Mission to Mars: What we can learn from the recent VCA acquisition

Mission to Mars: What we can learn from the recent VCA acquisition

The flurry of red-faced emojis in the wake of this announcement fails to reflect what the Martians can teach the rest of us on this veterinary planet.
Jan 13, 2017

Shutterstock.comOn Jan. 9, Mars announced the acquisition of VCA for $9.1 billion, and veterinary social media feeds across the land filled up with frowning and red-faced emojis. It’s misplaced energy.

It reminds me of the time when I met with a state veterinary medical association leader who scoffed at the legitimacy of Banfield. “You can’t compare what we do with what they do,” he sneered.

You mean like having a vision, a clear plan on how to achieve it, respect for management and managers, organization, a strong oversight of metrics, up-to-date marketing endeavors—you mean stuff like that?

Mars, VCA and many other corporately structured veterinary practices do a lot of things right when it comes to patients, clients and the business of veterinary medicine. We would do well to read a page or two out of their management books. It might give us some insight into how we too can achieve the same success.

Sonnya Dennis, DVM, DABVP, is president of the not-for-profit Association of Veterinary Informatics. Dennis has been working tirelessly for more than 15 years to get veterinarians to embrace one way of coding all veterinary treatments and diagnostics.

“Think of the power!” she exclaims. “As a profession we would control the most extensive amount of companion animal information in the world. Not only could we understand disease better and learn how to better treat it, but we could lead the conversation in pharmaceutical research and development. We could predict disease outbreaks and allocate our human and financial resources better. As it stands now, veterinary corporations and large practice groups are the only ones seizing this great opportunity.”

The American Animal Hospital Association, with its standards for accreditation, has organized one of the most extensive lists of best business and medical veterinary protocols ever created, yet a mere 15 percent of veterinary practices in America even bother to click on the web link.

So this message is to every red-faced and blustering emoji out there. There’s only one thing standing between you and everything that Mars, VCA and the other large corporations have achieved: you. As Dr. Leonard Berry, author of Management Lessons from Mayo Clinic, told me in a recent phone conversation, “Veterinary business owners have a lot to learn from the Mayo brothers and the journey that they took to create one of the greatest health care institutions in the world. They started out as a small private practice in the middle of rural Minnesota, but they had a vision and they valued the benefits of planning and implementation. Any veterinary practice owner set on achieving what the Mayo brothers achieved should sit down with a blank sheet of paper and ask themselves, ‘If I could implement one work process to help me better achieve my vision of great care, what would it be?’”

Let’s not launch into 2017 with more hand-wringing over big, bad corporate medicine. Participate in forums and other virtual and face-to-face conversations with colleagues, and peruse the free and uncountable resources available to practice owners through AAHA and dvm360

I dreaded a trip to Mars. I expected red desert; I expected breathless air. Instead I got Martian vets, caring and inspired; I got Martian technicians with training and upward mobility—a planet where leaders help teamwork happen. As far as I’m concerned, Mars is terrific, and if you don’t believe me, wait till you see how many dogs and cats start using NASA to book their travel plans.

Bash Halow, CVPM, LVT, is a partner with Halow Tassava Consulting, a frequent speaker at the CVC conferences and a regular contributor to dvm360.com and Firstline magazine. See bashhalow.com.

Article on Mars

As a former Banfield employee I have to comment on this article. I played a.major role in the opening and success of a charter practice. There were many positive things about corporate practice, but I can't say that most of them.came.from within.
Banfield practices are what you make them. We were a charter at the time and had some autonomy, which is why I believe we were successful.
The management of the Banfields I have known are not what keeps these practices together. There is extensive training but they tend to hire young people and expect too much of them for the pay grade. Focus is on selling wellness plans and although there are protocols in place, medicine is treated like a cookbook and clients are forced to drop off pets to maximize numbers of pets seen in a day, which results in overlooking and pets sitting in cages for hours without being walked, often looked at right before they are picked up. Yes, this is the truth !!!
There is heavy pressure on "making numbers" and although bonuses and great benefits are provided, there is a lot of stress.
I had to laugh a bit because Mr Halow sounds like he is "drinking the Koolaid", an expression we used after managers went for training in Portland and came back with glazed eyes and trinkets with Banfield logo.
I learned a lot, especially how to multitask while working there, but corporate practice is not for everyone.
In my opinion there aren't enough practical people at the top who understand clients and their needs. Mars needs to be careful that they don't get ahead of themselves too much. Their model is admirable but also heavily flawed. Slow down and remember that quality is what matters.

