Leaving a Perfect Legacy in the Buyer of your Practice: Putting the Cart Before the Horse

Let’s say you had a café that you bought a coffee from every morning.

It was near work and convenient for you.

The coffee was pretty good, reasonably priced and the guy that owned and ran the place (Steve) was friendly and empathic. He remembered your name and favourite order, and always asked about your kids. After a few years, you felt like you were friends, even if you didn’t socialise together.

Everyone in the neighbourhood felt the same way about Steve and his coffee shop and it was always busy.

One day you came in and Steve told you that he had sold the business and was planning to retire.

After Steve leaves, you visit the café, but it isn’t the same…

The new owner has given the place a much needed refit and coat of paint, and the coffee is probably just as good… but the prices have gone up, and the new guy isn’t as friendly. He never remembers your name or your order. The mojo of the place has gone, and you decide it’s time to find a new regular cafe.

Steve’s café quickly becomes quieter, barely resembling the busy, vibrant business it once was.

Now, with that premise in your mind, I want you to ask yourself a few questions:

1.       You may be sorry that your regular coffee place is gone, but are you angry with Steve?

2.       Is the neighbourhood angry with Steve?

3.       Does anyone blame Steve for selling to the new guy?

I don’t think that anyone in their right mind would blame Steve for the deficiencies of the new owners, nor the decline of his café under new ownership. How could Steve know how the new guy would run the place and, even if he did know, was it his responsibility to ensure that the place ran well after he had sold it?

This story is an allegory to show an important point about selling a veterinary practice.

Many practice owners seem obsessed with finding the right successor for their patients, one that will preserve their legacy in the community.

As touching as this sentiment is, it is often misplaced for a number of reasons:

1.       Your clients will not blame you for the deficiencies of your successor. It is impossible for you to determine whether the new owners have all of the qualities needed to successfully replace you. Your clients know this, and don’t expect you to even try.

2.       Your primary loyalty and obligation needs to be with yourself and your family. The proceeds of the sale of a veterinary practice are going to be substantial, and will make a big difference to your life (and your family’s) post-sale. You need to look after yourself, before you start worrying about your successor’s deficiencies on a personal or clinical level. This isn’t being selfish – this is being smart.

3.       It is impossible to really know how successful your successor is going to be in advance anyway. Even if they are as charming as any person you have ever met, they may have poor business, leadership or management skills. These things are very hard to gauge in advance.

4.       Even if they are successful….are they a good vet?

Even if the prospective buyer is charming and has great business skills, their clinical skills may be poor, and this may be impossible for you to ascertain in advance of the purchase.

If given the option of selling to two or three parties, each offering a similar price and terms for a practice, then of course a vendor can factor in compatibility, personality and gut instinct, to determine who would be a good successor. However, starting off with a specific profile in mind for who the right buyer is, is to put the cart before the horse. Selling your practice needs to be a commercial decision at its core.

The person who offers you the best price and terms for your practice may not look like you; they may not act or sound like you. Once they take over, they may not be as successful as you, or be as good a vet as you are. When you bump into clients or the buyer post-sale, you may feel guilty about this, but I promise that your clients and staff won’t blame you for selling to the wrong person. You will find it harder to forgive yourself if you compromise on your own financial wellbeing to find “the right successor”, especially if you find out later on that they weren’t so “right” after all.