Pet ownership is about more than opening a can of food and then the back door. There's the life blog (including Halloween costumes) to be updated on social media, the shopping for gadgets such as activity trackers and cameras for active animals, and the medical care/grooming that runs into the four digits for the four-legged friends.
Brian Garish, president of Banfield Pet Hospital, takes an equally solicitous approach to his staff. The chain has over 1,000 hospitals and over 18,000 associates located in 42 states, Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico and Mexico City.
"We have a strong focus on our associates (we call employees associates). They are the cornerstone to deliver care, and we've done a lot of programs and initiatives to make their lives better," he told the Business Tribune as a guest on the weekly BizTrib podcast.
One of them was building the light, airy headquarters on the border with Camas, known as Central Team Support. Sited on 17.5 acres in Vancouver's Columbia Tech Center, it is used by more than 800 associates and the more than 200 dogs who accompany them to work. There are dog ramps and drinking stations, and the building is rated LEED platinum for energy efficiency.
The company philosophy is preventive care — something many humans have not yet discovered for themselves. "Prevention goes a long way," he says. "Taking care of your pets right now is very critical to the future in their lives. When we think about pet health, human health, and societal well-being, it is really a part of this intersection that we talk about a lot at Banfield."
One policy Garish has overseen is the refinancing of student debt. Veterinarians have the highest student debt-to-earnings ratio of any health care professional. It takes six years to become a vet, and the average veterinarian starts out with over $167,000 in student debt.
"We knew that we have a responsibility to do something about it. It's a lot of debt and it forces people into making decisions, like 'Can I afford a home?'"
He says Banfield also makes payments for the vets.
"There's obviously expenses for every anyone that's involved in (setting up the program), but we really wanted to we think back on the mutuality of economics. How can we use social capital to help really impact others? And in this case, how can we work with third parties, the banks and institutes, to help them understand that our veterinarians are very credit worthy, and what can we do to help lower their interest rate?"
Like humans do
Banfield markets its services a lot like human healthcare, with a bundling of preventive care services.
"We established an Optimum Wellness Plan in 1988, so we were ahead of our time. We believe all pets deserve care and access to care. It focuses on preventive medicine and that allows patients the opportunity to make pet care affordable."
Since their staff are young, management has to think young.
"Seventy-six percent of our workforce are millennials or Generation Z. And as we think about the changes that are happening in society and demographics, of the shifting demographics, we just launched a new solution to help pet parents to have better access to triage."
It's called Vet Chat, and it's a way of video- or text-chatting with a vet. Banfield is an exclusively small-animal practice. Mostly they see what Garish calls "small companion animals," or cats and dogs.
Having a pet is like having a two-year-old kid that never grows up. They're cute but they must be fed, cleaned, amused and exercised.
"The newest generation, Generation Z, is truly becoming more into pet parenting. The human-animal bond has never been stronger, and what animals mean to us, the love that pets provide us is really very foundational."
One technology Banfield gets from its partner is a tracker that goes on a dog or cat's collar.
"When a new puppy signs up for a preventive care plan they get an activity tracker through Whistle FIT. And it's not just an activity tracker, it monitors scratching, feeding regimens, how often the pet is eating or drinking. Having that type of information allows the pet parents to truly understand what's happening in that pet's life. And also gives it gives accurate information to our veterinarians."
Another innovation is the Wisdom Panel or canine genetic testing. Owners send their pets' DNA away for testing to see what mixture of breeds of dog it really is. That gives information about diet, likely diseases and behaviors, but it also a vanity product for pets.
Garish's management philosophy was formed in his teens when he worked at Walgreen's pharmacy, and later CVS. "I was 16 years old, stocking shelves, sweeping floors, mopping bathrooms, cashing out, and did that through high school. I ended up dropping out of college and I learned a strong lesson around people development."
He went back to drugstores and worked his way up, but there were times when working for big retail was alienating.
"I really learned about what it meant to have your voice heard, what it meant when people made decisions and how that impacted others. And so those early interactions had stayed with me to who I am today."
He eventually finished his college degree.
"I always stayed grounded in that 16-year-old Brian: What did it feel like to have your voice heard? What did it feel like not to have your voice heard?"
Staff were grateful for the student debt refinancing program, and also when Banfield offered veterinary technicians education services through a third party called Penn Foster. Banfield pays 90% of all the education fees to get them certified as a veterinary technician.
"My priorities, of course, are the strategic direction of the company, but my top priority is creating the right culture. Strategy without empathy is a wasted idea."
