veterinary hospital ownersBy Wayne Faulkner
Wayne.Faulkner@StarNewsOnline.com
Published: Friday, July 8, 2011 at 2:49 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, July 8, 2011 at 4:32 p.m.

Eloise, the basset hound, squirms on the exam table, getting her lengthy and floppy ears checked. Out front, well-groomed gray tabby Star climbs the high-rise cat tree in the glass-enclosed adoption room. She’s out of her cage to enjoy playing by herself. (She doesn’t play so well with others, the docs say.) Most of the other cats spend 90 percent of the time out of their cages.

Atlantic Animal Hospital, which once occupied 1,400 square feet in Landfall Center, now comprises 10,000 square feet in its own new building across Military Cutoff Road from Mayfaire Town Center. And less than a year ago, it got new owners. Two friends, Michele Rohrer and Laurie Parish, will celebrate the first anniversary of their purchase on Aug. 12. Both women – 80 percent of vets are female – graduated from N.C. State. Becoming a vet satisfied a life-long goal for Rohrer. Parish, on the other hand, did her undergraduate work at DePaul University in Chicago in art history. While working at a gallery, she spotted horses pulling a weighted-down tourist wagon and decided then that being a vet was meant for her.

The two doctors of veterinary medicine bought the practice from Dr. Melvin Howard. “(Howard) approached us and said he was looking to sell out,” Parish said. “It was really something we weren’t looking to do – very out of the blue – but it was a really great opportunity.” But Parish and Rohrer had just four or five days to make up their minds. “We talked about how to get the resources,” Rohrer said. “We had, through a mutual friend, met Chad (Reed) of Live Oak Bank and he spoke to us at a birthday dinner.”

Live Oak “knew the practice, the location, the potential, and they knew us,” Parish said. That included having a client base of more than 4,000, many of whom own more than one pet. But this wasn’t your typical proposal to buy a business. “We have nothing to give you and we just want to buy this practice – and we want to do it in a month,” Parish remembers telling the bank. “And, we want to borrow a lot of money,” Rohrer and Parish said simultaneously, laughing.

Lucky for them, Live Oak isn’t your typical financial institution. The Wilmington-based bank specializes in lending to veterinarians, dentists and independent pharmacists. The bank feels that such customers are good risks as they take over strong practices. But practicing veterinary medicine and running a business “have little or nothing to do with each other,” Parish said. Vet school “doesn’t really prepare you at all to run a business.” The answer was a practice manager, Robin Sigismondi, who coordinates and manages the 32 full- and part-time employees, among other tasks.

Additionally, the practice has a bookkeeper and someone who oversees the kennel. There’s a lot for everyone to do at the animal hospital, and all 10,000 square feet gets used. The practice offers hospitalization, surgery, digital radiology, dental, cardiology, ultrasound, boarding, doggie day care, dog and cat grooming, and they’re starting to do some orthopedic surgery, Rohrer said. “We have a veterinary dentist that leases space from us and just started a couple of months ago,” she added.

Though the focus is their sizable practice, the vets are also looking beyond their walls. “It’s frustrating for all vets that if you need a specialist we only have a handful available” in Wilmington, Rohrer said. You don’t want your doctor to have to tell you to drive your sick pet two hours for treatment, she added. “Our goal is to have internal medicine, an oncologist, cardiologist in this area.” The facility also has an upstairs apartment, where they plan to offer emergency service. “It’s a place for an emergency doctor to go if we turn into a 24-hour operation,” she said. “It’s a personal dream of ours.

There’s also talk of building a vet-owned rescue association. What sets their practice apart,” Rohrer said, “is that you can walk through here and every staff member can identify 85 to 90 percent of the dogs here. “If you walk through the runs, (employees) take a Sharpie, for instance, and write on our glass doors: ‘My name is Huxley. I get very stressed when I’m here. Please hand-feed me.’”

Wayne Faulkner: (910) 343-2329

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