June 2010

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The real world

A collaboration with UGA’s Small Business Development Center allows students in pharmacy and veterinary medicine to learn more about private practice

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The real world

Veterinarian Les Sales and UGA vet student Mandy Webb treat Precious, a Shih Tzu belonging to Dianne Scott, for a possible eye ulcer. Webb was visiting Sales’ practice, Wilkes County Veterinary Services in Washington, Ga., as part of a program created by UGA’s Small Business Development Center.

Photo by: Andrew Davis Tucker

The sign in Rob Sanfilippo’s suburban Atlanta animal hospital reads: “Dawgs welcome. Gators by appt.” So it’s easy to see where the veterinarian’s allegiances lie.

It goes beyond athletic rivalries though. Sanfilippo (BS ’00, DVM ’04) is relying on UGA College of Veterinary Medicine students to assist him and business partner Ashley Tharp (DVM ’04) in growing the business at Four Paws Animal Hospital at Johns Creek, which they acquired in August 2009.

A new program created by UGA’s Small Business Development Center assigns teams of students to veterinarians—often UGA alumni—to assess the business and make recommendations for improvements. In doing the research, the students learn what it takes to run a small business, the kind some of them will manage once they earn their degrees. The SBDC runs a similar program in the College of Pharmacy.

On this day, five students and Jeff Sanford, director of entrepreneurial studies for the SBDC, are making their initial visit to Sanfilippo’s clinic.

“What percent of your cash flow are you reinvesting in the business right now? Do you have a target?” veterinary student David Boardman asks Sanfilippo during a tour of the clinic.

Sanfilippo is open and chatty about their revenue and expenses, their challenges and their desires for growth, particularly adding new clients.

“Being my first year as an owner, it’s all new,” he tells the students.

They see where worn-out flooring will be replaced, where yellow countertops reminiscent of the ’70s need to be removed and where the vets are desperate for space to simply fill out patients’ charts.

“You’ve seen the clinic. Now, work toward making me some money,” Sanfilippo says, clapping his hands and smiling. “Let’s go, people.”

Adrianna Hesselbring, pharmacy student, Jonathan McKoy, pharmacy student, Jeff Sanford, SBDC, and pharmacist Chris Thurmond look over paperwork as part of a Small Business Development Center program at Village Drug in Athens. Photo by Peter Frey

The students typically spend more than 80 hours on each clinic or pharmacy’s analysis, reviewing financial records and interacting with the owners and their staffs as they create detailed financial projections and recommendations. The SBDC estimates the assessments would cost between $2,000 and $5,000 if performed by a consultant.

The students’ research, which can include a financial analysis, fee analysis and valuation analysis, is shared in final two-hour-plus meetings at the business or in Athens.

“Hopefully one day I plan to own my business,” says veterinary medicine student Mandy Webb, who will graduate in 2011. “You get the medicine in school; you just don’t get the business side of it.”

The program blends academics with public service and outreach as students create relationships with alumni that sometimes continue after the rotation. Last fall, two students traveled to Chancy Drugs in Hahira to discuss the challenges the owners face in running an independent pharmacy.

“We were able to benefit from the financial services they offered while they were learning how an independent pharmacy worked and how we take care of our patients,” Hugh Chancy (BSPh ’88) says.

Their research about the cost of dispensing prescriptions and recommendations for bookkeeping contributed to changes at Chancy Drugs, which has three locations in South Georgia. Impressed by the students’ work, Chancy shared details about the program with National Community Pharmacy Association members.

“The students see owning a practice or an independent pharmacy as a reality,” says Sanford, who holds joint faculty positions in the pharmacy and veterinary medicine colleges. “They learn how to become a successful owner, not just to be a veterinarian or a pharmacist. They get to see the good, bad and the ugly of practice management.”

Pharmacy student Jonathan McKoy says the rotations dispelled a lot of misperceptions he had about the business.

“It has not only exceeded my expectations but has changed my mind about independent ownership and the direction of my career,” McKoy says.

The veterinary rotation, partially funded by Hill’s Pet Nutrition, has placed about 25 students in more than a dozen clinics and animal hospitals since it began in spring 2009.

“The (rotation) allows the students to learn about running a veterinary practice by gaining direct exposure,” says Sheila Allen (MS ’86), dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine. “In return, the practice owner gets a comprehensive analysis from an outsider’s perspective on what works well in the practice and what could be improved.”

Brad Speed, who graduated in May, plans to own his own veterinary clinic as soon as possible. Standing outside one of Sanfilippo’s exam rooms while the vet handled back-to-back appointments, Speed says he recognizes the benefit of learning about the entrepreneurial side of veterinary medicine. He’s gained insight into where clinics lose money and the difficulty of keeping track of financial details while juggling a business with a family.

“The more I can see these clinics, the better,” he says.

—Lori Johnston is a writer living in Watkinsville. Caroline Buttimer (ABJ, AB ’09) contributed to this article.