The culture includes listening to associates because they are closest to the clients (and the pets), and using their good ideas.
An IG DMs story
Garish keeps in touch using social media, but the company-wide email blast isn't for him, because he sees it as impersonal and likely unread. He's big on Instagram, and uses the story function to get and give feedback.
"How many people have cell phones? And how often do we live our lives on our cell phones, meaning there's an app for everything? Myself included. So how do we make sure that veterinary care is available on the phone as well?"
They just relaunched the Banfield app. "It's really centralized your care." He calls Vet Chat "an opportunity to have a veterinarian your pocket." It is free to those covered by the wellness plan.
Garish agrees it's expensive to have vets on call, but says its "all about providing access to care. At the end of the day, people are looking for answers, and they need help. And our responsibility is to provide the help that they need."
Garish learned a thing or two working for big drugstore chains. Banfield is national, pet owners travel with their animals more than ever, and people like continuity of care. Put that all together and you have an air-miles/favorite hotel chain-type business model.
"What we're proud of is being nationwide. That relationship with the veterinarian is incredibly important. And that's why we've been so centered on providing the right experience for our associates."
Staff retention is also important in a time of low unemployment.
"The experience of listening to our people, and taking care of our people, at Banfield, we now have the record number retention for all positions. Our turnover is the lowest it's ever been."
Garish has visited around 250 of the 1,000 plus Banfield pet hospitals. In fact, he is relieved to come home to Camas to his five-month-old sibling kittens, Ashton and Kenji.
"They're fantastic kittens, they love each other, and they play with each other, and that's really important because when I'm not home, they have they can keep each other company."
"I believe as a leader of any company, being a social CEO is incredibly important and being available to listen for your people."
He has a monthly Banter with Brian session, where staff can ask him questions, in a Reddit AMA way, which garners 500-plus questions a month.
"I try to answer as many questions as possible. When we do a banter with Brian we use the story format on Instagram to let the questions come in. And if you didn't see a specific answer your question to send me a direct message. I answer every single direct message. But I'm also on Twitter and LinkedIn. And anytime people leave a question or comment, it's worth that interaction to let them know that we're listening, so I always will respond. That really goes back to 16-year-old Bryan, of knowing when my voice was heard, or the team I was part of when our voice wasn't heard."
Garish is a fan of author Malcolm Gladwell, but his business philosophy is mostly homespun. He says he wants the individual (associate) to define the business, not the other way around, by telling him what's working and what's not working.
Banfield staff used to all have to wear dark blue or light blue scrubs. Last year in San Diego he asked the staff if they wanted to have Fun Scrub Fridays, with wacky colors. He changed it to fun scrubs any day of the week and they loved it. One was so happy she did a little dance. She did it again so he could film it for Instagram and it remains their most shared post internally so far.
"It spread throughout the practice, where people then started communicating, 'Is this (policy) real? Can we do this? And when can we start?' That type of engagement is invaluable. When you send an email, you don't get that type of engagement. I really want to encourage two-way dialogue."
The other vet suicide
Talking about societal well-being, he has pressed for the company to aid with mental health help for veterinarians.
Part of the struggle, beyond student debt and the usual overwork, is compassion fatigue.
"They (veterinarians) have one of the highest suicide rates. One in six veterinarians contemplate suicide at some point in their life. And with the burden of being a veterinarian, and compassion fatigue, it's very troubling in this profession.
"It's the ups and downs of the type of cases that you see in veterinary medicine."
He says when a vet tends to a happy little girl with a puppy, then has to put down a favorite dog in front of the family, followed by another little boy with a puppy, it can take a heavy toll. They never know what's behind the next clinic door.
"You really can't pick and choose the emotions that you're experiencing."
So Banfield hired a mental health expert. "She's been creating lots of great programs and strategic partnerships. Our veterinarians now have outlets to talk to mental health experts."
He also does Breakfast with Brian: breakfast meetings with staff. When traveling the country he huddles with the staff and brings their ideas back, then gives them feedback from his staff.
"It keeps me grounded to where the real work is happening. The real work that our pets experience and our clients see is happening in our hospitals. So, when I have the opportunity to get in the market, I love meeting with people. I love just asking questions and listening to them, what's working and what's not working."
Banfield Pet Hospital
National vetinerary clinic chain with 1,000 hospitals and more than 18,000 associates located in 42 states, Washington, DC, Puerto Rico and Mexico City.
HQ: East Vancouver, Washington
Owner: Mars, Inc.
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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