A Healthy Hospital for Pets – and People

By First Financial Bank
Partners in life and business, veterinarians Drs. Heather and Will Vandenheuvel have created a healthy hospital for pets, their families – and the employees who are essential to their success.

Dr. Heather and Dr. Will of Blue Lake Animal Hospital were gracious enough to sit down with us and share how they went from corporate animal hospital employees to business owners. Being at the helm allows them to provide high quality care with a talented team who are valued and respected.

How did you meet? How did your partnership begin?

Dr. Heather: We met working at a corporate hospital. I was on the interview committee for Dr. Will. I saw in Dr. Will someone who was ambitious and willing to learn. He was recently out of school and I helped train and mentor him. It blossomed into a friendship. We realized we had similar life goals – and one thing led to another. While we were engaged, we realized we both wanted to have our own practice instead of working for someone else. After being married only a year, we bought our practice. We are a perfect match. We make a good team and truly enjoy working together.

Dr. Will: Heather is being generous. I was cocky and a bit of a project in the beginning. Heather had to gently coach me.

Dr. Heather: And he was willing to learn.

Can you tell us about your business?

Dr. Heather: It started as South Crossing Animal Hospital. Dr. Eugene Gavin had owned it for 10 years. He was ready to retire and we were ready to buy.

Prior to working at the hospital where Will and I met, I had also worked at another hospital for another older leader who provided guidance and taught me about leadership. I learned how to run the practice. This included updating protocols for various aspects of the practice, including surgical anesthesia protocols, training on dental work and vaccines. I also learned the importance of wellness bloodwork – what does it show, when is it important and why to recommend it. It was a unique opportunity. While working together at the corporate hospital, Will and I had worked with a great team of techs. I had helped hire some of them and we were comfortable with how to hire and train a team. When South Crossing came up for sale, Will and I were ready to take that opportunity to apply that experience.

Dr. Will: We see cats, dogs, and exotics , plus pocket pets. This includes leopard geckos, hedgehogs, sugar gliders, pet snakes, pot belly pigs, guinea pigs , and salamanders.

Dr. Heather: The staff really enjoys the diversity – it’s always exciting. They never know what they are going to see. It also means that it helps keep us all on our toes, learning and improving new techniques in surgery.

How do you divide and conquer responsibilities?

Dr. Will: My background is in business, finance , and advertising. Heather is good at hiring, training and managing the team.

Dr. Heather: Will is good at determining where we are going, including marketing the business and community outreach. I’m a detail person – schedules, staffing, and working with employees concerning inventory and supplies. We’ve got Cornerstone software that helps automate some of that work.

Dr. Will: Heather is more the IT person. We have a really cool system and not a ton of paperwork. Not really my thing…

Dr. Heather: He’s an Apple® person, but systems run on platforms not supported by Apple®.

Dr. Will: But I really appreciate how these systems support our business.

I focus on orthopedics, like repairing knees. Heather focuses on reproduction, including specialty breeds, c-sections, and ensuring high puppy loads. One area we always enjoy working together is in general medicine.

We also collaborated on developing the culture. We wrote a manual for how to treat one another and develop the business.

Why did you want to own a business?

Dr. Will: Owning your own business is freedom. You decide your own destiny and reap the benefits from working hard. It is a challenge every day. You have to solve problems, make contacts and meet new people you wouldn’t have met otherwise. You develop new skills. You get to grow as both business people and doctors. Financially, if you look at stats and you plan to retire by 60, there is an astronomical difference from being a worker vs . a hospital owner. It’s hundreds of thousands of dollars over a career. This earning potential makes you more secure and allows you to pay off loans faster. It also allows more flexibility in scheduling, for example, if you have a sick kid or need to visit your grandmother who is in the hospital. You can schedule life the way you need it to be.

Dr. Heather: We’ve got a 9-month old little boy and having the flexibility to come back to work with the schedule I wanted was essential. I take him to daycare in the morning and am still able to get home at a good time – without asking my “boss” for a schedule change. I’m willing to work hard, but it’s nice to have that freedom with less stress and worry if I have to adjust my schedule. Earlier in my career, I worked for another female vet with kids, but you couldn’t tell it by how she treated other female employees. I am able to fulfill life as both a doctor and a mother. It’s been wonderful having our own practice.

