While many of the practice’s clients are small Amish farms as seen here, it also serves some larger, more modern dairies.
While many of the practice’s clients are small Amish farms as seen here, it also serves some larger, more modern dairies.

Mel Wenger, DVM, pretty much spent his whole life close to the Orrville, Ohio veterinary practice where he has worked since 1981. Talk about someone who knows his area’s history (on the edge of the largest Amish community in the United States) and knows generations of his clients. What was interesting to me as I visited Wenger this summer was his forward-planning for the future of the practice – after he retires. Strategizing about how to not only leave the practice in capable hands after he’s gone, but to also still be a part of the business in retirement causes Wenger and his partners to plan for the here and now as well as a decade or more down the road.

“We have a plan in place to allow transition as we get closer to retirement,” Wenger says. “We are looking at that right now because three of us are within 10 years of retirement.”

Situated in an area rich in Amish and Mennonite farms where the clip-clopping of Amish buggies is as familiar as seeing dairy cows grazing in pastures, the Orrville Veterinary Clinic started in 1955 as a two-doctor practice. By the time Wenger arrived, it was up to five veterinarians serving mostly large animal clients with some small animal. “The four of us have been partners for 25 years,” Wenger says about the very stable practice which bought out one partner in the past five years and has since brought in a younger partner to serve this community of about 9,000.

Many food animal veterinarians would love a practice radius like this – about 15-20 miles surrounding the practice – and with several other (30+) food animal veterinarians within about 20 miles. But Wenger says there is enough business to go around. “We are fortunate to be able to keep it in such a small area.”

The seven-veterinarian practice now is about 50:50 large animal (primarily dairy) and small animal, has two satellite clinics within about 15 minutes, and seven years ago added a separate entity, the Orrville Pet Spa and Resort, which has expanded its business and serves a thriving community that includes 1,200 employees of the J.M. Smucker’s headquarters.

“Our clientele weathered the recession as well as anybody,” Wenger notes. “Very few of them went out of business and we are fortunate that our practice has held together and has had growth in all areas in the last two years. We added two veterinarians in the last four years.”

True to it being family oriented, Wenger’s daughter Marissa Hofstetter, DVM, joined the practice two years ago. “That was an addition that has been meaningful to me and keeps me grounded in my practice as well,” Wenger says.

As the only practice within five miles serving the Orrville community, employees are involved with the school board, church activities, fair, 4-H, Boys Club, United Way and other activities. “Ours is a well-respected profession, and it gives us some responsibility to turn around and respect others,” Wenger says. “We recognize the importance to the community, and I think the community respects and appreciates us.”

Continuing education inside and out

Continuing education is a big part of the Orrville Veterinary Clinic philosophy. So much so that the practice is involved with other local dairy practices in offering CE to clients (see sidebar), as well as having the clinic’s team obtain professional CE.

The veterinarians at the practice are encouraged to obtain CE of their choosing. Wenger has a particular interest in orthopedics, management, and food animal medicine, so his CE focuses on those areas. He frequents the North American Veterinary Conference, attends the American Association of Bovine Practitioners conference on a rotating basis with his partners, and attends Ohio Veterinary Medical Association (OVMA) and industry meetings.

“We encourage everyone to take CE opportunities,” he says. “We pay for the CE and their days off to go, even for the CE that isn’t required.” This includes personal development by lay staff as well. “We want them to learn new things. It’s good to get away from the practice and get with some peers and see how they do things.”

To help with better management skills and transitions within the practice, Wenger and the entire staff have been involved in the People First program with Pfizer Animal Health. “The scope of that project is to focus on people first. We tend to spend so much time on practice management, numbers and transactions; their focus is that you have to take care of the people first. It’s been very enlightening.”

Wenger says the program involves personality surveys on everyone to assess personality styles and why people do what they do. “We are trying to bring other manager-owners into the practice. It’s good to know their styles so we can understand that they may do things differently.”

Ohio practice plans for the futureThe program is also an example of reinvesting back into the practice. Each year a certain amount of money is targeted for reinvest into the business, usually into equipment and buildings. This year, money was invested in the People First program. “I tell the staff I don’t have new trucks on the budget for this year, but we are spending the money on the staff,” Wenger explains. “The staff likes and appreciates that. Investing back in the practice gives us time for CE and allows for other opportunities.”

Management philosophy

One of the things Wenger is particularly interested in is practice management, and says he’s learned a lot from the well-managed practice studies that Wutchiett Tumblin and Associates out of Columbus, Ohio, have done. He was involved in some of those well-managed practice studies and has put a lot of the philosophies to use. “It starts with wanting to be a veterinarian, paying yourself well and charging appropriately, but veterinarians were coming out of school and getting paid very little. As loan amounts started going up their pay was not going up, and I realized we need to pay them well.”