Why all the anger?

As a veterinarian who has enjoyed practice for 34 years I have experienced much of the frustrations that the two previous authors have shared in the responses. In my struggles to grow my practice I consistently hit the same obstacles year after year as I continued to press for my vision of what I envisioned high quality veterinary medical practice should look like. As unique as I thought my practice was I came to learn that there were many other colleagues who encountered the same obstacles as I did; lagging new client numbers, rising costs, shrinking human capital resources, higher per client transaction numbers required to maintain our incomes and sagging profits. I lamented over unfair competition of corporations that had large economy of scale that could lower their costs of goods sold and make veterinary medicine into a profitable business. On the other hand, I knew many colleagues who grew their practices from infancy to large multi doctor successful enterprises that maintain an excellent standard of medicine that any of the previous authors would have been envious of. So with only 10 percent of the market being serviced by corporate practices why are veterinarians so threatened by the words in Mr Halow's column? In my case, I needed to embrace my strengths and weakness and be honest to myself about what my vision was and develop a plan to achieve it. Offering high quality medicine and being a successful entrepreneur are not mutually exclusive and I envy my colleagues and friends who have learned to leverage their time and expertise to accomplish that goal. Personally I loath living by the numbers and struggling to improve profitability; it just seems antithetical to being a caring professional. I suggest that we all take a good look in the mirror and be honest with ourselves. If we expect to pay off our student loan debts raise a family, pay off a mortgage and afford the luxuries we deserve then we will need to learn how to improve our bottom line or become a victim of practice Darwinism. If managing a financially profitable practice is a detractor and is in conflict with your values then embrace it and move on. There are many ways to enjoy your vocation that do not entail private practice. If you enjoy the challenge of medicine, surgery and successfully managing a practice then practice owners of the future are going to have learn by the examples set by our competitors and lead the pack or enjoy the view. 

Reply to article Mission to Mars

Thank you for your article regarding the acquisition of VCA by Mars/Purina. Like many veterinarians I know, I rolled my eyes when I learned of the latest acquisition, confirming my belief that Mars/Purina is conquering the planet. Even if it is not considered a legal monopoly, owning Banfield, VCA, Blue Pearl is enough for me to sigh and wonder if we, the veterinarians who practice with freedom and independent thought, are all doomed to the same fate.

In the fourth paragraph you state: " It might give us some insight into how we too can achieve the same success." If success is measured by statistics and metrics, sure I agree with you. But if success is measured by patient care, client impressions and satisfaction, and positive word of mouth, well, corporate veterinary medicine has failed. I can't tell you how many clients I see on a monthly basis who are VCA or especially Banfield defectors. These clients have had bad experiences and typically want nothing ever to do with corporate medicine again. It is usually because they felt like they or their pet was treated poorly, they did not have anything explained to them, the pet didn't get better or was misdiagnosed, or had an emergency and Banfield just wouldn't see them. And I get tired of trying to dig through 15 pages of a medical record to find a single fact about the patients' history. And don't get me started on over-vaccination just to generate money.

I have worked in multiple practices over the last 15 years. The worst job I had was at a VCA clinic in the D.C. area. The practice manager was a bully and truly believed that she was supreme dictator of all. This was the mentality fed to her by her corporate bosses. She looked down on the doctors and the staff, hardly showed up for work, and cooked the books to make it look like she was doing everything right by the "corporate standard." Meanwhile the rest of us suffered. I clearly remember one day treating a patient appropriately for it's disease process, but not clicking on every possible box in the computer to follow the "by the cook book" approach to medicine. The very next day I get a call from up on high asking why I am not following protocol. I replied that I was following protocol as discussed in text books, VIN forums and consultation with an Internist. It struck me that it was more about the corporation than it was the patient. It was more about the metrics than the patient. There was no team work or leadership - there was a snide, totalitarian system in place. And if you did not get on your knees and accept it, your life was made miserable. Forget that the patient got better, I put a wrench in their system and the rain of fire and brimstone came down upon me. I knew right then I did not want to work for a corporation like VCA again. Yes, there should be more standards in veterinary medicine, but there should be an understanding that there is more than one way to get from A to B, correctly.

