A dog-gone nice way to run a pet hospital

Competing against high volume vet clinics with individual, patient-centric pet care

Story by John R. Ingrisano

SKIP THE BOTTOM-LINE EFFICIENCY EXPERTS. Round out the corners (versus cutting them). Bring in the staff you want and spend the time you need. In short, sometimes, you just have to devote more time, more energy, more heart and more gut-level, one-on-one passion and compassion to your business, even if it means you may not end up relaxing on the biggest yacht in the marina at the end of the day.

That’s the way Dr. Patrick Mahoney, owner of American Animal Hospital in Neenah, does business. Talk to him for more than a few minutes and it becomes obvious that this is more than just a job, and he is more than just a veterinarian. Their mission and motto is: “Caring for your pets as if they were our own.”

Mahoney readily admits that “we run a touchy-feely practice. We are advocates for both the owners and their pets. We are very patient focused. When you bring your pet into our hospital, we actually have a patient advocate. One person will be assigned to be with you. There is a one-on-one from the time you come in until the time you leave.”

As a result, Mahoney sometimes ends up competing toe-to-toe with the growing number of quick-in, quick-out, low-cost, high-volume pet clinics in the area. His greatest joy is the animals and their owners, many of whom become personal friends. His greatest challenge is educating potential clients that quality pet care does cost more than what they might spend at the bare-bones, cookie cutter clinics.

That also helps explain the clinic’s 14 staff members, even though it is not a high-volume practice. The staff bios on the animal hospital’s Web site not only give their professional titles and skills, but also something personal about their backgrounds and, of course, their animals.

That translates into dedicated professionalism. You cannot just drop off your pet for a quick spaying at the American Animal Hospital.

“We require blood testing before surgery and an exam to determine that the heart is good, teeth are fine, and so on. We also use IV fluids,” said Mahoney, all to assure that the animal receives the best care possible and endures as little pain as possible.

The facility is also accredited with the American Animal Hospital Association, which sets high standards for everything from record keeping to continuing education, quality of X-rays, and quality of service.

“Most people do not realize that animal hospitals have no inspection or required accreditation. We’re one of a few in the area that have adopted the AAHA standards.”

The cost of care

THOUGH HE DOES NOT DISCUSS it readily, Mahoney admits that his biggest and ongoing challenge is the cost of care. In this respect, it sounds as though the same healthcare debate we are having in this country about people care is going on in the veterinary world.

Years before animal rights hit the headlines, Mahoney made a conscious decision when he bought the American Animal Hospital in 1979 that he was going to provide personal, individual care to his clients’ pets. He also was aware that his approach is not the fastest, shortest way to build up piles of profits. He readily admits the American Animal Hospital is not a lean, mean, high-profit operation. With that staff of 14 and a determination to provide personal, one-on-one care to all clients, it makes no attempt to compete on cost. That can be a challenge. Explained Mahoney, “We’re always watching cash flow and profitability. We have an incredible staff.”

“My problem,” said Mahoney, “is that when we do it the right way, I have to charge fairly, especially when the clinic down the street can do it for two-thirds the cost. We’re unique in that I will give you options, but I will give the care I would provide for my own animals.”

“It sometimes takes time to determine what is wrong and what kind of treatment is needed. I provide individual care. We cannot be high-volume. We have longer appointments, and the care is first-rate.

“With the low-cost, high-volume competitors gobbling up the family stores and clinics, how do we stay competitive?” he asked. “We are not running a cookie-cutter hospital. We attend to the needs of individual clients.

“Our number one competitive advantage,” said Mahoney, “is that we care. We listen to our clients. And we always recommend what is right, not necessarily what will bring us the biggest payment.”

This involves the issue of medicines and vaccines, explained Mahoney. For example, “In the late 1990s, it started to become evident that veterinarians may have been giving too many vaccines. It created quite a stir. In 2004, the American Animal Hospital Association said distemper vaccines did not need to be given every year, but instead should be given every three years. We immediately changed our protocol. Some clinics did not change until just a few years ago, mostly because it directly impacted their income.”

At the same time, the struggling economy has also impacted the hospital.

“As clients are struggling to care for themselves, they’re getting attracted to low-cost, high-volume veterinarians. More and more they are asking, ‘How much does this cost?’”

Marketing strategy

Nonetheless, business continues to be steady. Once pet owners visit the hospital, they tend to return.

“We average five new patients a week,” explained Mahoney, mostly through word of mouth. “Our hardest part is getting people to come in. They’ve heard about us from another client. However, when they do come in, they almost uniformly say, ‘What a difference.’”

They originally advertised heavily in the phone book. That was why Mahoney choose the name American Animal Hospital, so it would be up near the front of phone book section listings.

“Ironically,” he added, “we have since dropped phone book advertising altogether. We’re on Facebook, and we’re trying to attract people to go to our Web site at www.ameranimal.com.”

Community involvement also plays a big part in their marketing.

“We host a community health pet show in Neenah at Riverside Park each year,” said Mahoney. “It started out as a kids’ pet show. We’ve since expanded it to include adults. The show has attracted some interesting entries, including a white rat with a rhinestone tiara, an exotic dancer with her boa constrictor, a litter of ducklings, and dogs in costumes.”

The doctors in the hospital also regularly donate their time to rescue clinics, including Neenah-based OARS project, which stands for Orphan Animal Rescue & Sanctuary.

Advice to business owners

It has been 31 years since Dr. Patrick Mahoney purchased the American Animal Hospital. Veterinary care, medicine and business practices have changed dramatically during that time. One of the things he learned is that it is crucial to keep trying to learn and grow.

“It’s a wonderful profession, offering so many challenges and opportunities,” he said. “Just do not think you will ever be able to sit back and let the business run itself. It simply will not happen.”

Of course, knowledge is not everything. Building trust is the starting point. “They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

And it is through caring and a fierce determination to provide quality care that Dr. Mahoney and his staff at the American Animal Hospital have built and maintained a quality pet care facility all these years.

John Ingrisano is a Wisconsin-based business journalist and marketing strategist who helps clients recognize, maximize and realize their competitive advantages. For more information, contact John at john@thefreestyleentrepreneur.com or call 920.559.3722.