Wenger started by establishing fees and then raising fees on a regular basis which initially created some resistance from his partners who thought clients would revolt. “It’s been much more of a struggle with my staff and partners than it was with clients,” Wenger says. “Clients expect it and really never even noticed it.” Small, incremental increases often instead of infrequent large increases were hardly noticeable by clients, and he says he was rarely questioned about it.

About 15 years ago the practice moved to charging an hourly rate versus piecemeal charges for different services. “If a client questioned me about it, I would tell them if they would like to come out and help me gather animals, tie up or lock up cows, etc., it wouldn’t take me as long, but if they don’t, my time spent on the call increases.”

Wenger and his associates use inexpensive Pampered Chef kitchen timers they start when they exit their truck at an operation and stop when they get back in. Wenger says it has improved efficiency and consistency of billing since he records the time when he gets back into his truck.

Another benefit to charging an hourly rate is that is has increased the practice’s consulting work such as examining records, consulting with clients and talking to the dairy staff about different issues they are having. “I am being paid for that while I’m on the farm,” he says.

Marketing

Marketing has been an integral part of growing the practice. “Our focus on marketing has changed a lot since we opened the Orrville Pet Spa and Resort as an adjunct to the practice,” Wenger explains. “Veterinary clinics were never supposed to market and advertise, but when we built the Pet Spa we suddenly had a business that we had to advertise and we had to market.”

Wenger hired a marketing director who could write promotional material and advertising. “We’ve done a lot for the Pet Spa, are very active on Facebook and constantly update our website to keep high up in the Google searches. That has since boiled over into the veterinary clinic. We have used the Pet Spa as an anchor for advertising the veterinary clinic. It’s a symbiotic relationship.”

Value the practice for sustainability

As the practice to continued to grow, Wenger started valuing the practice every year and showing his staff and associates the value as well as its growth. “I want them to see when you buy in to the practice we are going to make a way that you can buy in with increased earnings, and you will see that it will increase in value every year.” Though the 2008-2009 recession years were flat, Wenger says the Orrville practice has had nice growth in the last couple of years.

“To be sustainable the practice has to have value that someone wants to buy and someone has to be able to afford to buy it,” Wenger states. “I’ve seen practices that are too large without a perceived value and then they are difficult to sell. We try to establish a value every year and review that value with other standards and methods to make sure someone coming in knows it’s not just a number we picked out of the air. When someone comes in they know that other people have bought in using the same formula, have done well and they know this practice has been managed well enough to do that.”

Wenger says a practice having value is critical for its future stability. “A large animal veterinarian can go out and start on their own with just a truck, an ultrasound and a few drugs,” he says. “I’m working with large animal associates to buy into our practice, but why would they pay all this money to buy into our practice when they could just go down the road, set up shop and make money without spending much money?”

Ohio practice plans for the futureWenger says he needs to show them that there are practices in the area that have done just that, where they have bought no value and they never have value. “That has been proven. If you have a practice you pay nothing for, it will be a long time before it has value. You are buying nothing, you don’t have anything, and you don’t have anything to sell. In a practice like ours, you are buying an investment in something that has a track record and a history, and it will have something of value. Buying into our practice is something that will increase in value over the years, and will give a partner something to sell.”

Wenger believes many younger food animal veterinarians have the philosophy today that there’s nothing to sell in a large animal practice. “You can make something to sell if you make an investment that has a return. We expect a 10% return on our investment. We invest a lot of money and we hope to sell after that. That’s how it has worked out over the past 20-30 years and we look forward to it being that way the next 20-30 years.”

The practice must also be able to get its associates to a certain level where they are able to buy in. “They have to have enough money to purchase the practice with funds that are over and above what they are currently making. As we value the practice we recognize that as they become owners and want to buy in, they will have to have enough additional income between what we paid them originally and what they are going to be paying for the practice. Those are two key areas if you ever expect anyone coming out of school to want to buy into a practice.”

Wenger has a plan to sell. “The business is staggered so we can sell investments into the veterinary clinic, real estate, Pet Spa, then more real estate, etc., so I will be able to benefit long-term and my associates can start buying in. They will see how I benefited so they will be able to benefit.”

Not everyone wants to be a practice owner or a partner, Wenger admits. “Some just don’t want to be part of a practice ownership. Some want to be invested; others just want to live their life without being invested in something.”

Working with students

The Orrville practice gets asked a lot to be mentors for students. At the clinic, Gabriel Middleton, DVM, a 2008 graduate, deals with a lot of the students who come through the practice. The practice has a Pfizer Animal Health extern for four weeks every summer and an OVMA extern. “Usually in the summer we have a student with us most of the time and it’s a good experience,” Wenger says. “We enjoy teaching them the ropes and showing them what it’s all about. We are asked by the food animal community to be mentors and it’s very important for us to fulfill that role.”

Like many practices, one of the issues the Orrville clinic has with hosting students is the lack of housing. However, they did find a local farm that was willing to have a student live with them and help out with milking. “It gives some of these students with little farm experience a place to get on the farm, see the farm and the cows and maybe help with the cows,” Wenger says. “It’s an enlightening experience for a lot of students to get their hands on individual cow work when they visit practices.”

