Sponsored: "Do what you love and the money will follow" — at least, that's the way the saying goes.
If only it were that easy. In the world of small business, passion is important — and so is learning to manage your business so you can turn your dream into success.
For Denali and Patrick Lovely, owners of North Pole Veterinary Hospital, success started with veterinary expertise and a desire to serve their community — coupled with a generous helping of on-the-job business training. In the 11 years since they bought the establishment, the Lovelys have expanded from a clinic with one vet and a handful of staff to a full-service animal hospital with five doctors and more than 25 employees.
Learning as you go
The Lovelys moved to Fairbanks, Denali's hometown, in 2001 after she graduated from veterinary school. Patrick took a job teaching at Lathrop High School, while Denali worked full-time as a relief vet in local animal clinics. In 2006, the couple had the opportunity to buy an established practice from longtime North Pole vet Karl Monetti, and they made the leap into business ownership.
For Patrick, who started out studying business in college before changing his major to biology, it was time to hit the books all over again.
"I just pretended like I was a 22-year-old business student and tried to learn as much as I possibly could about being … on the leading edge of what financing tools were available," he said.
Denali said it was a major shift for her to move from employee to boss. She admits she wasn't fully prepared because at veterinary school, business management courses weren't part of the curriculum. As a result, the first year in business was a "huge leap" for her, especially in terms of management.
A growing practice, a growing business
With its proximity to Fort Wainwright and Eielson Air Force Base, North Pole has experienced steady growth, and the Lovelys saw a need for their practice to grow as well.
"Our community was definitely underserved with one doctor," Patrick said.
Before they grew, though, the Lovelys first had to get comfortable with their business expenses and learning about the financial management resources available to them.
Once they met with their banker and looked at patterns in their revenue and expenses, Patrick said, they saw how tools such as a line of credit could help them build a sustainable business.
"During a time of year that may be a little slower or a month that has three payrolls instead of two, you can access your line of credit to smooth it out, and then you're not worried about what's in your bank account," Patrick said. "It just makes life easier when you're not worried about your cash management."
The evolution from small clinic to full-service hospital required significant investment as the practice added services like orthopedics, digital x-ray and ultrasound.
"There are some pretty expensive pieces of equipment that come along with being a full-service veterinary hospital," said Patrick, who left his teaching job a few years ago to work full-time managing business operations for the practice. Big-ticket purchases have to be evaluated not just from a veterinary perspective, but from the point of view of an investment: What kind of revenue will it generate? Patrick said they learned to do their own due diligence on new capital investments; that way, they have a clear proposal to put in front of their banker, which helps expedite the financing process.
Care, consistency, and communication
Animals are the hospital's patients, but the practice focuses just as much on people — both clients and employees — and Denali credits the hospital's growth to that approach.
"We're really focused on individual patient care and communication," she said. Veterinary technicians are a big part of that equation, and they can be hard to find and keep. North Pole Veterinary Hospital has seven vet techs, four of them full-time, and consistency in staffing is a priority for the Lovelys. Several employees have been with the hospital since 2006, and many more have worked for the business eight years or more.
'When people come in, they see the same receptionist, they see the same technician, the same doctors," Patrick said.
One of the Lovelys' first projects when they took over the practice was bringing their new business into the digital age — building a website and moving to digital records management. Tools for efficient human resource management were also a priority — for the good of their clients as well as their staff. Paychecks are directly deposited in employee bank accounts and staff members are offered access to online banking, healthcare resources and retirement information.
"Even though we're a small business, we're offering stuff to our employees that is more in line with a medium to larger business," he said.
A clinic, a community
While the practice is consistently busy, adding doctors and employees has given Denali a little bit of time to give back to the community. In addition to some volunteer work with the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race and serving in leadership positions with the regional and state veterinary medical associations, Denali has made trips to some rural communities to do vet clinics and hopes to do more in the future. The logistics and cost of getting off the road system make it a "break-even venture" at best, but it fills an important need.
"There's really a lack of care in the rural communities," Denali said, adding that even a town as relatively large as Nome doesn't have a full-time vet.
At the end of the day, it's people and their pets that matter most to the Lovelys and their team at North Pole Veterinary Hospital — no matter how much their business grows.
"We still see the clients that have been there forever," Denali said. "I was born and raised here, and my family still lives here, so I know the community. It's really important to make people happy and to do the best job you can."
That reputation for taking care of people as well as animals, Patrick added, is central to their business success:
"If you treat people right, word gets out."
This article was produced by the creative services department of Alaska Dispatch News in collaboration with First National Bank Alaska. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.