Sondel promoting pet projects

Dr. Jesse Sondel has always felt that you can’t get to a good place in a bad way, and he’s built his veterinary business by treating his staff well and allowing customers to choose what’s right for them and their animals. Having worked in the field before opening his own practice, he knew that what’s right for one family might not be right for another when it comes to decisions about their pets.

There is one exception, but that’s when complete strangers come in wanting their pets put down because they’ve become an inconvenience — yes, sadly, it happens — and in that case, it’s best to simply turn down their business. But to do right by animal welfare, which is the true mission of the practice, Sondel knows it begins by treating his staff, to the extent it’s possible, as he would a cute little puppy.

“I feel that way on a daily basis about my staff, as well,” he explains. “Being a small business, unlike very large businesses where when someone falls out of line, they get knocked down and the next person steps up, we’ve been working with the same people for years and we really care about each other. We watch out for each other in and away from the business.”

It’s that attention to staff detail that helped Sondel Family Veterinary Clinic earn a 2019 Dane County Small Business Award. Sondel and five other winning companies will be honored during an annual award celebration on Tuesday, July 16, starting at 4 p.m. in the Overture Center’s upstairs Promenade Hall and Lobby

Since its founding in 2013, Sondel Family Veterinary Clinic has seen unprecedented growth in Madison’s already saturated veterinary market. The clinic now has 14,500 individual active patients owned by over 7,000 clients, it has grown from a staff of three to a team of eight (two doctors, four nurses, and two receptionist/managers), and financially, it has grown from $30,000 of monthly sales to more than $2 million in annual sales. Despite boasting higher-than-average salaries for its staff, it reports annual income that is far greater than the industry-wide goal of 10–15 percent.

Dr. Sondel, a member of IB’s 2017 40 Under 40 class, attributes this growth to a number of factors, including treating people as individuals in a concierge-style manner, and relying on a relatively new, barrier-reducing way to reach pet owners. From 2013–17, the clinic capitalized on the use of social media, particularly Facebook, to spread the word. It eventually reached 20,000 Facebook followers before interest in that social media channel peaked.

He graduated from the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 2003 and his wife wanted to go to graduate school, so they moved to Portland, Oregon. While there, he did some intensive training in canine reproduction and was offered a job to come back to Madison and work at a local practice on University Avenue under the premise (not promise) that it would be sold to him or that he could take it over at some point. Since Sondel’s goal was to own a business, he accepted, but in 2012 the business was sold to a corporation that was able to pay more for it.

There were no hard feelings, but he had spent eight years building a loyal clientele, and when the new owners came in, he was given the opportunity to work for them under a very stringent noncompete clause.

“When I was told that this is the way it was going to be, and they could not make any minor changes to the noncompete that I had asked about, they kind of stiff-armed me a little bit. I was given 48 hours to sign or not have a job, and at that point I decided I’d rather work for myself than somebody else. So, I took the leap of faith and we founded the practice here.”

The clinic opened its doors in the beginning of 2013, and it has been growing steadily ever since. Asked how he was able to provide above-average salary and solid benefits so quickly, Sondel notes that prioritizing the right things helped make it possible. “It’s interesting how often in small businesses, people say, ‘Oh, I can’t afford to pay my staff benefits’ and what not. It’s analogous to a client who comes into me and their dog has a broken arm and they decide, ‘Well, I can’t afford to fix a broken arm, but I can, over Christmas, afford to go with my family and five people on a cruise.’

“At least in my situation [as a business owner], the number-one value that I have are my people,” he adds. “The number-one asset our clinic has is its people. I care about those people. I feel that if they can’t make a suitable living, and if they are worried about their own health, and they are worried about not having a retirement and things like that, they are not going to work as hard for me here and I’m going to lose them.”

Part of his challenge is to help staff cope with those difficult moments when they might have to tell a family that the humane thing to do is put down their suffering pet. It’s obviously tough on the pet owner, but it can’t be fun for clinic staffers, either. “The circle of life has its ups and its downs, and being a veterinarian, people think ‘Oh, it’s great, you get to pet puppies,’ but on a daily basis, I have to give people bad news,” he acknowledges. “I have to help them make decisions, and I have to sadly be there for clients in the worst of times. I always tell my clients, ‘The day that this is easy for me is the day I’m in the wrong profession.’”

Members of Sondel’s staff also have to deliver bad news, but he tries to shield them from that as much as possible because it can contribute to burn out. He would prefer that veterinary technicians not administer a euthanasia solution to animals because he’s seen how this is emotionally hard on people. “The buck stops with me, as tough as it is. I’m always going to be the one that gives the final injection, and it’s important to be there to hold the client’s hand during it.”

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However, the toughest thing about this profession is not putting down a 15-year-old cat that has lived a good, full life. What’s really tough is when a stranger shows up with a younger animal that has an inconvenient problem and wants Sondel to put the animal to sleep. “The three-year-old cat who is peeing in the house, and it might have diabetes, or a bad urinary tract infection, and the client is going to decline to pay $200 in medicine to figure out what’s going on and just wants you to put the cat to sleep,” he says.

“As rare as that is, it does happen in our profession, and then it’s really, really tough for the staff and it’s tough for me as a veterinarian. In looking out for your staff, it’s fair to say to your staff, ‘This really sucks, and I don’t like it, either.’ It’s also fair to say as a business owner at times to someone, ‘For the ethics of myself and my staff, I don’t think we’re the right veterinary clinic for you,’ and I do have the right to not provide service, as well.”

Sondel Family Veterinary Clinic and five other Dane County Small Business Award winners will be honored during the annual Dane County Small Business awards celebration on Tuesday, July 16, starting at 4 p.m. in the Overture Center’s upstairs Promenade Hall and Lobby.

Thankfully, one alternative is the Dane County Humane Society, which has doctors and vet students and would be happy to care for the animal and find it another home.

Elsewhere in the community, Sondel’s clinic has taken aim at both human and canine cancer, and so the focus of philanthropy was a no brainer. Sondel’s father, Paul Sondel, was the chair of the pediatric cancer center at UW–Madison and American Family Children’s Hospital, and he can now tell the parents of children diagnosed with leukemia that thanks to research, their child now has an estimated 90 percent chance of survival if the cancer is detected in its early stages. Forty years ago, when he began his career as a pediatric oncologist, if a child was diagnosed with leukemia, he sadly let the parents know their child had about an estimated 15 percent chance of survival, but he expressed hope that their child can be in that 15 percent.

“That’s only one generation in which such a huge change has been made for kids with cancer, and we’re trying to do that for dogs, too, but it’s driven by money and availability of drugs and things like that,” says Jesse Sondel.

He looks forward to a day when he can say to pet owners that their cancer-stricken dog has a 90-plus percent chance of survival, which is why the clinic supports canine cancer research organizations such as Czar’s Promise and PuppyUp. “There are not as not as many people who get together and say, ‘Let’s throw our resources into raising money for canine cancer research,’” Sondel notes, “but Czar’s Promise is working to do so.”

Pat on the back

Given that his business peers, including past Dane County Small Business Award winners, were involved in choosing the 2019 winners, the award means a great deal to Dr. Sondel, especially because the business was formed only six years ago. “The award, frankly, is a pat on the back to say, ‘Hey, we’re doing the right things in our community for not only our clients but our staff,’” Sondel states. “This business is built on doing the right things the right way.”

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