How to have a successful business partnership as a veterinary practice owner

By Nels Lindberg

Identifying and correcting the reasons partnerships fail
two veterinarians laughing

Most all of us became veterinarians because we love animals, we love science, and we want to heal animals. We didn’t choose to be a veterinarian because we wanted to run a business or have a partner in business.

Yet, partnerships can be one of the most beautiful or one of the most painful opportunities on the planet. Maybe the partnership process was done right, with great conversations, intelligent use of accountants, great use of a business mentor or coach, and establishment of a number of things I will discuss further in this article.

There are numerous challenges to forming, growing, and maintaining a healthy partnership. The key is creating health just like we do with our patients. If we cultivate and nurture health in our partnership, success will be a secondary byproduct.

Reasons to form a veterinary business partnership


A survey Dr. Nels Leadership Coaching conducted on behalf of Animal Medical Center (AMC) asked practice owners the reason they entered into a partnership. The top three reasons were:

  1. Financial
  2. Increased income
  3. Transitioning ownership

You need to partner for reasons beyond financial gain. A healthy partnership is cultivated by working with someone who helps you be a better person, has different strengths, and who can successfully communicate and live their core values with a desire to help others.

Positive reasons to enter into a business partnership as a veterinary practice owner that can help build success, include:

  1. A desire to build a legacy practice that goes beyond us as individuals or the future partner.
  2. A desire to help someone be the best version of themselves and grow our own leadership potential.
  3. A desire to build a more broad diverse veterinary practice offering. A potential partner should bring something unique to the table to help strengthen our practice’s foundation and better serve our clients.
  4. A desire to make the pie bigger. When creating a practice with more diverse offerings, you also generate more revenue to share.
  5. A desire to reap the benefits of “together is better.” This requires both great humility and hunger, understanding when to yield to other’s expertise, and utilizing your different strengths for the betterment and healthy growth of the practice.

So, you have decided to enter a partnership. It gets off to a strong start, but you don’t invest in leadership growth and cracks start to show. How can you get your veterinary partnership back on track?

Partnership pitfalls and how to work through them


In the Animal Medical Center survey, veterinarians indicated four pitfalls to building a successful business partnership:

  1. Communication
  2. Commitment to the practice
  3. Personal core value differences
  4. Inability or unwillingness to give up control

Communication


Communication is the number one opportunity for all practices. It is such a simple word and often the cause of failure in partnerships. In the AMC survey, two-thirds of respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statement ‘Communication between partners is an issue.’ Communication doesn’t have to be complicated. Yet, it’s important to consider both structured and unstructured communication needs.

Planned meetings are the primary example of formal communication among business partners. I strongly suggest your formal meetings have an outside professional in the room. You can invite a different guest speaker each month.

Consider asking your accountant, insurance agent, financial advisor, attorney, or business coach/mentor to speak. You will often discuss opportunities, problems, or challenges that can be related to finances, people, or the direction of the practice. In these cases, our behavior can be instinctual when needed to be responsible. These differing professionals will not only help make the living breathing business stronger and healthier, but also bring a level of accountability for healthy conversation directed to what’s best for the whole business and not any one individual.

Communication between veterinary business partners is also less formal, but needs to be routine in nature to fill any partner’s cup. About five months ago, my current partner told me he felt he couldn’t talk to me because he didn’t want to bother me in my level of business.

At first, my ego got in the way of doing the right thing. You should react constructively and with humility in filling a partner’s cup versus reacting emotionally and egotistically. This conversation led to growth in our partnership.

To have a healthy partnership, routine communication is required well beyond any formal meetings. You must make an effort towards just talking, asking “Hey, what are you working on?” “What are you thinking about?” “Is there anything we need to talk about that we haven’t?” “Is your family ok?” You must be humble in nature, caring for their well being, remaining overly kind in the heated moments, and yielding to your partner’s strengths or needs.

