Married, With Practice

Married practice owners share how they make it work.
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In the halls of veterinary schools, on late night calls, and at veterinary practices, two doctors of veterinary medicine meet, fall in love, and get married. For many couples, a shared passion for veterinary medicine eventually leads to a shared practice. For others, a spouse’s skills as a manager or accountant provide the support necessary for a DVM to strike out on his or her own. Regardless of the specifics of the situation, however, the skills allowing these partners in life and in business to succeed are relevant for all practices.

While the thought of blending work and family life so closely might sound like a recipe for disaster on both fronts, for the right couples it can be the opportunity of a lifetime. Instead of leading separate lives that only align during early morning and late evening hours, entrepreneurial couples have the chance to share both their professional and personal ambitions. For families with children, the flexible scheduling this arrangement often affords is an added and most welcome advantage.

Thanks in part to these sorts of lifestyle benefits, the number of couple-owned businesses nationwide is on the uptick. In 2003, the National Federation of Independent Business reported the number of husband-and-wife-owned small businesses to be around 1.2 million. And while there isn’t any more recent official data, family business experts say that this number will only continue to grow.

Taking the Plunge

For most married couples, making the decision to go into business together involves consideration and planning. For married veterinarians, however, this decision is one that seems to “make itself” by virtue of either necessity or sheer chance.

“We kind of fell into it [practicing together],” explains Dr. Anne Baskett of Tryon Equine Hospital in Columbus, North Carolina. “I wish I could say we went into it with a plan, but that’s just not the case.”

Dr. Baskett and her husband, Dr. Bill Hay, met at the University of Georgia while Baskett was doing her residency and Hay was working as chief of staff. After staying on for a post-graduate instructor year, Baskett went to work for a clinic in Columbus, while Hay stayed on at the university. For a while, the couple found ways to make the two-hour commute work. But after giving birth to their first child, Baskett wondered if there wasn’t an easier way for them both to be fulfilled professionally without sacrificing so much personally.

Shortly thereafter, Hay took a position at his wife’s clinic, and the two of them began building the equine surgical practice that would eventually become Tryon Equine. “It just worked out,” says Baskett, “and I have to say that it’s been great.”

Role Play

At first, Hay and Baskett shared their caseload, but with the arrival of the couple’s second child, it quickly became obvious that the two needed to put more thought into how to delegate responsibilities–both at work and at home. “We made the decision that we could not have two surgeons,” says Baskett. “Now Bill does most of the surgeries and I do more of the lameness and sport-horse work. I also take care of a lot of the practice management, while Bill interacts more with the vet techs.”

Along with well-defined roles within their business, the couple also delegates domestic responsibilities to help ensure that family time doesn’t go by the wayside. “We joke that the arrangement works out because we each get 12 hours of bossing the other person around–he’s the boss at work, and I’m the boss at home,” says Baskett. And although she is quick to laugh about it, having clearly defined roles, especially with respect to who is ultimately “the boss,” is a large part of what has allowed both their marriage and practice to thrive.

For couples working together, says Nikki Quenette of Quenette Veterinary Consulting, LLC in Fergus Falls, Minnesota, it’s imperative that both parties clearly define their roles. Regardless of whether it’s two married DVMs practicing together, or a veterinarian and a practice manager, says Quenette, “decisions have to be made, and husband and wife are not always going to agree. So before they even get involved in business together they need to decide who will be the top decision-maker, who is ultimately the boss.”

Sometimes, as is the case with Drs. Baskett and Hay, it’s a simple matter of figuring out which personality is best equipped to deal with certain aspects of the job. For some couples, this may mean calling on another important characteristic of successful business teams: the ability to compromise. “Bill is definitely a surgeon,” says Baskett, “and while that is my training too, I was happy to shift roles and take on more of the management responsibilities.”

For some couples, such as Rich Lee and Dr. Rhonda Stallings of Arroyo Veterinary Hospital, defining roles comes much easier. In their successful Sonoma, California, practice, Stallings sees patients while Lee, a former graphic designer, handles all the management work. In the early days of Stallings’ practice, Lee watched his wife struggling to attend to both the medical and managerial elements of the business. So, instead of suggesting that she hire someone else to do it, Lee offered to switch career paths so he could step in to assist her.

“We didn’t really know what to expect,” says Lee. “But we knew we wouldn’t be working shoulder-to-shoulder all day, so it seemed like something we could handle.”

