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When Casey Thomas decided to start his own veterinarian practice in Junction City, he understood he was taking a leap of faith.
Starting a business often is. For years Thomas worked 60-hour work weeks, plus emergency calls on nights and weekends, treating pets in the area so that the Flint Hills Veterinary Hospital would survive. Fortunately for Thomas, the hospital has enjoyed growth and success since he started it 30 years ago.
But as he approached retirement age, and after learning that he had developed Parkinson's disease, Thomas had to start thinking about the fate of his business once he left it.
Before even starting the long, complicated process of finding a buyer, Thomas received a post card from a Kansas University School of Business program aimed at helping locate successors for rural business owners at the end of their careers. It would eventually help him sell his business to another veterinarian.
Brokering a deal
Thomas didn't want to see his business end, not just because he started it but also because "it is a vital part of the economy and provides necessary services," he said.
The vet hospital certainly isn't the only Kansas business in that boat. Wally Meyer, who directs the KU Entrepreneurship Programs and sits on the board of the RedTire program, which aided Thomas in his search for a successor, said more than 13,000 business owners in Kansas planned to retire in less than five years but had no succession plan in place.
That might be a large number, but Meyer said he isn't surprised by it. "Not to play amateur psychologist, but if you start thinking about selling your business… you know, it's the first step toward thinking about your mortality," he said. "So it's something we have increasingly found business owners tend to put off."
RedTire, launched by the KU business school in 2012, helps broker deals by providing a valuation of the business, reaching out to potential buyers and helping buyers secure financing for the purchase. The program even performs personality tests on both seller and buyer to make sure their priorities are aligned.
The Flint Hills vet hospital is the first deal that RedTire has helped broker, but Meyer said several other deals are closing in on the final stages. He hopes RedTire will complete six deals in the next 12 to 14 months.
A nice match
In Thomas' case, he needed more than a buyer. He needed a trained veterinarian to take over his practice, and one looking to be a business owner.
"It's important that you enjoy animals and you enjoy people," Thomas said. "On top of that, you have to have an interest in science and medicine."
RedTire sent out mailings to veterinarians who were five years out from graduation and so had a solid foundation of experience behind them, Meyer said.
Among the recipients was Julie Ebert, who, like Thomas, is an alum of the Kansas State University school of veterinarian medicine. By the time she got RedTire's post card, Ebert had come to the point in her career where she felt she could run a business as well as the people she had worked for.
Ebert knew of the Flint Hills vet hospital. She already practiced and lived in the area, and wanted to stay. As part of the deal, Thomas has stayed on at the hospital as Ebert learns the ropes. While Thomas has helped train her on payroll and other business systems, "She doesn't need to be taught how to be a veterinarian, because she's got that down," Thomas said.
Ebert said that learning to run a business has been a hectic process, equivalent to working two jobs at the same time. "It's been a wild and crazy fun time," she said.