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Surviving the coronavirus recession

We can always be confident in the value and importance of veterinary care to society, no matter how stormy the economy.

Surviving the coronavirus recession

For many veterinary practice owners, the last few days have represented the most significant and rapid period of change they have ever experienced. In a matter of days, practices are converting to curbside service, implementing telemedicine initiatives, adjusting staffing protocols, and responding to the latest government stay-at-home and PPE orders.

As one who has worked with this profession for over 25 years, I’ve never seen so much change at once. I’ve been incredibly impressed at the ingenuity and dedication being demonstrated by practices and hospital owners during these challenging times as everybody attempts to do their best to chart a course through competing considerations of staff safety, client safety, pet health and well-being, and human public health. However this all plays out, we will certainly never forget this chapter in our lives.

And while all this has been unfolding in rapid-fire succession, we all know there is another very real consequence of the coronavirus epidemic that awaits us: the resulting recession. While I do not want to distract anyone from taking care of “first things first” at this stage, I thought it would be helpful to share some lessons learned from the last recession, which was a particularly memorable chapter in my life.

My (Not So) Great Idea

As someone who had assisted others in buying businesses during my entire career, I developed the itch to buy a business of my own, and I was pleased when I saw an opportunity to buy a healthy, profitable land-surveying company. Unfortunately, I followed through on that opportunity in early 2008, about a month before the then-mild recession transformed into the Great Recession.

Here are four key lessons that I learned in the months that followed:

1. Buying Time

When a recession hits, the first question to ask will always be “What steps do I need to take to successfully get to the other side?” Put another way, what steps can be taken to buy as much time as possible in order for the economy to recover and business conditions to improve? If there is one mindset that is likely to lead to a positive outcome for a business owner in a recession, it is “How can I buy enough time to get to the other side?”

2. Cash Is King

It might be a cliché to say this, but cash is the lifeblood of any business and the lack of adequate working capital is what spells the end of most businesses that fail. So, if buying time is the name of the game, then it will always be cash that buys that time.

As a result, being proactive during a downturn about changing staffing and supply levels and your cash management procedures (such as to lower the risk of embezzlement) can make a significant difference in the end. Each dollar saved earlier in the process is another dollar available down the line if the recession lingers.

In my case, I had decent cash reserves to draw on at the outset of my business adventure and I probably deferred making some of the harder decisions regarding staffing until a bit later in the process. I’m not sure it would have changed the outcome, but with the benefit of hindsight, I would have been wiser if I had made decisions as if I had half the assets available. That would have at least helped my company to buy more precious time.

3. Paying Attention to Opportunities

Invariably, challenging circumstances present new opportunities for those who are able to stay open-minded and calm enough to keep watching for those opportunities. The opportunities could be of either a defensive nature, such as bringing in an associate as a partner, or offense-oriented, such as merging with a competitor or bringing the competitor onboard as an employee. In the last recession, we saw veterinary practices take these kinds of bold steps and often with particularly favorable results.

However, for owners to be able to take this kind of action, they have to be open and calm enough to see the opportunity in the first place and then broad-minded and courageous enough to give it a try. For owners who pull that off, pursuing the opportunities that arise from unique circumstances can make a significant positive difference in the trajectory of their practices.

In my case, by moving quickly when an opportunity presented itself, I was able to move my company out of a larger, more expensive building and into a smaller space that still fit our needs, resulting in significant savings. Most veterinary practices will not likely have that kind of opportunity, but each circumstance is unique. My situation was an example of how a proactive mindset can lead to positive changes.

4. Don’t Let Fear Rule the Day

Whatever happens, we will all be better off to the extent that we can steer clear of fear and anxiety. I know this is often easier said than done, as I ultimately had to explain to my wife that my great idea of buying a land-surveying company led us to the doorstep of personal bankruptcy at a time when we were raising three children. Fortunately, I am blessed with an amazing wife who helped me steer away from fear by reminding me that we would do the best we could and see where everything ended up. Whatever came, she said, we would face it together and get to the other side.

Her words of encouragement during one of our most difficult times helped me stay more positive and open-minded. Sure enough, we dodged bankruptcy. In the end, we lost the survey company and a good bit of our assets, but life went on and there have been plenty of sunny days since.

And Some Good News

Fortunately, veterinary practices as a whole proved fairly resistant to recession, if not entirely recession-proof, last time around. My guess is that this time might prove more challenging for some practices since most of us have never seen a slowdown or shutdown on this scale. But we know that veterinary practices are essential, as confirmed so clearly over the last few weeks, and will always remain essential. People will keep loving their pets, perhaps even more so, as challenging times cause us to focus on the things we value most. So, we can always be confident in the value and importance of veterinary care to society, no matter how stormy the economy.

Finally, I would encourage everyone to never underestimate the non-economic piece here. Veterinarians use their considerable scientific knowledge and skill, coupled with their compassion, to make the world a better place. For all the challenges that a changing world can throw at any of us, nothing will ever change that simple truth.

Thanks for all that you are doing to meet the current challenges, and let’s keep working together to steer the course ahead.

Trey Cutler is an attorney specializing in veterinary business matters. He and Dr. Jeff Thoren write the Go With the Flow column in Today’s Veterinary Business.