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Coast veterinarian couple got SBA loan for expansion after being turned down by banks

By BECKY GILLETTE
mbj@msbusiness.com

Drs. Jennifer and Jeffrey Sutton, owners of the Gulf Coast Veterinary Emergency Hospital at 8144 E. Oaklawn Road, Biloxi, and Beach View Veterinary Hospital, 132 Porter Ave., Biloxi, went to nearly a dozen banks seeking funds to expand in 2006. While they had a good business they started in 2003, they were disappointed trying to get financing for an expansion.

“The banks all commented on our impressive business plan and concept, but they still turned us down to expand the emergency clinic,” said Dr. Jennifer Sutton. “Even when it became clear that our firstyear sales were exceeding projections, we still couldn’t secure the financing we needed to meet our long-term growth ne because we had a high debt ratio. And while we had a good track record and credit, we didn’t have a lot of collateral to put toward the expansion.”

The Suttons sought help from the Small Business Mississippi District Office and through a class learned about SBA-backed loan programs, which help small businesses that are creditworthy but cannot qualify for conventional financing. The SBA-backed 504 Certified Development Company Loan program allows those who are eligible to purchase or renovate real estate with a competitive fixed-rate mortgage.

“During the loan process, Leon Darby and Matt Koons with Three Rivers Planning and Development District were instrumental in enabling our dream to come to fruition,” she said. “They have the heart of teachers, helping us to become better business owners.”

Gulf Coast Veterinary Emergency Hospital secured a 504 loan in 2015 for $1.1 million to build their new facility for the Gulf Coast Veterinary Emergency Hospital. They went from a 2,200 square-foot-leased facility to a more than 10,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art, free-standing veterinary facility.

The 504 program requires partnering with a local bank. The SBA provides 40 percent of the loan and a local bank provides the remaining 60 percent. The total amount of the loan was $2.5 million. Their local banker is Matthew Riggins, BancorpSouth, Biloxi.

“The SBA, Three Rivers and BancorpSouth all worked tirelessly on our behalf,” she said.

The Suttons were recently named Small Business Persons of the Year by the Mississippi SBA. From business plan to expansion, the Sutton have used SBA resources for every stage of their growth.

“It is our pleasure to recognize the Sutton’s for their accomplishments and contributions as the SBA Mississippi Small Business Persons of the Year,” said SBA Mississippi District Director Janita R. Stewart. “Gulf Coast Veterinary Emergency Hospital operates an unparalleled facility with skilled staff to deliver exceptional urgent, emergency, and critical care to small and exotic animals.”

The couple also personally benefited from SBA disaster assistance.

“After Hurricane Katrina, our family qualified for a low-interest home relocation loan,” Sutton said. “I was pregnant with twins at the time we lost our house, so this SBA loan helped us get into a new home prior to their arrival. That was 14 years ago and now my girls aspire to become veterinarians just like their parents.”

In addition, they were able to purchase an existing hospital on Beach View from a retiring veterinarian in 2015.

“We recognized it was a prime location with great clientele, and we wanted to bring same compassion and care to healthy pets that we had been providing for emergencies,” Sutton said. “We really like getting to know owners when their pets are healthy, too. It is a more lasting relationship. We wanted to enjoy the whole life of pet, not just emergency situations.”

Gross revenues at that location have grown more than 300 percent since they purchased it.

The Suttons continue to expand. Recent upgrades at the Gulf Coast Veterinary Hospital include a state-of-the-art tomography machine. They are also adding on another 1,500 square feet for a pet crematorium and a blood bank.

“Our blood bank could potentially grow into a nationwide distributor of blood products—helping families across the region care for their pets,” Sutton said.

Dogs have specific blood types, and there is a hard time meeting that need nationally. Currently the Suttons get their canine blood products from Blue Ridge Veterinary Blood Bank in Virginia.

“When Jeff and I went to Washington D.C. to receive our SBA recognition, we toured the blood bank in Virginia,” Sutton said. “The manager of the blood bank is encouraging us to start our own blood bank because she definitely feels there is a need for an additional blood bank in the country. Donor dogs come in every 60 to 90 days and give blood just like at a Red Cross blood drive for humans. They are rewarded with treats and toys. Most dogs look forward to it and their owners feel like their dogs are fulfilling an important mission.”

Sutton also serves as a handler and founder/team veterinarian for the Jackson County K-9 search and rescue team. Her canine, Belle, was injured during the 2017 Hattiesburg tornado rescue operation. Sutton quickly stapled Belle’s ear back in place and worked with her until the stand-down command was given, and Belle could go into surgery.

After Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, the emergency vet hospital opened the next day to care for injured strays, beloved family pets, and search and rescue dogs. Sutton recalls hearing Gulf Coast survivors talk about how saving their animals gave them the will to endure, even while floating in floodwaters, clinging to floating debris, or waiting on rooftops to be saved.

“Many of them said, ‘I would have given up, let go, and died’ if they didn’t have their pet clinging to them as well,” she said.  “Pets become even more valuable to those who have experienced trauma.”

The Suttons and other people who won awards from the SBA Mississippi District Office were honored at a reception May 9 in Jackson during National Small Business Week. Other SBA winners include:

Young Entrepreneurs of the Year, Brandon Atwell, John Penn, Jr. and Paul Young, IV, Murky Waters, LLC, Long Beach.

Rural Financial Services Champion, Vickie M. Rivers, Renaissance Community Loan Fund, Gulfport.                                                                                                                                   

Rural Economic Development Champion, Brenda L. Turner-Buck, Jefferson County Administrator, Fayette.

8(a) Graduates of the Year, Kolean W. Sanders and J.R. Jones, SanJo Security Services, Inc., Jackson.

Lender awards went to Trustmark National Bank, Covington County Bank, Community Bank of Mississippi, First Financial Bank, BankPlus, Regions Bank, Live Oak Banking, The Cleveland State Bank, and Three Rivers Local Development Company, Inc.                            

For more information on the award ceremony and/or to nominate someone for an award, please contact Bridget Johnson-Fells at bridget.johnson@sba.gov or (228) 863-4449, ext. 225.

For more information about SBA, visit www.sba.gov.

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