Tammy Cleveland didn’t anticipate owning a business at the tender age of 28, but when the opportunity arose to run her own veterinary practice, she just couldn’t say no.
Cleveland, who bought the Columbia Veterinary Center from founder Tom Brown in 1993, made that fateful decision when she was fresh out of veterinary school. Originally she had planned to work with Brown, who opened the center in 1969, for several years learning the ropes until he retired, but Brown had a health issue that ended up speeding the timeline.
“I decided it was an opportunity I couldn’t walk away from,” Cleveland said. “Ultimately I did want to own a practice, just not right out of school. The medical issue was unanticipated, though. When I decided to purchase it I actually had no money in my account.”
Brown let Cleveland buy the business with regular payments and no money down, which helped him retire and her purchase the center over time.
And it turned out to be the right decision, because 26 years later, she’s grown the business from six to 24 employees, vastly expanded its client base and the center is now poised to break ground on a brand new $3 million building.
“We’re hoping to begin construction in November,” Cleveland said of the new facility, which will be behind the center’s current facility east of Hazel Dell off 78th Street. “We’re also planning to add another doctor soon.”
The new facility will help the center better use new technologies. The current building is old and straining under the center’s growth, she added.
“It’s hard to practice the level of medicine we do in such an old facility,” Cleveland said. “Our new building, right now we have plans out to the county and we’re talking to an architect.”
The practice covers a full range of services for dogs, cats and “pocket pets” like hamsters, rabbits, mice and the occasional turtle. The center provides full preventative care, vaccines, custom tailored vaccines, health certifications for travel, full dental services, radiology and other X-rays for surgery. In the early days, the center also did larger animals like horses, but that changed as Cleveland decided to focus on household animals.
“Our medicine, surgery, dentistry has all progressed as science does, so our equipment has become more advanced,” Cleveland said. “We have digital X-ray, digital dental X-rays, we’ve moved with the times.”
While she says she never really faced much adversity in her career because of her gender, her young age at the time when she bought the center did cause her some problems.
“The first three or four years I faced adversity because of how young I was,” Cleveland said. “When somebody wanted to talk to the next level of management, they’d meet me and they’d think I wasn’t old enough.”
It took some time to establish herself, and age did the rest, but now she’s a highly respected Clark County veterinarian with clients who have been returning with pets for generations.
“Dr. Cleveland really entrusts the staff, lets us be free thinking and lets us come to her with ideas,” said Wendy LeMieux, who’s worked as a veterinary technician at the center for 21 years. “She’s very open-minded and she practices amazing medicine. And many, many of our clients have become friends.”
Oddly enough, all four of the center’s doctors are female, and so is LeMieux as head technician.
“That’s not by design, but that’s how it ended up,” Cleveland said.
LeMieux said having an all woman team at the helm seems to make life very smooth at the office.
“The doctors all work really well as a team,” LeMieux said. “We don’t have some of the male doctor egos that I’ve seen over the years. And all of our doctors have really supported each other and the staff.”
Through her years at the helm, the center hasn’t really needed to purchase advertisements to draw new clients. Mostly, the growth has come from client recommendations, Cleveland said.
“We rely a lot on word of mouth,” she said. “We have clients that have been coming here since Tom still owned it, and they’ve brought their friends. We do use a little bit of social media, but that’s about it.”
The goal is really to provide a well-rounded suite of care for pets, and focusing on that has helped her grow her business, Cleveland said.
“Everybody works well together, and the common goal is advocating for our patients,” Cleveland said. “The human-animal bond is important to all of us. We try to stay as fear-free as possible.”
Her advice to other women looking to get into veterinary medicine? “It’s important for anyone who’s interested in going into veterinary medicine to work in a veterinary hospital for a while to get a feel for what it’s actually like,” Cleveland said. “The job can definitely have its non-glorious days. So, I think people sometimes have a romanticized vision of the job because they love their own pets so much. But I think it’s important to get in and see everything as it is.”
After getting that experience at the center, a handful of her veterinary technicians have gone on to become veterinarians.
“We’ve actually had four people who started with us and then applied to veterinary school,” Cleveland said. “One is in her fourth year and two are back in the Portland/Vancouver area now.”