Ohio practice plans for the futureAnother long-term benefit is the potential for future hires. Wenger remembers when Jeffrey Fink, DVM, was a veterinary student. “The first time he came in I thought, ‘this is the kind of guy I would like to hire when he is out of vet school’, and now he’s my partner.” Same thing with Middleton who worked on one of the local dairy farms when he was younger. “He rode with me quite a bit in high school and I recognized from an early age he would be a good vet. Now he’s my partner, too.”

Plan for retirement

There is something to be said for planning with the end in mind. Though Wenger has years before retirement, forward planning will ensure success in retirement and a practice that will go on just fine even when he’s not there.

“I think about it differently now that my daughter has joined the practice,” Wenger says. “Before she joined I more or less thought at some point I would retire and just leave.” But as managing partner whose expertise is needed for transition plans, Wenger would like to train or encourage someone else to take over some of the management that he currently does. “It’s not easy to ask and teach someone to do it. Because of my interest in management, I will probably be here for a long time.”

Wenger says 31 years ago when he was in veterinary school he was told dairy practice would evolve into only large dairies where the veterinarian was on the road only palpating cows, and he wouldn’t have the opportunity to practice like he does. But it’s evident that he and many veterinarians in his area have bucked that notion. “The right people and management made this a sustainable type of practice where I am treating individual cows and helping people with their problems,” he says.

Snapshot:

Orrville Veterinary Clinic, Orrville, Ohio Established in 1955. Seven veterinarians, two satellite clinics and 45 staff. Veterinarians:

• Greg A. Roadruck, DVM
• Melvin D. Wenger, DVM
• William M. Yost, DVM, MS
• Jeffrey R. Fink, DVM
• Judy S. Jackwood, DVM
• Gabriel E. Middleton, DVM
• Marissa Hofstetter, DVM

Orrville Veterinary Clinic is a mixed-animal practice primarily serving companion animals and dairy cattle. Visit the practice at: http://www.orrvillevetclinic.com/ and the PetSpa at (www.orrvillepetspa.com ) See videos and a slide show of Bovine Veterinarian’s visit to the Orrville Veterinary Clinic at www.BovineVetOnline.com, click on Resources and Practice Sustainability.

(Sidebar):
Clients win when practices band together

There are not a lot of businesses in a fairly small area that would come together with their competitors to bring information that will benefit all of their clients. But one group, the Killbuck Valley Veterinary Medical Association, has done just that.

The Killbuck Valley VMA is an association of veterinarians in private practice, teaching, research and industry in the geographic area surrounding the path of Killbuck Creek in Ohio, and it is affiliated with the Ohio Veterinary Medical Association. The group started 20 years ago as a rabies clinic for the county. When the clinic was no longer needed, veterinarians continued to meet and grew the group into a forum for CE and to plan and implement an annual event for dairy clients.

Among its activities is an annual dairy producer meeting supported by local businesses. Its website says, “By our continued support of this type of educational meeting for Ohio dairy industry personnel, we of the KVVMA are striving to maintain and expand this important industry, insure the continued production of dairy products of the highest quality, and improve and protect the well-being of the dairy cow herself.”

Killbuck Valley VMA member Mel Wenger, DVM, Orrville Veterinary Clinic, Orrville, Ohio, says there is a core group of three practices that meet once a month for breakfast. Other practices, veterinarians from the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center, OSU extension veterinarians, and invited guests often join the group.

“The greatest benefit is the camaraderie that we experience and the friendships we develop,” Wenger says. “Instead of seeing each other as competitors, we see ourselves as friends and colleagues.”

However, this has not always been the case in the county, Wenger adds, as the previous generations did not all get along as well. “We have over 30 food animal veterinarians in about eight practices in about a 20-mile radius. It is nice to get along with many of us crossing paths daily. We have made an effort to keep the camaraderie up.” The group draws from at least six of the local practices.

“Our clients recognize the benefit of us relating together as colleagues and friends rather than competitors and adversaries,” Wenger notes. “They like seeing us work together as we put together the annual meeting.”

For the annual meeting the group tries to bring in a national speaker of note to speak on a relevant topic of the day. The KVVMA does all of the planning, lines up the speakers, sells the idea to the sponsors and exhibitors, and hosts the event at a large exhibit hall. “We fed about 300 last year including sponsors,” Wenger says. “Our sponsors, many of them local farm service companies, really like the layout and presentation of the event and often will call us to make sure they are included. It is becoming known as an event with a large group of high quality producers.”

This scale would be too much for any one practice, but a group can pull it off. “Our practice benefits, the KVVMA benefits, the sponsors benefit, and the producers all benefit,” Wenger says. “It is a win for all of us.”

Visit the Killbuck Valley Veterinary Medical Association’s website at www.neodairy.com.