Ex-senator swaps political braying for sound of household pets

John Ensign has gone from one zoo to another.

The former junior senator from Nevada has traded the braying of donkeys and trumpeting of elephants for the meows and barks of household pets.

Ensign, a veterinarian, plans to open his new Boca Park Animal Hospital Friday at 1050 S. Rampart Blvd., with an open house Friday and Saturday. What he said he hopes to show off is a new business model that blends cutting-edge care with Ritz-Carlton services.

“We have great veterinarians in Las Vegas, we really do. With my hospital, I’m just trying to be the best I can possibly be,” he said. “You see a lot of pet resorts that aren’t hospitals, and you see hospitals that are great but don’t really have that pet-resort feel. We’re combining both, in a very compassionate setting.”

The clinic is a new beginning for Ensign, who resigned from the Senate in 2011 amid an ethics scandal. It’s also a fresh chapter for the 9,000-square-foot building, which is 50 percent to 100 percent bigger than a typical animal hospital’s 4,500 square feet to 6,000 square feet. The building housed a buffet of failed restaurants before Ensign bought it in a short sale for $1.95 million in November.

That history didn’t discourage Ensign. He said he believes his will be the business that finally makes it at the site.

Veterinary care is definitely in demand. Spending on pets is one of the few parts of the economy that grew unchecked in the recession, said Nelson Tressler, executive managing director of Las Vegas commercial brokerage Newmark Grubb Knight Frank. Dog owners dropped $19.1 billion on veterinary care in 2011, up 18.6 percent from 2006, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. Spending on cats crawled up 4.2 percent in the same period, to $7.4 billion.

Total pet spending was $53.3 billion in 2012, up from $38.5 billion in 2006, according to the American Pet Products Association.

There’s so much demand for veterinary care that Elena Pederson, a veterinarian who’s owned Advanced Animal Care Hospital across the parking lot from Ensign for 11 years, said she’s sure the neighborhood has room for them both.

“There are multiple shopping centers around Las Vegas with two or three different (animal) doctors, and they are doing well. So I don’t think I will have any kind of trouble,” Pederson said. “There are plenty of pets who need to be taken care of. I’m doing really well. I’m happy he’s opening a clinic, and I hope he will do terrific as well.”

Boca Park Animal Hospital has a good shot at succeeding, Tressler said. For one thing, the clinic’s owner is well-known, and that could draw prospective clients. The location is conspicuous as well.

“It’s not a convenience store or a fast-food restaurant, where access and parking are key,” Tressler said. “Destination locations, like veterinary clinics, can take spots that aren’t optimal. And the visibility far outweighs other issues. Every day, when they drive by, people will know a vet’s office is there.”

But this isn’t just any vet’s office. Ensign seems out to prove to clients that he loves their pets almost as much as they do. If travel club AAA gave out diamonds for pet clinics the way it does for Strip hotels, Boca Park would rank with the Four Seasons or Mandarin Oriental. With private financing from a business associate, Ensign spent $800,000 on remodeling and $450,000 on equipment. The check-in desk has marble counters, tile floors and ironwork. The clinic kept the building’s restaurant-grade fire sprinklers and added high-density insulation to muffle noise and slash pet stress. An air-filtration system cuts dust, dander and odors.

For boarding pets, Boca Park has a 1,600-square-foot exercise area and 18- to 70-square-foot “suites” with names like “Penthouse,” “Executive” and “VIP.” Each canine suite has a flat-screen tuned into the DOGTV channel, plus an Internet camera so owners can watch their dogs online. Prices range from $35 to $150 a night, though space in a simpler, freestanding dog kennel starts at $18 per night.

Nor does Boca Park skimp on care. It has on-site ultrasound and echocardiography, endoscopy equipment and a digital X-ray machine. Lasers help with arthritis, back pain and healing of wounds. The lab has blood-work results in 12 minutes. A blood-vessel cauterizer in the OR cuts an hour-long splenectomy to half an hour. The hospital is paperless, with electronic medical records. Even the lab microscope is cutting-edge, with a camera connected to monitors in exam rooms, so vets can show owners what they see.

And when Boca Park Animal Hospital can no longer help their fuzzy buddy, pet owners can use the clinic’s private hospice and euthanasia suite.

The services and technologies don’t attract only pet owners. Ensign said it’s been a breeze to find workers, something he said he expected to struggle with, given feedback from other vets on how tough hiring is.

“It’s a new opportunity, and there’s a lot of room for growth,” said veterinary nurse Oneida Moreno, as she prepped the OR Tuesday to receive patients. “I want to advance my skills with the technologies Dr. Ensign provides.”

Boca Park may be the swankiest pet clinic Ensign’s launched, but it’s not his first. He opened West Flamingo Animal Hospital, Southern Nevada’s first 24-hour vet clinic, in 1987, and sold it in 1994. He opened South Shores Animal Hospital in 1995, but sold the clinic after he joined the Senate in 2001, because rules prohibit senators from owning professional practices.

He didn’t practice again until 2011, when he returned to West Flamingo Animal Hospital as a general practitioner four days a week. He added one day a week spaying and neutering at Heaven Can Wait Animal Society. He completed rotations in ultrasound, echocardiograms and dentistry to update his skills. He spent six to eight hours a day buried in research journals.

“It took a lot to get back into it, but I feel very good about where I am now,” Ensign said.

Where he is now is a world with new models of practice management. To compete for business, clinics need more equipment than ever – a veterinary arms race Ensign said he needed to embrace to lure customers in an established neighborhood. He got ideas for interior upgrades by looking online at other clinics, as well as tapping into his experiences as an intern in the 1980s. His biggest takeaway? The importance of employees.

“The people are our hospital’s best feature, hands-down. You can have the best equipment in the world, but you still need the right people. We want customers to be greeted in a friendly, loving environment, and if we care about each other at the hospital, it shows when people walk through the door.”

During his tour, Ensign seemed both relaxed and eager to open. Ask him if he misses Washington, D.C., and you can’t even finish the question before he issues an emphatic “no.” The only time he brought up politics unprompted was when a reporter asked how big he wanted his nine-employee clinic to get. He smiled and said he didn’t want more than 50 employees – a dig at the health coverage mandate on businesses that pass that threshold under Obamacare, the insurance-reform law Ensign voted against.

“I still pay attention to politics, and I care deeply, but it’s someone else’s turn now. I’m as excited as I was when I first got out of veterinary school. I’m having so much fun,” he said.

Ensign said he’d like to add half a dozen doctors, including a board-certified surgeon. He also said he hopes to buy a CT scanner, and noted that his 1.2-acre property has room for expansion.

Boca Park Animal Hospital is hosting public tours Friday and Saturday, with giveaways including $250 vaccine packages, $250 grooming packages, $500 dental packages and a grand prize of $1,000 in veterinary services.

story created on Wednesday 9/4/2013 at 11:30:09 am by Jennifer Robison

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