, it was soon expanded into the shop next door, with standards of care being improved. At the time of purchase, Dr Koks had three daughters attending the local primary school, so she needed flexibility.

“For most of the time, I operated a single vet practice,” she says. “In time, I employed a part-time vet and increased staff numbers. Then my associate vet went on maternity leave and I had real trouble finding a replacement. I was working 80-hour weeks and that was the prompt to consider selling.”

Being liberated from the business side of things allows me to appreciate that general practice veterinarians do really meaningful work.

Dr Helen Purdam, Hall Veterinary Surgery

Dr Koks was feeling frustrated and burnt out, particularly with staffing issues. She looked at the possibility of selling to a corporate entity and in 2016, National Veterinary Care (NVC) purchased the business. She dropped down to 27 hours a week during the transition period.

“I had 12 months of a fairly light schedule and that was important in getting myself back on track. I had owned the practice for 16 years and made it a very professional, family-oriented business with lovely clients. I also had a great team, many of whom have also stayed on. I wasn’t sick of being a vet; I was sick of the admin and hours. Now, I’m happily working full-time again as an employee.”

Working for NVC has freed Dr Koks of admin, bookkeeping and searching for locums. Instead she can concentrate on the job she loves—working with animals and clients.

Love the work

In 2001, Dr Roslyn Fleay established Chirnside Park Veterinary Clinic from scratch. It was a small animal practice with after-hours emergency service, right in the heart of the Yarra Ranges in Victoria. The practice grew rapidly, building an extensive client base. In September 2019, she sold the practice to two long-time associates.

“I had a few personal reasons that made me want to sell,” says Dr Fleay. “I had also spent 18 years manning or backing up a 24-hour emergency service. I was ready for a break.”

There was interest from corporates and individual vets but two associates, Dr Anton Gomez and Dr Sae Inoue, decided to go for it.

“I had to talk them into buying it and was very glad when they agreed,” says Dr Fleay. “I still work full-time and nothing much has changed in our relationship. The only difference is that I’m not the person who helps new graduates after-hours and I don’t have the stress of dealing with staff.”

Dr Fleay is still the senior vet at the practice so continues to take on much of the clinical decision-making. However, there are benefits of giving up ownership.

“The admin work used to take up a huge amount of my spare time,” she says. “Now, I can ride my horses without being worried I’ll be called back into work. I still think about my patients constantly. The day that stops is the day I’ll retire and walk away from the veterinary profession.”

While some vets thrive in the role of business owner, some find the added stress, workload and responsibility impacting negatively on the job they love. To step back and hand over the business to someone else can be an effective way to reinvent and reinvigorate yourself. Owner, associate, full-time, part-time—there is no one right answer. There is, however, a right answer for you.

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