Building Something Together: Vet Clinic Employee Ownership

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Could one independent veterinarian’s unique approach to employee ownership catch on?

Cherri Trusheim, DVM, has an entrepreneurial spirit. While working nights and weekends as a veterinarian at a Seattle clinic, she experimented with several start-up business ideas. One was to open a bar, so Dr. Trusheim went to bartending school. She also entertained the thought of remodeling houses, so she enrolled in a few carpentry classes at the local community college.

“Then I just realized that no one is going to loan me money to remodel houses or tend a bar, but Bank of America will happily loan me money to start my own veterinary practice,” she said.


But if she was going to own and operate a veterinary clinic, she was going to do it her way. Indeed, over the last 10 years, Urban Animal has gone against the grain. It offers affordable services no matter what a pet owner’s budget is, walk-in appointments, candid conversations with pet owners and zero upsell. As those became part of Urban Animal’s reputation, the clinic grew “like wildfire,” Dr. Trusheim said, from one location to three, and from a few employees to more than 100.

 

Cherri Trusheim headshot
Cherri Trusheim, DVM owner of Urban Animal

 

What Dr. Trusheim is planning next will be Urban Animal’s legacy. At the start of this year, Dr. Trusheim gifted 5% of the company to a worker cooperative. By doing so, Urban Animal believes it will be the largest veterinary worker cooperative in the nation. This approach allows the 110 employees an opportunity to share in the governance and profits of the 11-year-old company that serves more than 50,000 pet owners in the city of Seattle and neighboring metro area.

“I knew I wanted to grow it big enough that no one individual would be able to buy it,” Dr. Trusheim said. “It was always my intention to figure out a way to put it in the hands of the employees.”

Dr. Trusheim said she is not trying to be a “do-gooder” with this experimental model. “The reality is, I’m sort of doing a hybrid,” she said. “I’m an entrepreneur, and I have my own financial goals and aspirations. I am not altruistic. I want a hobby farm with horses and goats and living that life. That’s what I’ve been pushing toward, but I think we can do both.”

More than anything, she wants to show veterinary professionals there is another option beyond selling a practice to a larger entity. She believes the profession is going down a perilous road if it continues to operate under that assumption. “There are other options,” she said. “Veterinary professionals need to gain control of our industry and what we do. Private equity and corporate America are pretty much in charge of veterinary medicine right now. It’s taking up more and more of the jobs. The disconnect is understandable. We don’t go into veterinary medicine thinking about money. Maybe we should, though.”

A unique approach

Dr. Trusheim looked at several models when considering how to handle employee ownership. One idea was to set up an employee stock option plan (ESOP). She also considered putting the company in a trust to protect it from ever being sold.

But she was drawn to the worker cooperative because of the independence and empowerment it brought to the workers themselves. “It’s the idea of a group of people coming together on their own free will,” she said. “They’re not obligated, and they don’t have to be a member of the worker cooperative. They’re working toward their own goals. To me, that is a beautiful thing.”

Most worker cooperatives are usually with smaller “Mom and Pop” businesses with a handful of employees where the owner wants an exit strategy to sell on friendly terms. What Urban Animal is looking to do is more of a partnership, Dr. Trusheim said. She is taking on the worker cooperative as her partner in growing the company, and then she’ll sell chunks of the company to it over time. Within the next 10 years, it will be a majority owned company by the worker cooperative, governed by a board of employee-owners. “I might hang on to a piece, but it’ll be a non-majority piece,” she said. “Other than that, they’ll have control of the company within the next decade.”

Dr. Trusheim has owned Urban Animal for more than a decade and has no plans of retiring soon. She wants to keep working over the next five to ten years as a clinician and CEO while the worker cooperative grows in numbers, profitability, and experience. “The way it works is growth,” she said. “There was a time I probably could have sold the three practices for a lot of money. But, whatever entity bought it would have moved away from affordability and being employee centric.”

To Dr. Trusheim, employee centric means supporting and giving people what they need to be productive. “Our veterinary professional workforce needs mental health help,” she said. “We have a high incidence of generalized anxiety and clinical depression. There’s a reason a lot of folks are drawn to work with animals. It’s because they come from trauma. We are sort of trauma informed HR. At Urban Animal, we take an approach where our people are first and foremost. How can we make sure they’re happy and healthy? Those aren’t just words. We truly care about our people. I think it’s endless what we can build together as veterinary professionals if we all just stop following the herd toward the cliff, and turn and go, ‘Hey, let’s build something together.’”

Response from Urban Animal team members, from veterinarians to technicians, has admittedly been varied, Dr. Trusheim said. Some team members are excited to get started and earn profits, some are in a “wait and see” mode, while others are uncertain and a little uneasy. There are 16 people part of an early adopter committee currently in an education program with a group called the Cooperative Way to teach them the nuances of a cooperative. “We use the analogy of you can’t go from sitting in seat 23 in a plane to sitting in the cockpit and flying it,” Dr. Trusheim said. “You’ve got to get educated and build those muscles. You’ve got to learn how to run a company democratically.”

Ken Kucey, LVT at Seattle Urban, said that the co-op isn’t just a good opportunity, it’s also a necessary experiment given the direction that the veterinary field is headed in. “We have the chance to develop and promote the anti-corporatization template, putting the power back in the hands of those who are actually working with and treating your pets,” Kucey said. “Your pet’s well-being should be the bottom line, and the co-op model can help keep it this way.”

Mollyrose Dumm, client liaison at Seattle Urban, said the co-op  is an exciting change for their team, and something that will empower employees to drive the business forward. It will also serve to make sure that team members are benefitting through things like fair salaries, learning opportunities and governance over their work environment. “With nationwide staffing shortages at all levels of veterinary care, a worker co-op model will hopefully attract new staff as people see that we’re a company that takes the employee experience serious,” Dumm said.

Urban Animal has already dissolved the role of chief medical officer within the company and moved to a DVM board, so they will govern and manage medicine with a group of veterinarians moving forward. It’s the first initial shift to how they will run the company through the cooperative. “It’s a slow process when you take folks who really haven’t had much of a voice, or haven’t had an opportunity to make decisions,” Dr. Trusheim said. “It takes some time to get comfortable in that space. Patience is going to be key, but I think it will take off.”

Dr. Trusheim said she is incredibly optimistic about doing something different in the profession through this cooperative. She’s fielded plenty of calls from other independent owners interested in her experiences thus far. “I think veterinary medicine is a great place in our country’s economy to take a step toward shrinking that wealth gap and sharing the resources with the people that do the work.”

 

Employee owners of Urban Animal veterinary clinic.

 

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