American Dream Achieved
IBA, as an approximately fifty-year old business brokerage firm serving the entrepreneurial community of the Pacific Northwest, has been uniquely positioned since before the American Bicentennial celebration of 1976 to witness and hear the stories of thousands of people who have lived the American dream through entrepreneurship creating beloved businesses by employees, customers, and communities while finding personal fulfillment and financial prosperity through execution of their ideas, hard work, perseverance, and ability. In an effort to share these stories heard throughout the years by our team of business brokers, who are commonly regarded as the “best listeners” in the M&A industry, IBA has retained highly regarded writer, Nesha Ruther, to tell their stories. It is our goal to share one story a month. It is our hope that you will find the stories as inspirational and motivational as they are to us and the buyers who bought the businesses in IBA facilitated transactions in Washington, Oregon, and Alaska.
The Story of Dr. Bob VanderPol
By Nesha Ruther
Dr. Bob VanderPol grew up in a family of entrepreneurs. His father owned a freight business, and Dr. Bob spent many of his childhood summers working on the freight dock with his father and two brothers.
Dr. Bob initially went to Seattle Pacific College University to study business at the behest of his father. After two years, however, he decided that he wanted to go to veterinary school. Growing up, Dr. Bob had always loved being around animals. His family owned a little farm, and much of his childhood was spent playing with and caring for animals. “I had been around animals and loved animals,” he says, “So I thought, “Well, boy, I should go for veterinary medicine.”
The nearest Veterinary school was at Washington State University, roughly 300 miles from where he lived. He switched schools in 1961 and never looked back.
After four years in veterinary school at Washington State, Dr. Bob graduated and was given the opportunity to do a residency at the University of Minnesota. “I got paid to go back to school, which was a sweet deal,” he says.
After finishing his residency, he stayed at the university for a few years, working as an instructor. He then opened his first practice in Coon Rapids, Minnesota. He also began buying up land and selling property to supplement his income. “Eventually, I got into building apartments,” he says. These two businesses: veterinary medicine and real estate, would become the pillars of Dr. Bob’s career.
For Dr. Bob’s new practice, he purchased a plot of land and began construction on a building. After a few years of working and growing it into a successful business, he sold it for $80,000. “It was a sweet deal, and $80,000 was a lot of money back then.”
After selling his business, he continued self-developing land and building apartment complexes, at one point owning nearly 100 units. Simultaneously, he opened and sold several other veterinary practices and opened a large animal practice as well.
“It was not uncommon back then to have what we call a mixed practice,” he says, referring to a veterinary practice that cares for both large and small animals. This kind of generalized practice is less common today among veterinarians, who tend to stay within their specializations.
When Dr. Bob was obtaining his degree, he was required to work on small and large animals, giving him the experience he needed. He also received a license that permitted him to work on animals of his choosing.
Dr. Bob loved all the animals he worked on over the years. When asked if he had a favorite, he said no. “I like just about all of them; I like dogs, I like cats, and I like cows.”
Eventually, Dr. Bob sold two of his apartment buildings, a seventeen-unit building and a four-unit building. He used the money from the sales to purchase more real estate, which proved a valuable investment. “It all turned to gold,” he says.
As time progressed, Dr. Bob began spending more time on his real-estate business and less on his veterinary practice. However, he still maintained the business as an additional source of income. “I was a good entrepreneur,” he says, “I could get things rolling, and then somebody else could come in and take over.”
By owning his practice but outsourcing much of the actual work to other veterinarians, he was able to maintain the business while also spending time growing his real-estate ventures.
After several years in Minnesota, an opportunity arose in South America. He worked at a language school in Costa Rica for a year, then moved to Columbia, where he joined the organization World Vision.
World Vision is a humanitarian aid, development, and advocacy organization that provides for impoverished communities around the globe. At the time, some of Columbia’s most vulnerable citizens were farmers struggling to feed and care for their animals. Dr. Bob used his practice to give animals the care needed to continue to sustain the families that owned them. “I worked on a flock of hair sheep,” he said, “we had thousands of them.”
He returned to the United States after five years but did not want to continue living in Minnesota. “My kids were growing up, and they didn’t know their grandparents. They didn’t know their aunts and uncles.” He relocated his family back to Seattle and opened a small animal practice in Redmond, Washington.
It was then that he first encountered IBA and the lead broker in its veterinary practice sale division, Michael Kovsky. Michael Kovsky identified a buyer interested in both the practice and the building that Dr. Bob owned. Negotiated and facilitated by IBA, Dr. Bob was able to sell both for $900,000.
This one deal grew into a lifelong relationship, and they would go on to collaborate on the sale of ten businesses.
“Michael Kovsky was also a veterinarian,” he says, “so he knew the ins and outs of how to make money in the field. I started some from scratch, but I also bought some practices that were run down and not doing well. We changed the bushes and got some new clients coming in the door,” he says.