While there are times when Lee admits that he and his wife don’t always see eye-to-eye, the arrangement has been a successful one for the couple and the practice. On a personal note, Lee says that it is also quite rewarding to be able to witness his wife performing at a job she is passionate about. While many married individuals never get the opportunity to observe their spouse hard at work in their chosen vocation, married couples working together get that chance on a daily basis. “I’m constantly amazed at my wife’s ability to work as long and as hard as she does–she’s been doing this for 30 years now–and her passion, day in and day out, is just incredible.”

Flexible Perks

Over the course of Nikki Quenette’s 15-year career as a veterinary consultant, she’s seen a number of husband-wife teams strive to make marriage and a joint practice work.

“I’ve seen a wide variety of things,” says Quenette. “I’ve known quite a few veterinarians who dated all through school, purchased a practice together, and then really struggled with the stress involved in balancing the personal and professional sides of the partnership. One of the two usually ends up backing out, often so they can stay home to take care of the children. However,” she adds, “the lifestyle that sharing a practice affords married couples can be one of the biggest benefits, especially for husband-wife teams who have children.”

For Drs. Hay and Baskett, the flexibility afforded by being in business together has been one of the biggest advantages of their “co-preneurial” venture. “Sharing a practice has been great when it comes to scheduling around the kids–Bill takes them to school in the morning and goes in to the clinic early, and I come in a little later after taking care of whatever other household things need to be attended to, like making sure there are groceries in the house,” says Baskett. “Someone has to do that stuff!”

Ironically, Baskett points out that having children has also helped her and her husband separate their work and family lives. “While it’s always a challenge trying to keep home life and the business separate, having kids really helps you not bring your work home,” says Baskett. “Before you have children it’s really easy to fall into the trap of discussing your practice over dinner, or over coffee in the morning. But the kids help us keep work at work,” she explains.

For Better or Worse

For a profession in which work schedules often take priority over home responsibilities, having the opportunity to be more in control of the specifics of the workday can certainly help offset many of the other challenges these couples face. However, there’s no question that living and working together, 24-7, 365 days a year is not for everyone.

Along with the difficulties of negotiating disparate work styles and finding a way to balance business and personal lives, couples who go into business together must also consider the effect their relationship might have on both coworkers and employees.

 “Of course, we try not to let personal fights leak into the workplace, but sometimes it’s unavoidable,” says Baskett. “But you have to be conscious of how your relationship affects the employees,” she adds, “and learn to see your partner as a fellow employee or coworker.”

Sometimes Tryon’s employees also try to use the doctors’ personal relationship to their advantage. “It is good-cop, bad-cop sometimes, but we try to keep the lines of communication open, and that helps eliminate confusion,” says Baskett.

As with any relationship, however, it is the individual personalities that will determine whether this most challenging of ventures will ultimately be successful. “I think it can either be fabulous, or it can be a nightmare,” says Baskett. “For us it worked out very well.”

SIDEBAR 1

Top 10 Essentials for Succcessful “Co-preneurs”

Business/Marital Life Compatibility – Your business activities must be in some way compatible with your marital and family life.

  • Healthy Marital Relationship – As a couple you must have a healthy, mature marital relationship.
  • Effective Communication – There must be effective communication between you and your spouse.
  • Role Definition – You need to clearly define your roles.
  • Ambition – At least one of you needs to be self-motivated and ambitious.
  • Professional Contribution – Each partner must bring significant value to the business.
  • Financial Focus – At least one of you needs “attention to the bottom line.”
  • Work/Life Balance – Each partner must create a healthy blend/balance of work, family and personal time.
  • Manage Change and Stress Effectively – As a couple in business together you must be able to deal effectively with change and stress.
  • Effective Conflict Resolution – As a family business you must be able to resolve conflict effectively.

Adapted from: Sleeping With Your Business Partner: A Communication Toolkit for Couples in Business Together By Becky L. Stewart-Gross, Ph.D. & Michael J. Gross, ED.D. Capital Books, Inc. 2007

SIDEBAR 2

Advantages of Working Together

Appreciation

Grow in appreciation of your spouse’s talents/gifts

Notice additional qualities of spouse

Growth

Marriage grows stronger as you appreciate each other’s gifts

Develop closer bonds with your spouse

Enhances your marriage as well as your business

Most Difficult Aspects of Working Together

Motivation

Marriage grows stronger as you appreciate each other’s gifts

Develop closer bonds with your spouse

Enhances your marriage as well as your business

Work Environment

Conflicting work styles

Employees may get confused if responsibilities and authority has not been clearly defined and explained