Think of core values as a set of accountability standards that everyone understands and serve to keep all partners in line. Done well, we can achieve harmony, even as we make money and minimize egos and greed.

Commitment to the practice


As veterinarians evolve through the seasons of life and day-to-day grind, often one partner can begin to think they are doing all the work. In my consulting work with practices, this is a common problem. The AMC survey showed 46 percent of veterinarians agreed or strongly agreed with the statement ‘Commitment to the practice by you or your partner is an issue.’

First, you must define “work.” One partner may be doing more mental gymnastics work and another partner may be doing more physical work. When communication isn’t where it is supposed to be, and one partner feels the workload isn’t shared, problems arise.

There needs to be a mindset of being fully committed to the practice. You “aren’t going anywhere” and are fully committed to doing what’s best for the practice, with no thought of leaving. Next you must define individual roles in the practice that capitalize on each individual partner’s strengths.

For my vet practice partnership, my strength is understanding the big picture, development of team, and financial understanding. For my partner Ty Brunswig, DVM, his strength is the details, coaching people in the daily trenches, and client relationships. We work to utilize those individual strengths to grow the business or solve problems that may arise.

As these things occur, and everyone maintains a humble heart, yet strong hunger, concerns on workload and who is doing what tend to go by the wayside. And if there is still real concern on who is doing the work, you must have real, authentic, humble, yielding, and crucial conversations.

Personal core value differences


Everyone inherently has a set of personal values that lead to how we think, talk, and act. We are often driven by and make decisions based on our values, consciously and unconsciously prioritizing them. If you are money-driven, you make decisions to make more money, but may be okay with compromising other values to do so. If you are family-driven, you make decisions to spend more family time at the expense of the business. If you are self-fulfilling in nature, you may make decisions that float our own boat at the sacrifice of the family and the business.

To me, there needs to be harmony in the middle of all those things — business, family, money, and self. But unless you are aligned on a set of core values, harmony will not be reached. Eighty-one percent of veterinarians in the AMC survey rated personal core values as a very important trait in picking a business partner.

Partnerships are beautifully powerful, living breathing things, but they all need a set of rules of the road to guide them. I have had many partners over the years, and am currently involved in several managing level partnerships. These partnerships require a set of core values that serve as rules of the road for our behavior, decision making, and vision, and direction.

Think of core values as a set of accountability standards that everyone understands and serve to keep all partners in line. Done well, we can achieve harmony, even as we make money and minimize egos and greed.

Inability or unwillingness to give up control


In my work with businesses and business transitions, I’ve experienced this as an area that can be 100 percent lethal to a partnership. As veterinarians, our intelligence and ego are often the problem. Forty percent of veterinarians in our survey agreed or strongly agreed the inability or unwillingness of a partner to give up control was an issue. My poor ability to give up control, decision making, and a leadership position led to one of my greatest learning journeys.

My business partner, Dr. Ty, is a rockstar go-getter, like myself, and from his initial days at AMC he wanted to do more and grow. And at first, it really bothered me! My leadership lid at the time wasn’t high enough to know how to handle him. The good news is we navigated the journey over time.

Transition of leadership responsibilities needs to happen over time, not overnight. Often the transition of leadership occurs during monumental events, like at retirement, when the practice sells, or even when death occurs. Your employees need an intentional, gradual leadership change, instead of a sudden change in leadership where they have no idea what is expected of them or how new leadership will function.

As a veterinary practice owner, giving up control and decision making happens over time. It is about transferring your knowledge of how to successfully lead a practice. If your mind is wrapped around the axle of power and control, then you are in trouble. You are feeding your ego, and not feeding your own personal growth and development, or the personal growth and development of your partner. Your focus should be like a farmer, to cultivate, nurture, and grow current and future partners.

The bottom line is partnerships take intentional focus and work. If you concentrate on points in this article with current — or future — partners, your partnerships can and will be better.


About the Author

Nels Lindberg

DVM
Animal Medical Center
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