There are plenty of successful veterinarians out there, without the help and the hand-holding of corporations. Mars/Purina, VCA and Banfield make it sound like no veterinarian ever was successful in business without a corporation. If Mars is the future, I'd rather go to Uranus.

Mission to Mars

Dear Bash Halow,

"There’s only one thing standing between you and everything that Mars, VCA and the other large corporations have achieved: you."

If the situation were not as serious as it is, this would be an almost amusing comment. The rhetoric isn't any different than the positive speakers or life coaches who make large coin chanting feel good statements like, all you need is to want it bad enough and if you're not succeeding you're just not positive enough or not trying hard enough. Do you know how many teenagers and young adults have committed suicide in North America because they grew up believing in this kind of fairy tale and couldn't handle the disappointment and feeling of failure when they couldn't actually achieve it? Because the fact is that not everybody has the intelligence or intuition or other inherent qualities to make those dreams come true. Not everyone has the ability to be a doctor, lawyer, corporate executive, tech wizard or any of other hundreds, perhaps thousands of other esteemed professions just because they want it. All these things are simply myths that people like you insist on perpetuating.

The Mars family wealth has accumulated from a business that has been in existence for over 100 years. I'm fairly certain most veterinarians haven't been in business that long. Unlike the Antin brothers, most veterinarians are too busy practicing medicine to spend their days hunting down the next best prospect or determining who would be the best lawyers and wealth management teams to put together an IPO for them so that they might get to the next level. Most veterinarians aren't even wired to think in that type of manner. There is a massive difference between number crunching and entrepreneurials, who by their very definition embrace risk, and medicine which by it's very nature is more abstract and low risk because medical standards, as well as prospects of litigation, demand doctors work within defined parameters.

Your comparison is apples to manatees. Further, it's extraordinarily demeaning to veterinarians. We don't have the business suave of the Antins or 100 years of Mars family money backing us so there's something wrong with? It's our fault the direction of our profession, the one that ceases to exist without veterinarians, is being lost to corporate America? Everything in your article is pro-corporation. There is almost nothing in this article that is positive towards veterinarians or private veterinarian ownership. I suppose given your history and allegiance with VCA, a biased perspective ought to have been expected.

The reason control of our profession is being lost to corporate America is because the state regulatory boards in the USA have failed this profession by allowing non-veterinarian ownership of hospitals. Further there is vast difference state to state on ownership and it's structure. The sophistication to build and own a chain like VCA took more than just the Antins. They had a group of very intelligent businessmen and lawyers to guide that and determine the best ways to circumvent those laws. In states where non-veterinary ownership was not permitted, multiple layers of ownership and elaborate management deals had to be put in place. If there's any question in your mind about that, the SEC requires full disclosure for credit agreements. This was hardly an issue of "There’s only one thing standing between you and everything that Mars, VCA and the other large corporations have achieved." and to make such a comment is either naive, ignorant of how much went into building that business or completely biased. Given your background in management and the industry, I would have expected you to know the facts behind building these businesses. If either of the Antins had been veterinarians, they certainly would not have ever had time to practice medicine. Veterinarians would have gotten to group or chain ownerships if ownership had remained limited to veterinarians. But thanks to state boards, the veterinarians didn't stand a chance in hell.

I noticed upon completion of reading your perspective on the VCA acquisition that you are not a veterinarian. As such you do not have any qualifications to make any sort of judgment on what constitutes quality medicine. I suspect that as a technician and length of time in the industry that you would argue with this. However the law is very clear on your role. It prohibits you from diagnosing or prescribing, and indeed, you are not trained in these areas. Nor are you trained in physiology nor pathologies to any degree that comes close to that of a doctor. As these are all fundamentals in assessing issues such as what constitutes quality medicine, I reiterate that you are not qualified. What you may consider quality medicine and what a seasoned doctor may consider as quality medicine will differ on multiple levels.

You are certainly entitled to your opinion. But when statements are made from a position of opinion rather than facts, that's really all it is.