A Tale of Two Cities
Debbie and Jim Delker met at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM), graduating together in 1996. Afterward, they started their veterinary careers in South Dakota and Minnesota, working as associate veterinarians and dreaming of owning their own practice one day. But when an unexpected and far-flung opportunity came across their paths, their lives were forever changed.
As they searched for the perfect practice around the Twin Cities area, Debbie’s uncle Steve Mersch, who graduated from the CVM in 1976, was selling his practice. And while Mersch’s practice, Twin Cities Veterinary Clinic, sounded nearby based on its name, it was in fact across the country—situated squarely between Soldotna and Kenai, Alaska. A very different set of “twin cities.”
Breaking New Ground
Back in the late 1970s, Mersch moved to Anchorage to be closer to family immediately after graduating from veterinary school. One of his brothers, a physician and Debbie’s father, had moved up to Soldotna, Alaska, to begin his career in family practice. Then, in 1978, Mersch moved to the Kenai peninsula and in 1981, he and his wife started Twin Cities Veterinary Clinic. Mersch says the name came to him since he knew the clinic would be serving the two neighboring communities—there wasn’t so much as a stoplight in the area back then. “The fact that the name coincides with where I was educated was incidental.”
Debbie’s family eventually moved to Minnesota, but Mersch and his wife pressed on. They had started their practice from scratch. “We had one client in the beginning,” he says. “But it was an area that needed quality veterinary service.”
And business was booming. By 1984, Mersch and his wife built an entirely new facility across the street from their rental space. Mersch describes the 1984 facility as a “mom and pop shop” — his kids played in the playroom while he and his wife ran the clinic.
The Alaska Way
Now retired, Mersch spends part of the year in Arizona and reflects fondly on his 40+ year career in Alaska — a time when he was the only veterinarian for miles around. “There were no specialists, so you did surgeries and you kept more up to date on things because you had to,” he says. “Now there are a couple specialists in Anchorage, but back until the late 1990’s you were it! You even had to work on moose, sea lions, and other wildlife.”
No kidding. Mersch once received a call from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) about a Northern elephant seal. “It was caught on the beach and they thought it had to be euthanized,” he says. “I got within about 30 yards and the seal roared at me. I told the NOAA, ‘I don’t think this animal needs to be put to sleep at all. It just got stuck in high tide.’”
Mersch fielded requests like this frequently. “I just happened to be the person available to look at wildlife,” he says. “Once, I brought an orphaned moose somewhere it could be hand raised. At the time, I was picking up two specialists at the airport, who were in from New York City, and there was a baby moose in the back of our car. They couldn’t believe it!”
Small Town Vets with a Big City Impact
Fast forward to 2003 when Mersch’s niece Debbie and her husband, Jim, dive headlong into Mersch’s legacy and buy his practice. Over the next 16 years the practice grew significantly and in August of 2019, the couple completed construction on a brand new facility that is twice the size of the 1984 building.
Jim had wanted to own a practice for years. While at the CVM, he took a professional development course and read countless books on practice ownership to equip himself with tools necessary to achieve his goal. A few years after Jim married Debbie and started his career as an associate veterinarian in the southern suburbs of St. Paul, he was itching to buy a practice — and Mersch just happened to be selling his. “After a particularly tough day at work,” says Jim, “I came home and said to Debbie, ‘Hey, what do you think about moving to Alaska?’”
“If it wasn’t for my uncle we wouldn’t be here,” says Debbie, “But Jim has been instrumental in building the practice to where it is now.” Jim is the primary practice manager and owner while Debbie has enjoyed the variety of her caseload, as well as the flexibility to spend time with Jim and Debbie’s two daughters.
Jim maintains that the practice’s employees are what make the Alaskan practice tick. It’s currently a five-vet operation and looking to expand its workforce.
“The fact that we have such high-quality staff is really what keeps the clients coming back,” says Jim. “The biggest thing is to give your clients good service and the rest takes care of itself.” Twin Cities Veterinary Clinic doesn’t invest much into formal advertising because word of mouth has gone a lot further than he and Debbie anticipated.
Jim says he takes great pride in serving clients within the community. “We are in a smaller town, so you can hardly go anywhere without seeing someone whose pet you have helped out,” he says. “You feel like you have touched a number of lives in your community and made a difference.”
The couple has also enjoyed watching their two daughters grow up in a tight-knit community set against an Alaskan backdrop, where outdoor recreation is always just out the family’s front door. “There are very few distractions here,” Debbie says. “There’s no mall to go to. Our kids spent little time on their phones or in front of the TV. We go camping and fishing a lot as a family because we enjoy being in touch with nature and the beauty that’s here.”
A Lasting Legacy
Positive feelings toward a family legacy extend from Steve Mersch, who says he was initially inspired to become a veterinarian by his father, Louis, and another one of his brothers, Robert, who each graduated from the Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine and practiced mixed animal medicine in Fairfax, Minnesota. Mersch says he has felt “warm and fuzzy” watching this family tradition carry on even further.
“It’s nice that it worked out that Debbie and Jim were looking for a small animal practice,” Mersch says. “They have done an excellent job. Jim is a much better business person than I ever was and the clinic has always done very well with them in charge. If it goes on, that would be great! Either way, I am happy Debbie and Jim have provided such a great service to the clients and that community."