During the four years Dr. Marta Lista spent obtaining her degree from the prestigious University of Florida School of Veterinary Medicine, she learned many things. She learned about gross anatomy and embryology, studied parasitology, pharmacology and gastroenterology. She even got the pig talk, a lecture given by a professor to ensure students would pass the obscure but compulsory porcine section of the national boards.
And after graduating in 2000, her awards and achievements clearly reflected her success.
Her former dean chose her and just one other vet in the state to serve on the schools admissions committee; she was elected president of the South Florida Veterinary Medical Association; and in 2005 and again in 2006, her peers named her South Florida Veterinarian of the Year.
Yet, four years after Lista bought and took over the Trail Animal Hospital, a fixture on Southwest Eighth Street in Miami for a remarkable six decades, she found herself struggling. She was working six days a week, juggling the duties of being a solo practitioner while keeping an eye on the books, the staff, the inventory and the other demands of running her practice.
Veterinary school, it turns out, prepared her to be an awesome vet, but not such an awesome business owner.
They teach us the medicine but not the business and Im sure a lot of vets my age or older would have the same experience, she said. Thats harder than the medicine, for sure.
So Lista contacted The Miami Herald and asked for help making over her practice. The Herald, in turn, enlisted Luis M. Zuniga, a counselor with SCORE Miami-Dade, which offers a host of services to small businesses, including counseling, seminars on business practices and tutorials for programs like Intuits QuickBooks, the hugely popular accounting software for small businesses.
Zuniga, a retired executive and engineer, has more than 35 years of experience in executive sales and marketing with a wide range of expertise that includes setting up multinational corporations in Europe, Latin America and North America as well as a successful pet grooming franchise he founded with his son after retiring.
After chatting with Lista by phone, Zuniga paid a visit to Trail Animal Hospital. Part of what attracted Lista to the practice was not only its location on busy Eighth Street, but the clinic itself, a freestanding building that did not require the lease that came with other practices shed looked at in strip malls.
Id been looking for a while and there were very few for sale, she said, explaining that she knew the vet who owned Trail and thought he might be getting ready to retire. I waited five years and he finally called.
She immediately freshened up the building, giving it a new coat of bright white paint, striped awnings and a new sign. Exam rooms and a surgical suite got new stainless steel, thanks to her uncle, who owns a fabricating business. She installed boarding areas that include kennels for big animals and Plexiglas condos for smaller ones. The cat condo even includes a flat screen TV that plays a loop of a fish tank.
Zuniga found the clinic itself in great shape and only made one suggestion: a new sign, since the one Lista installed over the existing sign is small in comparison to nearby businesses and hidden by surrounding buildings.
With the offices in good shape, Zuniga turned his attention to cash flow and asked Lista and her office manager, Maria Reyes, to dive into their finances. And this, as with many small businesses, is where problems began.
Zuniga found that Lista and Reyes managed the books enough to pay bills, but not much more. Lista knew expenses had risen with the cost of medicine, but hadnt plotted it out. A year-to-year comparison he requested didnt even list the same items.
I dont have a grip on the financials, she conceded, sheepishly admitting that she usually hands off the days revenues to her mother to deposit because she was more focused on the medical side of her practice.
The object here is not to get you to be a financial expert, Zuniga said. The object is to get you to look at your business and say, for example, Im spending too much on medical supplies.
Zuniga advised Lista to step back and make a serious decision about what she wanted from her business. Is she happy with its current size? If so, he suggested looking at costs to increase revenue. But if she wants to grow it, then shell need to focus more heavily on marketing.
Getting the cash flow under control is key for any business. But for a small business its really key, Zuniga said. Youre mostly concerned with the health of the pet, he explained to Lista, but this is still a business.
Over the course of the makeover, Lista considered sending Reyes to one of SCOREs tutorials on QuickBooks. But ultimately she decided to hire a bookkeeper who will visit the office weekly to organize and maintain her accounts and provide a regular revenue report.
Zuniga was relieved. It will release you from a lot of non-essential work, he explained.
Lista also decided to work on expanding her online presence, a valuable and virtually free marketing tool for small businesses. We want a really dynamic website that will show up in the right places, she said.
Zuniga explained that typically in the corporate world, businesses spend five to 10 percent of their revenue on marketing, including Internet marketing.
But it depends on your business. Proctor & Gamble sells vitamins by ads, but in your business, you dont have to spend more than 5 percent of revenues. The key is where you advertise.
Lista had been spending about $39 a month for a canned website format that provided information about her, the clinic, pictures of patients and other details about services. But she decided to hire a website developer to make the site more dynamic with an online pharmacy and other tools that allow customers to order medicine, access forms and reserve boarding space.
And while the practice has a Facebook page, Lista plans to make more use of it by doing things like posting pictures and videos of patients that she hopes will generate interest from customers who then share or like the postings. She has also signed on to Yelp and Angies List.
Zuniga warned her that once the website and other sites are created, they must be maintained, particularly her website.
Its a living document, he said.
Lista explained that in addition to marketing, she really wants to provide as much information as possible to clients.
We try to educate the client as much as possible, she explained. We want to be upfront, so they dont have sticker shock.
Another issue that troubled Lista was employee turnover. Her staff is small, with about 10 employees including Reyes, who is the only one to receive health insurance. During the makeover, one of her senior vet techs who had been with the practice for four years announced he was leaving. Lista felt lucky to have had the tech, a computer engineer who immigrated from Cuba with his wife, also a vet, and felt there was nothing much she could to convince him to stay. But rather than hire another tech, Lista decided to use the extra money as incentives to other employees and start rotating the position of senior tech.
As the practice makes more, they should make more and I want them to know that, that this is a team, she said.
She is also exploring more health insurance options. In the past, she offered it, but none of the employees were interested. But because she believes she needs to provide it, shes looking for options that might be more attractive to the staff.
If we can grow a little more, then we can offer the staff more, she said.
Ultimately, Lista would like to increase the size of the business so she can hire another vet.
Two heads are better than one, she said. I think the staff would like a break from me and I think I would enjoy it more to have another vet.
By the end of the month long makeover, Lista was feeling more confidant about the changes and the advice she received from Zuniga.
Ive got the medicine down, she said. Now I definitely want to focus on the finances the business.