In late 2021, veterinarians at Spring Green and Mazomanie Animal Hospitals decided it was time to begin planning for retirement. Mark Baenen and John Dally founded the Spring Green Clinic 18 years prior to Ann Vetter joining them as co-owners of the additional Mazomanie Clinic in 2020. Keeping quality veterinary care in this rural region of Wisconsin was of paramount interest to each of them throughout their tenure. With retirement approaching, they were concerned about the nationwide trend of corporate conglomerates acquiring independent clinics, and the impact this has on workers, animals, and the community.
The owners approached UW Center for Cooperatives (UWCC) to explore whether converting the privately-owned clinics to a worker cooperative might succeed in keeping the clinics independently owned while also meeting their financial goals. They heeded advice from UWCC and pursued the Cooperative Feasibility Grant from Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC). After being awarded the grant, they worked with The ICA Group to conduct a feasibility study, which consisted of financial analysis and a reliable valuation. Together with The ICA Group, the owners determined the best path forward was to fully finance the sale of their business to employees as a worker cooperative.
A Steering Committee of thirteen employees representing every position and pay rate was formed in August 2022. UWCC led the group through eight weeks of education and discussions that included modeling facilitation techniques, democratic decision-making processes, and bylaw development. When a final set of bylaws were created, a member stated in reflection that she “didn’t think we’d be able to agree on anything.” The group laughed and nodded their heads, agreeing that they had accomplished a level of decision making collectively that they would not have known was possible.
The buy-in requirement for membership was a significant decision the Steering Committee made together. They understood that the amount should be both accessible and meaningful. Given the relatively low wages earned by boarding staff compared to veterinary doctors, affordability for all members was a concern. After carefully facilitated discussion, the group came to an agreement that members could pay the total buy-in amount upfront; or make a down payment by purchasing a single unit of membership stock valued at 30% of the total buy-in amount required and have the remaining balance deducted from payroll over the course of six months.
Since incorporation on January 1, 2023, the clinics, now known as Cooperative Veterinary Care, have been operating successfully with 20 members, and all members also serve on the board. With support from UWCC, the directors are learning how to govern the cooperative and transition from their roles as employees to worker-owners. The previous owners continue to work at the cooperative as veterinary doctors and members. It is their hope that as they transition out of their positions within the cooperative, that they can educate other veterinarians about worker cooperative conversions as one of the viable options for succession planning.
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