Dr. Will: We get to put our own mark on this industry with our own version of it.

Dr. Heather: And we treat our employees the same way as ourselves in this. We have a young employee who is recently married and having a baby. We are able to work with her to figure all this out. We have some extra office space and we really need daycare. I need it and she’ll need it too. She wants to grow her career and we want to help her do that. It’s huge for working mothers. We want to be sensitive to those needs.

Dr. Will: Our employees are the face of the clinic and very important to the business. We invest in our employees and their training. Every touch should be positive. Every interaction they have with clients should be a positive one. We want to alleviate undo stress on our employees, so we pay a significant portion of their healthcare , plus match their retirement from day one of employment. We want to invest in their success. We also want to retain those talented people. It’s important to keep that knowledge and skills to have a truly successful practice.

“Owning your own business is freedom. You decide your own destiny and reap the benefits from working hard.”

Any insights you can share with other veterinarians looking to run their own business? Any challenges they might not have considered?

Dr. Will: Have a great marketing team. As a vet, you are busy treating patients – but you need patients to treat. Don’t try to do it all on your own. Assign people to help you. Have a plan and leverage a team of talented people to help you create your website and social media. You may find young members of your team (they don’t have to be doctors) who can put together content, and with clients’ permission, take pictures and post to social media. Let people who are good at it do it.

Before we bought this hospital, we did a demographic study of the market. It is one of the best things ever. It provided us with a lot of insights into the community and the market opportunity. We have never regretted that investment into knowing the potential opportunity.

Dr. Heather: If looking to buy a practice, don’t be so desperate that you skip doing your homework. By looking at the demographics in advance, when this practice became available, we knew the potential, including the need for vets and that it could support our practice.

Dr. Will: You also need to work with a bank that truly understands veterinary medicine. It’s why First Financial Bank was uniquely able to help. We wrote our business plan and took it to other banks, but it was difficult for them to understand. FFB got it. They understood the needs for equipment, space, stock, etc. They know why these things cost so much. Other banks just don’t understand.

Dr. Heather: Other banks have worked with businesses like dentist offices and you spend a lot of time trying to explain why it is so different.

Dr. Will: And it is so important that they understand it like First Financial does. The bank down the street may be nice but they won’t understand your needs and you could end up with the wrong kind of loan.

Dr. Heather: Schwanda (Flowers) was wonderful! She was friendly and personable. She kept us in the loop and would call, email , or text to stay connected. Even now, she still checks in to make sure we are doing ok. Schwanda is invested in our success.

Dr. Will: She is part of our team. We’ve never had that with a banker before.

Dr. Heather: They are in your corner, not just crunching numbers. They took time to know us and our plans. They learned about our goals and plans while we were also getting a business loan. If you are looking to open a veterinary practice, use First Financial Bank.

Dr. Will: There are many financial challenges that go into opening and running a veterinary practice. Buying equipment can be difficult. We found a vet clinic that was closing, bought some of their equipment , and had it retrofitted for us. We leased other equipment. You have to know how to depreciate your equipment, how to best maximize the retention of your profits and still pay the right amount of taxes. Use QuickBooks® or an in-house bookkeeper to keep your books from day one and save appropriately for taxes. You’ll want a CPA right off the bat. When you have both a bookkeeper and CPA, they can double-check each other as you plan for taxes. Have a financial plan for two, five, and ten years out, and know what is being paid off when. Having a great financial team makes all the difference.

What’s next? What’s in your future plans?

Dr. Will: When we bought the business 1.5 years ago (during the pandemic!), we had approximately 500+ clients and have grown by 125+ new clients every month since. We added 1500 clients in 2021 alone. We are looking to expand the business by hiring another doctor, make it a bigger practice with more surgery suites – maybe even add another location.

Dr. Heather: Our current building is actually divided in two with one-half of it leased out. We’d like to be able to leverage that space for more surgery suites, doctors and expanded service offerings .

Life is an adventure and you can’t be sure where it will take you, but as this business becomes more established, we can look at creating other locations that offer our approach and level of care.

Looking to buy a veterinary hospital or clinic? You’ll need a good business plan. Get some guidance here. Ready to chat with a lender about your plans? Let’s talk

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