Brothers' Tampa-based veterinary company in booms in recession
TAMPA - Hospitals for patients with two legs are bracing for the Affordable Care Act, but a hospital chain for the furry, four-legged kind is expanding at breakneck speed. BluePearl Veterinary Partners LLC of Tampa quietly has grown from some 200 employees in 2008 to 1,200 employees today. Founded by two brothers from Johannesburg, South Africa, BluePearl aggressively has expanded by opening new locations and acquiring others. BluePearl's owners, Darryl and Neil Shaw, now count 26 hospitals in 11 states and are looking for more. The company operates below the radar because it gets most of it business from referrals from general practitioner vets, not from walk-in customers. Its Tampa hospital off Busch Boulevard might be described as Tampa General Hospital for man's best friend.On a recent day, a pit bull slouches on a table under the spell of anesthesia, awaiting radiation therapy. A somber-eyed golden retriever is being massaged in the intensive care unit. Other rooms are set aside for animal ophthalmology and exotics such as birds, ferrets and snakes. BluePearl got a big measure of publicity in 2010 when it performed an MRI on a coral shark. It may have gotten its biggest plug this month when Inc. Magazine ranked it 36th on its Hire Power list of companies that are creating jobs and rebuilding the economy. Much of the company's growth came during the recession, as most businesses scaled back. The Shaw brothers hail from Johannesburg but immigrated to the United States with their parents while still young. Their father has been a general practitioner vet in the region for many years, and the brothers teamed up to form their own veterinary practice in 1996. Neil, 44, is a trained veterinarian, while Darryl, 46, got an MBA from Northwestern University and serves as chief executive. Early on, "I answered the phones at the front desk and walked the dogs in the back, and they did everything in between," Darryl said. For the first dozen years, the Shaws built a local following under the business name Florida Veterinary Specialists and expanded modestly. They opened two animal hospitals in Tampa and Brandon, ventured out of state with a hospital in New York and merged with another vet in Kansas City. The company has exploded in the last four years. The brothers changed the company's name to BluePearl in 2008 and tapped into their relationships in the close-knit world of veterinary specialists to identify merger targets. Through a combination of these mergers and opening hospitals, BluePearl has grown from four hospitals to 26 since then. Its 1,200 employees include 250 to 300 vets, Darryl Shaw said. The Shaw brothers are the single biggest shareholders in the company, but they collectively own less than 50 percent of BluePearl. BluePearl's veterinarians and other professionals own the rest of the company, he said. As it grows, Darryl Shaw said he's aware that many companies have gotten too big, too fast and taken on too much debt. He said BluePearl has funded new hospitals out of its own revenues and by conservatively taking out loans. BluePearl held its own during the recession and it expects to grow even more, fueled largely by Americans' love of their pets. "As animals went from farm animals to the yard, to the kitchen, and sometimes the bedroom, we've seen a growth in what we do," Darryl Shaw said.
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