Love may lead veterinarians to their profession, but sometimes it’s not enough to keep body and soul together. Encore Vet Group is here to help.
Americans love their pets. Today, over 85 million families share their lives with furry, feathered, finned, and scaly creatures, and the connection between humans and the animals they cherish seems deeper than ever. “In 1988 about 56% of households owned pets,” according to Encore Vet Group co-founder and COO Lance Sprinkle. This year, over two thirds of households count at least one pet as a family member. “As we’ve humanized our pets, the number of pet owners has grown, and so has the amount of money people are willing to invest in them. That’s affecting all of veterinary medicine.”
“Some of the important things we want for ourselves and our kids, like healthcare, are things we also want for our pets,” Sprinkle noted. Community veterinary practices are in high demand, but making a sustainable living from running an independent practice can be heartbreakingly difficult for the veterinarians and technicians needed to run them. The high cost of overhead and the human cost of overworking them drive far too many private practices into the ground, all too often taking their owners with them.
In 2018, Lance, his dad and veterinarian Ted Sprinkle, and Bo Iler decided to do something about it. With more veterinary professionals looking to get out of the then $30 billion-plus industry, they established Encore Vet Group as a way to offer sustainable career satisfaction for this desperately needed core of professionals.
This isn’t their first trip to the practice support rodeo, so to speak; the family’s previous, highly successful practice management endeavor, Pet Partners, is now part of MARS Petcare.
“When you’ve done this for over 20 years like my dad and I have, you recognize two trains of thought about practice management. One is to act like a cookie cutter and push processes and systems down to our hospitals and let them benefit from them. But we knew that the really awesome veterinary hospitals are the ones that retain their people and show up every day to take care of that community. That takes something special; it takes strong local leaders with great spirits,” Lance explained. “Our job at Encore is to ignite these spirits and equip our leaders with the tools they need to thrive.
The fledgling business looked to private equity firm North Castle Partners for financial support. “They took a chance on this leadership team when we owned zero hospitals and have supported our growth and continue to plow a path forward so that we can do what we love, which is bringing great hospitals together in a community.”
Love, lavished locally
The Saratoga Springs-based enterprise departs significantly from other practice ownership groups with a simple yet provocative approach: When they purchase a practice, they expect the former owner to continue to operate the business in the way they are accustomed to. “I'm not a big fan of the regional management system where there’s a group of people out there essentially babysitting our practices,” Lance admitted.
“Our vets have been running great businesses for a long time, so to bring them to Encore and then tell them to do everything differently doesn't make sense to me. They're the closest to the pet owner, they know their team, and they know their community. Our job has to be to make their lives a lot easier.”
That strategy is a hit. In just two years Encore has grown to a network of 30 practices spread across the East Coast and into the Midwest. “The best companies really try to find acquisitions that share their values. We are very proud of our four key values: own it, share it, lift it, and celebrate it.” The notion of corporate overlording is not part of the Sprinkle family ethos. “If a hospital is going to look to us to tell them what to do from the top down from some corporate office and plans to just fall in line, we're probably not the right company for them. We believe you need to keep owning your business after you sell it to Encore, and that's tricky in our field. We view ownership in the sense that our vets get up every morning and care about the practice like it's still theirs. For a lot of veterinarians, the act of doing business weighs them down and takes them away from what they love, which is a passion for pet care. Shared values are really important.”
Encore’s co-founder and Chief Development Officer, Bo Iler, added, “Though there are many buyers out there, Encore has established itself as a destination of choice for veterinarians who are highly committed to quality medicine, strong culture, and creating the best environment for their people.”
As a growth-oriented business, Encore seeks practices that have the heart to grow but need extra muscle to be at their best—a not-so well-kept secret in the company’s name. “We want hospitals that still want to find their Encore,” he stressed. “We had a hospital last year that was about to come onboard and we got the sense that growth wasn't that important to them and we passed on it. It’s so important to have a culture of lifelong learning, and that each hospital wants to find ways to evolve and get better. They’ve got to fit with who we are and with the values we live by every day.”
Loyalty, Learning, and Quality of Life
“Pushed to the brink by mounting debt, compassion fatigue, and social media attacks from angry pet owners, veterinarians are committing suicide at rates higher than the general population, often killing themselves with drugs meant for their patients.” This grim observation from the Washington Post underscores the need for groups like Encore. “Veterinary professionals are not good at taking care of themselves. End of sentence.” Lance agreed.
“Our industry continues to grossly under pay our veterinary technicians and support staff. We found that 20% of our veterinary professionals are paid below what we would call a minimum standard for a living wage. I just don't think that's acceptable,” Sprinkle said. “I talk to people daily about the fact that they can't work for less money than they’d make at Walmart or McDonald's. They go to vet school and spend all that money to not make a decent wage … something’s got to give.”
Encore’s goal is to be an employer of choice, and more. “We want to create a home where these professionals can chase after their calling with the comfort of knowing that their basic needs are going to be taken care of. Our wage and salary program brings people up to the levels that are competitive where they live.” Sprinkle’s passion for professional development is evident in Encore’s very first hire: Director of Training and Education, Michelle Winter. “We know from our experience that when you invest in people’s growth their loyalty grows, and if we can keep people engaged and happy at the workplace the pets and the clients will benefit. That’s why we brought Michelle on first, and why we focus on our Performance Academy.”
The Encore Performance Academy offers a host of in-person and online educational opportunities, designed and delivered by veterinary pros who understand the business and it’s complex medical and interpersonal challenges commonly experienced. “Delivery is designed in microlearning units, which are sets of short ‘learning chunks’ that build a meaningful knowledge base,” Winter pointed out.
“We prioritize culture and leadership topics because of the broad influence positive culture and leadership have in the veterinary practice setting,” she added. “We influence and open minds about the power of professional development through education and training. And as minds open, we have a library of options available that are specific to the unique facets of growing a veterinary practice and the veterinary professionals within it.”
In summing up his devotion to improving the lives of veterinarians Lance said, “There are core foundational things that make great businesses stand out from the rest. I'm really proud to be trying to bring a lot of that to veterinary medicine with an awesome team. We have a vision for what a great company in veterinary medicine should look like. When I read every year the national lists showing the greatest places to work and I see banks, financial institutions, and grocery stores I say, ‘Why not veterinary medicine?’ We plan to be there.”
Encore Vet Group partners with veterinary hospitals to support their efforts in creating great work environments for all. Our community is unique and combines clinical and operational experience to help further promote internal leadership at your practice. We will lighten the administrative load, so you can focus on what’s important, pets! We care about your future and want to collaborate within our group to share ideas, learn from each other, and advance the complete veterinary experience for employees, pet parents, and pets! Connect with Encore Vet Group to join our passionate community and create better lives for pets and people.