Surviving in the rust belt

A city in economic decline doesn't mean the same trend awaits veterinary practices
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Sep 08, 2008
Cleveland, Ohio -- Two veterinarians practicing their trade 10 minutes apart from one another, on the same side of a city ranked lowest in growth by the U.S. Census Bureau are proving that there's a lot more than economics involved in making one's business a success.

The first practice, just outside downtown Cleveland, is thriving, reporting higher profits than last year thanks to new rehabilitation services, extensive surgical options and 5-year-old state-of-the-art facility.

Another metro veterinarian, a 10-minute drive from the first, offers only basic services to his barely hanging-on, working-class neighborhood. Yet he has managed to stay in business in the same location for more than 40 years and says he wouldn't imagine owning any other kind of practice.

A recent U.S. Census update reports that Cleveland residents are leaving their city faster than anyone else in the country. More than 5,000 people have left city limits in the last year as jobs leave, businesses close, crime grows and city school district scores drop. Surely, one would think this would have an effect on business, especially in the veterinary field, which depends so heavily on discretionary income.

But both veterinarians experiences show that a clinic's success may depend just as much on the desires and state-of-mind of the owner as the economic well-being of its community.

Dr. Kane Henderson is one of the five partners who own West Park Animal Hospital, a state-of-the-art animal hospital with emergency services on the west side of Cleveland. Situated amidst rental homes, industrial parks, public housing and aging ethnic neighborhoods, the hospital is doing surprisingly well.

"Fortunately, we haven't seen any decline [in visits]. In fact, for six months, we were actually up 17 percent in revenue from last year, so hopefully that trend continues," Kane says.

As the only large animal hospital in the area, Kane says his practice draws from outside his community limits by offering emergency hours, an extensive surgical area, orthopedic care, rehabilitation services and post-surgical care. Offering services people would travel for is key to his 13-year-old practice's success, but Kane says his staff also is taught to provide customer service that will guarantee a client's return.

"We constantly strive to be able to give people what they want," Kane says. "We schedule quickly - we're always running around here like crazy and try to do things as soon as possible. I know, for myself, I don't want to keep making appointments. If I've got a problem, I want it fixed, and that's what we try to do for people here."

Customer service is key for Dr. David Glynn, who owns Cleveland Animal Hospital. Glynn's neighborhood is similar to the one West Park Animal Hospital serves, but it situated closer to the heart of downtown in an area full of double-family homes, renters and low-income families.

"Some people have moved away and some have financial problems, but most of the ones that have always come here are still coming here," says Glynn, adding that when a pet dies or runs away, or a family moves, there is always someone who gets a new pet and has heard about his clinic.

It's not that Glynn's clinic offers a lot of special services to clients or can provide complicated surgeries. The key to his success, he says, has been knowing his community and how to help them.

"We understand their problems, and we try to help them out if we can. If someone else can do a procedure, we're glad to send them away instead of doing a procedure we can't," Glynn says.

Not that Glynn wouldn't want to perform those services, but he has set up his practice to handle only the most basic services, and some of his clients can't even afford those. Some don't return after hearing the price of a service, and Glynn says he tries to keep costs down, but he still has to charge for his work. It's important to know the demographics of the area one serves, he says, and tailor service to offer only what customers will utilize. His clients likely can't afford extensive treatments, so he doesn't even offer them.

There has been some "shrink" to his revenue in recent months, Glynn says, but he wouldn't change anything about his practice.

"My major interest was not making $200,000 per year. I just love the animals. We're like a family. That's better than a clinic where it's all about how many spays you do or whatever. And we try to help [clients] with their problems," Glynn says. "The people are down to earth. I like it here."