To grow these businesses, they advertised heavily, primarily relying on coupon mailing techniques to garner new clients.
Dr. Bob and Michael Kovsky were an excellent fit, as both were resourceful entrepreneurs and veterinarians. Michael’s assistance took some of the logistical burden of selling a business off Dr. Bob’s shoulders, allowing him to both maintain his practices and continue his real-estate ventures.
“Even though I had sold practices by myself, trust me, it goes a lot smoother with somebody that knows what they’re doing,” he says. Having a partner in IBA also aided Dr. Bob in managing his time between his multiple ventures. “You don’t have the time to be out there looking for buyers,” he says.
Dr. Bob recommends that anyone looking to sell a business pay attention to the state of their books and make sure they have accountants who can keep the documents and financials in order. “I wasn’t a very good bookkeeper myself,” he says. He accredits IBA with being very good at knowing which documentation was needed to show a business was making money.
Dr. Bob sites this as the most important thing for those looking to sell their business. Ultimately, having proof that your business makes money is critical and having someone who can testify to that side of your business is extremely helpful. “[Michael Kovsky] always put the business’ best foot forward, so to speak.”
Ironically, when Dr. Bob was looking to purchase a business, he often did the opposite; he looked for low-performing businesses he could buy cheaply and help rehabilitate. “I was accused of being a bottom feeder,” he says with a laugh.
This was a valuable skill in the veterinary industry, where many are so focused on the medical aspect that they neglect the business side of running a practice. “I had the capability to get [the businesses] rolling; most veterinarians don’t know how to get a business rolling.”
Dr. Bob credits this insight to his entrepreneurial family and watching his father run his own business. Dr. Bob’s skill only grew with the addition of Michael Kovsky and IBA into the equation. “Michael Kovsky came along, and we spent many, many lunch dates together discussing how to get things rolling.”
In layman’s terms: “He made me millions of dollars, that’s another way of putting it,” Dr. Bob says. In looking for a business partner, Dr. Bob advises looking for “somebody that has the chutzpah to put it together.”
Over the years, Dr. Bob saw Gregory Kovsky grow and develop as a business broker at IBA, including benefiting from the mentorship of his father.
Dr. Bob is now partially retired, having been out of the veterinary practice for a year-and-a-half. He occasionally still sees patients, although mostly limiting it to his friends. While he no longer treats sick animals, he occasionally does vaccinations or puts a very ill animal to sleep.
He now refers to himself as a “graduate entrepreneur.”
“I had it in my DNA,” he says, “I was always a businessperson, I always was. Even in veterinary school, I’d go 90 miles in the middle of the night from Pullman to Spokane and pick up dogs for the veterinary school.” When Dr. Bob graduated, he even sold that business to another student.
“Most people have an employee mentality,” he says, “they want an assured paycheck at the end of two weeks. And it’s harder to be an entrepreneur. Probably in the end more profitable, but it’s harder.”
“It costs money to build and expand a business, and so it gets discouraging sometimes.” These challenges often make people less inclined to strike out on their own, preferring the safety of a secure job.
When asked if Dr. Bob ever felt the pressure of entrepreneurship and thought about quitting, he says yes. “Lots of times I thought about it, but only for about 20 seconds. There always seemed to be another opportunity that would come up.”
Dr. Bob believes he gained this entrepreneur mentality from his father, whose freight company still exists today. Dr. Bob’s father ran the company with his brothers, whose sons then took it over. “My cousins took it over and were very successful.”
When asked if he feels he has lived the American Dream, Dr. Bob gave a simple yet powerful answer. “Well,” he said, “I sent six kids to college.”
Considering the full scope of his career, however, there are many ways Dr. Bob has fulfilled the American Dream. He began working for his father in a blue-collar industry and received an education that allowed him to build a lifelong career.
Not only that, but Dr. Bob used his knowledge to help better the lives of some of the world’s most vulnerable in Columbia. He expanded his reach to real estate and worked to revitalize veterinary practices across the state. Throughout his career, he has owned 14 practices and over a hundred apartment units.
This entrepreneurial spirit allowed Dr. Bob to become the successful businessman he is today.
Nesha Ruther is a writer and editor from Takoma Park, Maryland. She received her BA in English Creative Writing from the University of Wisconsin Madison, where she received a full tuition scholarship through the First Wave program based on academic and creative merits. She was a 2016 Young Arts winner in spoken word, a 2016 winner of the DC Commission of the Arts Larry Neal Writing Award, a 2017 winner of the Mochila Review Writing Award, which was judged by Nikki Giovanni, a 2020 winner of the University of Wisconsin’s Eudora Welty Fiction Thesis Award, and a 2022 Tin House Winter Workshop Participant. She has been commissioned to write and perform for the National Education Association, and has had work published in NarrativeNortheast, Angles Literary Magazine, Beltway Quarterly and more. She currently lives in Cincinnati Ohio and is the Lead Manuscript Developer at Holon Publishing and Collective Press.